John Tamny is director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks and editor of RealClearMarkets. He recently spoke with City Journal associate editor Daniel Kennelly about his new book, When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason.
You come out strongly against lockdowns and the political class that imposed them. But given the information and guidance they had from scientists and experts, what else could they have done?
For starters, they could have looked around the world to see if the experts’ dire predictions matched up with reality. As I make plain in the first chapter, market signals from China, where U.S. companies have enormous exposure, signaled that the virus was many things—but none of them terribly lethal. After that, they could have looked through history to see how often the initial assessments from experts proved true. In Anthony Fauci’s case, I cite a paper he wrote in 1983 about AIDS. He said it was easily transmittable from people in the same room. He’s not a bad person for being so very wrong long ago, but it’s a reminder that experts are fallible. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that much of what the experts believe now won’t age well.
Isn’t a pandemic precisely the kind of threat calling for a strong, coordinated government response?
Quite the opposite, really. Precisely because the threat is deemed real, you want information. You want 330 million people trying different approaches. Some will never leave their houses; some will wash their hands fastidiously and mask up everywhere; some (like me) will yearn to be out in public at restaurants, grocery stores, and sporting events as much as possible; and some young people will throw caution to the wind, hitting every bar and party they can. When something dangerous strikes, you want free people precisely because they produce essential information about which behaviors are most associated with illness and its spread. One-size-fits-all plans blind us. Same with businesses. Some would shut down altogether, some partially, some not at all. Some would regulate crowds by raising prices at prime hours while lowering them at less desirable times. Allow variety to produce information about how businesses should operate.
Would an even deadlier pandemic have justified government-imposed lockdowns?
No. Actually, the deadlier the virus, the less lockdowns would make sense. Really, who needs to be forced to shelter in place if being out in public is life-threatening? Who needs to be forced not to get seriously ill?
After that, let’s travel back to the nineteenth century. Back then, a broken femur brought with it a 33 percent chance of death. Those lucky enough to live saw their leg amputated. Broken hip? Dead. Being born? You had as good a chance of dying as living. So, what changed? Booming economic growth led to major fortunes that were directed toward medical science. Suddenly doctors and scientists, backed with enormous wealth, were discovering the cures to what had once easily killed us. It’s a reminder that deprivation of freedom when a virus is deadly is a barrier to the very economic growth that will produce the resources necessary to craft a cure.
Why, in your view, did politicians overreact so spectacularly?
Just as politicians exist to spend, so do they exist to “do something.” They also overreacted because they could. What if the virus had hit us in 2000? Could there have been lockdowns? Not on your life. Twenty years ago, most jobs were destinations. The early dot-com company Webvan failed spectacularly at grocery delivery via the Internet. Back then, the Internet was way too slow for Zoom meetings and all the other ways that the well-to-do now use to work from home. Amazon was mostly delivering books, CDs, and DVDs.
What do you make of the various proposals for “vaccine passports” or mass, smartphone-based testing-and-tracing programs?
For years, the Left has been telling us that IDs for voting are too intrusive, too regressive, too unfair—but “vaccine passports” are okay? On the other hand, if businesses or employers require them, fine. Leave decisions in private hands. Make decisions economic. Markets work precisely because they comprise broad knowledge. Central planning always fails because the few make decisions for everyone. It’s such a basic point, but the political class has forgotten it. When they chant “crisis,” their chants are self-fulfilling, because letting the few make decisions for everyone is the definition of crisis. Central planning that fails in good times fails spectacularly in troubled times.
You write that it’s “dangerous to make the COVID argument or realistically any argument that involves freedom into a statistical one” about deaths, rates of infection, or the like. Why is that?
Statistical arguments win the battle while losing the war. They set the stage for future lockdowns because they tell politicians that our freedom and prosperity can be had in certain situations. That’s unfortunate, and it’s also anti-health. Freedom is its own virtue, but it also produces information about what threatens us. But the main thing is that this won’t be the last virus to reach us. Absent a pure argument in favor of freedom, experts will tell easily gulled politicians in the future that “this time is different,” that this time we must take away freedom and destroy jobs and businesses because the virus poses a bigger threat to 25- to 34-year-olds. No, never again. If a virus threatens like that, government force will be superfluous. People want to live. Let them.
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