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The New York Times Finally Discovers Unintended Consequences

This article was originally published by John Miltmore at The Foundation for Economic Education. 

The fact that even the New York Times is finally beginning to discuss unintended consequences of COVID-19 ‘hygiene theater’ is a sign we may be moving in the right direction.

The New York Times published an article on Friday under a simple headline: “Covid Absolutism.”

The article opens by noting that during public health emergencies, absolutism—the idea that people should cease any and all behavior that creates additional risk—is a tempting response. Times writer David Leonhardt gives various examples of this “absolutism” on display in America today.

“People continue to scream at joggers, walkers, and cyclists who are not wearing masks. The University of California, Berkeley, this week banned outdoor exercise, masked or not, saying, ‘The risk is real,’” he writes. “The University of Massachusetts Amherst has banned outdoor walks. It encouraged students to get exercise by ‘accessing food and participating in twice-weekly Covid testing.’”

Examples like these are virtually endless. They invite two key questions, Leonhardt notes: How effective are these behaviors in reducing the spread of the virus? And is there a downside?

As Leonhardt notes, many of these actions are essentially a kind of “hygiene theater,” the subject of a recent article in the Atlantic written by Derek Thompson.

The phrase basically speaks for itself. According to Leonhardt, these actions are not rooted in science and are primarily a form of theatrical presentation that will have little or no actual impact.

Taking every possible precaution is unrealistic. Human beings are social creatures who crave connection and pleasure and who cannot minimize danger at all times.

“Prohibiting outdoor activity is unlikely to reduce the spread of the virus, nor is urging people always to wear a mask outdoors,” he writes. “Worldwide, scientists have not documented any instances of outdoor transmission unless people were in close conversation, Dr. Muge Cevik, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me.”

So the answer to Leonhardt’s first question—How effective are they at reducing the spread of the virus?— is not difficult to answer: they’re not effective.

The second question, and its answer, is more interesting.

One might be tempted to argue that these theatrics still produce positive outcomes since they are likely to make people more conscious of the pandemic and slow the spread of the virus.

Taking extreme precautions is simply “playing it safe.” What’s the harm in that?

The answer is, “plenty.” First, Leonhardt argues it’s not part of human nature to live in a perpetual state of extreme caution.

“Taking every possible precaution is unrealistic,” he writes. “Human beings are social creatures who crave connection and pleasure and who cannot minimize danger at all times.”

Perhaps more importantly, he argues that extreme caution can backfire and produce outcomes that have the opposite of their desired effect. He uses the AIDS crisis as an example, pointing out that demonizing sexual intercourse and trying to frighten people away from it had the unintended consequence of increasing unsafe sex.

A similar phenomenon appears to be at work today.

“Telling Americans to wear masks when they’re unnecessary undermines efforts to persuade more people to wear masks where they are vital,” Leonhardt writes.

For many, this statement probably doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy. It basically has the ring of common sense, a variation of The Boy Who Cried Wolfone of Aesop’s famous parables, which taught that false alarms can harm humans by inhibiting their ability to detect actual danger.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a case study in “unintended consequences,” a term popularized by American sociologist Robert K. Merton in the twentieth century. Basically, it’s the idea that virtually every action comes with outcomes that are not foreseen or intended.

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat alluded to this concept in his famous essay, “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.”

“In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect but to a series of effects,” Bastiat wrote.

The problem, he noted, is that humans rarely pay attention to the unseen or unintended effects of a given action or policy. Ignoring these outcomes is one of the great mistakes in public policy, the Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman once observed.

Unfortunately, ignoring unintended consequences and focusing on intentions is precisely what we saw in 2020, and nobody has been more guilty of this than the Times.

No one is served by ignoring unintended consequences. And the adverse unintended consequences of lockdowns are legion.

If you search for articles discussing the unintended consequences of COVID-19 policies, which are boundless, you’ll find virtually nothing on their site. I was able to find two articles using the phrase “unintended consequences” of COVID lockdowns.

One article, published in September, is a profile of Dr. Bonnie Henry, a Canadian physician and British Columbia’s top doctor who spoke of minimizing the unintended consequences of government interventions. The other is an article in May that discussed how lockdowns could result in a surge of mental illness.

This dearth of coverage is unfortunate. The Times is one of the most influential papers in the world. It has an immense reach and a news staff of 1,300 people. And yet—our tiny writing team at FEE has produced more articles on the unintended consequences of lockdowns than the Grey Lady.

No one is served by ignoring unintended consequences. (Well, maybe politicians.) If we’re to understand the damage wrought in 2020 and prevent it in the future, lockdowns must be judged by their actual consequences, not what they were designed to achieve.

And the adverse unintended consequences of lockdowns are legion.

The fact that even the New York Times is finally beginning to discuss the unintended consequences of COVID-19-inspired actions is a sign that we may be, however belatedly, moving in the right direction.

The post The New York Times Finally Discovers Unintended Consequences first appeared on SHTF Plan – When It Hits The Fan, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You.

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End The Shutdown!

This article was originally published by The Editors at The Mises Institute. 

The shutdown of the American economy by government decree should end. The lasting and far-reaching harms caused by this authoritarian precedent far outweigh those caused by the COVID-19 virus. The American people—individuals, families, businesses—must decide for themselves how and when to reopen society and return to their daily lives.

Neither the Trump administration nor Congress has the legal authority to shut down American life absent at least baseline due process. As Judge Andrew Napolitano recently wrote, business closures, restrictions on assembly and movement, and quarantines are not constitutionally permissible under some magic “emergency” doctrine. At a minimum, the federal government must show potential imminent harm by specific infected individuals at some form of hearing or trial.

These due process requirements are not suspended.

State and local officials may claim, or even possess, lawful police powers to shut down their communities. We offer no analysis of such powers or claims under the myriad of state constitutions and authorizing legislation. But they should resist exercising these powers. The governor of Virginia, in particular, deserves admonition for unilaterally imposing a lengthy period of virtual house arrest.

We do not know, and cannot yet know, how many Americans will become sick or die from the virus. We do know that predictions regarding infection and death rates are highly unreliable. Even actual deaths attributable to COVID-19 are not so easy to count, as Italy has discovered. Age, general health, and comorbidity are difficult variables to assess, and people may die “with” the virus but not “from” it. It is also very difficult to assess the lethality of the virus relative to previously known types of flu and colds.

To date, COVID-19 deaths in the US are far fewer than deaths in ordinary flu seasons or from past pandemics such as the H1N1 virus. This understanding is critically important to put the virus, and the government response to it, in perspective. Even during past pandemics, depressions, and world wars, Americans went to work.

In 1850, French economist Frédéric Bastiat helped the world understand the “seen and unseen costs” of state policies. It is simple to see how quarantines and lockdowns will slow the spread of COVID-19. It is critical, but not so simple, to see the costs and harms caused by the economic shutdown.

Only then can we rationally understand the tradeoffs involved.

How many Americans suffering from other illnesses cannot see a doctor now? How many Americans will lose their jobs, their life savings, their retirement prospects, and their incalculable feeling of self-worth? How many will succumb to depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and suicide? How many will lose their homes, divorce their spouses, or suffer abuse? How many will never recover in their careers? How many small businesses, including the vital ones of doctors, dentists, and veterinarians, will vanish from your community? How many young people will “fail to launch”?

Worse still, will grocery stores and gas stations remain open and stocked? Will crime spike? Will the American social fabric, already thin from politics, tear apart?

These questions are not rhetorical. All of these things happened, to a degree, following the Great Recession of 2008. They will happen again—very soon—if we fail to act immediately. Tomorrow, on April 1, millions of Americans will not pay rent or mortgages. Millions of small businesses will shutter, just as many large employers such as Macy’s, Kohl’s, airlines, and hotels already have. Millions of service workers are unemployed already, but many more jobs will be lost. The effects will cascade.

There is no conflict between humanitarian and economic concerns; in fact, they are flipsides of the same coin. A poorer America will be a much less healthy America, one more vulnerable to future illness and disease. Technology, modern medicine, and market actors can address a virus; already we see entrepreneurs producing cheaper ventilators and doctors using cheap generic drugs with very promising results.

This local, bottom-up approach is the only effective way to confront the virus. The federal government, as we see now and have in the past, is comically incapable of competence in times of crisis.

On a fundamental level, freedom really is more important than security—or, in this case, an illusion of security. We all demonstrate this in our personal lives every day, from flying to driving to riding bicycles, to consuming unhealthy food and drink simply because we like it. Security has never been the sole or even primary goal for a country born in rebellion.

Government cannot decide what aspects of our lives are essential or nonessential. The American people cannot simply sit at home and wait for government checks written on funds that government does not have.

End the shutdown.

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