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economists and lockdowns

Did Economists Really Favor the Lockdowns?

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There was never anything remotely resembling a consensus for lockdowns in any broad circle of academic opinion. Not in epidemiology. Not among medical practitioners. Not among political scientists. And certainly not among economists. 

However, we were told otherwise. Daily. For a full year. 

We were told at the time that all real experts were all for lockdowns. Their talking heads dominated the news. Their quotes were in all the news stories. 

They all agreed that stopping market and social functioning was the only reasonable thing to do. Forcing you to stay home, closing businesses, shutting schools, stopping travel, banning church services, putting hospitals under full government control, mandating forced human separation, and strapping masks on everyone was just respectable science in action. 

Was it? It seemed so based on media reports. We heard very little from the skeptics in the course of the last year – the Great Barrington Declaration was an exception – and not only because they were silenced. Many were just afraid, and that left the task of opinion molding to the elite among them, meaning those with the most connections. 

Thus we were treated with unrelenting announcements about how everyone agreed that strict population control measures were absolutely essential for health and well-being. 

That economists were dragged in is a particular scandal. 

For example, in late March 2020, the IGM Forum at the University of Chicago polled economists nationwide, as they have been on various issues for ten years, concerning the lockdowns. Enough of them acquiesced to the prevailing strategy to make it policy for the national press to announce with confidence that economists are all for these wealth-destroying measures. 

Incredibly, and to the everlasting disgrace of all those polled, not one single American economist who was asked was willing to disagree with the following statement: “Abandoning severe lockdowns at a time when the recurrence in infections remains high will lead to greater economic damage than sustaining the lockdowns to eliminate resurgent risk.” 

Fully 80% of American economists agreed or strongly agreed. Only 14% were uncertain. Not one economist polled disagreed or had no opinion. Not one! This allowed Vox to announce triumphantly: “Top economists warn ending social distancing too soon would only hurt the economy.” Further: “there is no evidence of a disjuncture in views between what public health experts think and what economic policy experts think.”

It was the same in Europe. Economists polled there were all for this completely destructive, unworkable, and essentially insane policy that had never been tried before to deal with a new virus that we knew then was mostly a threat to people above 70 years of age with comorbidities. 

Why was it not obvious that the right approach was to encourage the vulnerable to shelter and otherwise let society function as normal? Anyone who raised such an incredibly obvious question about lockdowns was shouted down. Don’t you dare question expert opinion! Look how the economists agree! 

Who precisely is on the list of the economists surveyed in this poll? There are eighty of them. You are welcome to have a look at their names and affiliations. You will notice that, without exception among the Americans, they have Ivy League associations. 

Now, this is a puzzle. There’s no question that elite opinion was squarely on the side of unprecedented restrictions on the lives of citizens. Did these people study virology? Did they look at the data? Did they know something by virtue of their elite affiliations that the rest of us did not know? Did their models give them special insight into the future? 

The answer is surely no in each case. What we have here is a demonstration that even the smartest people are susceptible to the frenzies of political fashion, group think, crowd psychology, and mob behavior. 

It was clear by late March which way the winds were blowing. And people of a certain status, even if they do not share in the panicked attitudes of people on the street, are savvy enough to know what they are supposed to say and when. They too experience fear; it is a different kind of fear, one for their reputations and professional standing. 

The courage to stand up against prevailing winds is rare indeed, even for those who can afford to do so. To be sure, I knew plenty of economists who were against the lockdowns. They wrote articles and said so. It’s true that they were a tiny minority but they did exist. They also took enormous professional risks in daring to defy what quickly emerged as mainstream opinion. 

I recall one interview with economist Gigi Foster in New South Wales in which she raised the problem of the costs. She was exceedingly reasonable. One interviewer asked her: “Why do you want people to die?” Another interviewer interrupted her and yelled: “Oh here we go with tradeoffs!” as if she had violated a taboo by daring to suggest that there was more to life than merely avoiding this one single pathogen, all freedoms be damned. Finally it was plainly said to her: “The debate is finished!”

Clearly the debate was not and is not finished. It’s just begun. We can look all over the world today and see enormous suffering inflicted by lockdowns while there is scant evidence at all that closures, masking, restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and hospital rationing achieved anything in the way of disease mitigation. And even if it had, do we not have a moral obligation to compare the results with the costs? 

What you see now is many of the dissidents starting to speak out against lockdowns, expressing quiet regret, while the proponents seem gradually to be fading from the scene. One by one. Their Twitter feeds are ever more quiet. This is precisely what one would expect given the carnage all around us, and the complete failure of anyone to be able to demonstrate that they achieved their ends at less cost than alternatives. 

Of all people, the economists should have known. If they did know, not enough spoke out. The whole scene reminds me of the Prohibition period during which all the leading economists stepped up to defend and rationalize the policy that everyone knew was on its way. It took more than ten years before it became stunningly obvious how goofed up was that opinion all along, that it completely failed to think through what economists are trained to think about, namely the relationship between means and ends and the tradeoffs involved in every policy decision. 

Let us hope that it will not take ten years this time. Not only economists but also medical professionals and especially politicians need to step up and admit where they were wrong and work to make sure nothing like this is repeated again. If it does happen again, it should not happen with the blessing of economists, even if they have high-end positions at Ivy League universities. 

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. [email protected]

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