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Donald Boudreaux: The Deafening Silence of Economists During COVID-19 and the Abandonment of Logic

“People talk about long COVID. … I worry about long lockdown.”

At the Brownstone Institute’s inaugural conference, I sat down with Donald Boudreaux, a professor of economics at George Mason University and a senior fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research. In the age of COVID-19, most economists failed to do their jobs, he says, and basic laws of economics and cost-benefit analysis were thrown out of the window.

“I really fear that we are in for a hell of a stretch, now that governments know they can basically do anything they want to us if they scare us enough.”

 

Mr. Jekielek: Dr. Don Boudreaux, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Donald Boudreaux, Ph.D.: Happy to be here.

Mr. Jekielek: Don, you’re an economist, and you’ve been looking at the effect on the economy of the various coronavirus responses in America and I suspect beyond. Let me actually start here. I’ll share an anecdote. As I explained who I would be interviewing today to someone I know, they said, “Well, how can you be interviewing an economist about this? Doesn’t that sound a little bit heartless? This is a national emergency. What do economists have to do with this?” Your thoughts?

Mr. Boudreaux: First, when people say that, I think they think economics is about maximizing the amount of money profits a person makes or a company makes. It’s not about that at all. Economics teaches us about the importance of trade offs. You can’t pursue one good without giving up some other good. That’s the first thing that economics reminds us about.

We can all agree that if fighting COVID were costless, if we gave up nothing, well, let’s do it without any restraint. But that’s not the world we live in. Economics says we live in a world of scarce resources. Resources used to fight COVID or resources not used for other things that we humans value, including other healthcare outcomes that we value. Moreover, the time we spend fighting COVID is time we can’t spend doing other things.

When we attack COVID, or think we are attacking COVID by masking children, shutting down schools, economics says, “You got to look at what you’re giving up.” Yet you might be getting some mitigation of the risks of COVID.

I am an economist. I can’t really answer that question. You might be getting some mitigation, but what an economist can say is you’re not getting that mitigation free of charge. You’re paying something for that. What I’ve seen in the past 21 months is a gross ignorance of this fact, a gross failure to recognize that COVID mitigation tactics, strategies, and measures come at a cost.

First step would just be to take account of that, recognize that. Don’t pretend that these costs are not there. Don’t pretend that you’re getting this mitigation for free. You’re not. If you are of the mindset that it’s free, or if you just start with the assumption that no matter how much it costs, of course, it’s worthwhile. Every further reduction in the risk of exposure to COVID is worthwhile, then you’re forgetting about the cost side of COVID mitigation.

There is a cost side and the more COVID mitigation we pursue, the more costly it becomes. At some point the benefits of further mitigation are no longer worth the cost that we’re paying for that mitigation. So that’s the first thing that economics brings to the discussion.

The second thing economics brings to the discussion on this point is the costs that we’re giving up. It’s not just money. It is a foregone income. It is lost jobs to some people. It is shut down businesses, which are all tragic, but it’s not just that.

It is the things that we can’t measure in money—the socialization, the failure of children, five year olds to grow up seeing their fellow schoolmates’ faces. It’s the foregone non-COVID health consequences. People have pointed this out, I don’t think it can be denied. The foregone cancer screenings. I think they call it pandemic pounds then. People staying at home, so they’re not exercising as much. They’re gaining weight. That creates health hazards.

Why are those health hazards not worthy of our consideration? Why is the COVID health hazard the only thing worthy of our consideration? Economics says it shouldn’t be. So we give up a lot when we pursue any goal to the extreme. We are pursuing the COVID goal, in my view, to the extreme, meaning we’re giving up too much.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, let me pursue this question. The question that you actually asked, because I know that this is something that’s been on your mind. Why this extreme reaction to COVID in a reality when there’re all sorts of health outcomes that need to be considered? For example, just talking about the health outcomes.

Mr. Boudreaux: You asked the $64 trillion question. I don’t know why people have reacted in this way. I think I can speculate about why many political leaders have acted in this way. If you frighten people enough, you identify one monster and you say, “That monster is going to kill you and the only thing that can save you from that monster is me.”

Well, if a politician can succeed in doing that, obviously that’s valuable to the politician. The politician gets more power. The politician gets more discretion. I understand that. It’s very realistic, I think not cynical. I just think a realistic understanding of the political motivation.

The more difficult question is why have so many ordinary men and women allowed themselves to be frightened to this degree? Why have so many ordinary men and women allowed themselves to focus on one risk? COVID is a risk. There’s no doubt about it. Why focus on one risk and allow yourself to be diverted from the costs of mitigating that risk? Allow yourself to be blind to the non-COVID health consequences of focusing excessively on COVID. I don’t know why.

It’s almost as if there was a disease that was set loose on humanity in early 2020, but not SARS-CoV-2. Some disease that infected people’s brains and caused those brains, rewired their brains to think that COVID is the only risk that humanity faces. Or the only risk that is worthwhile to protect against. Of course, it’s not. Why have people allowed themselves to come to believe this? I don’t know. I don’t know that we’ll ever know. It’s mysterious to me.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s look at some of the collateral damage. The things that I’ve come across, very significant increases in suicidal ideation. I remember some shocking numbers there. Of course, these breast and prostrate cancer screenings are not being done. It’s unclear what the impact of that’ll be, but you can do some pretty convincing modeling that shows some pretty frankly shocking costs.

Things that could easily have been prevented if people [had] actually been able to go to the hospital or felt like they could go to the hospital. These are just a couple of things off the top of my head. Can you give me a picture of what that looks like?

Mr. Boudreaux: Well, I think you painted it well yourself. The more we pursued COVID in excess, the fewer resources were devoted to these other health measures. The less time was devoted to those other health measures. Because of that, we’re going to get worse health outcomes on those fronts. Even if we get better health outcomes on the COVID front, that’s not at all clear to me that we will on the COVID front.

But it’s certainly clear to me that you cannot get better health outcomes on the COVID front without getting worse health outcomes on other fronts, given that people were prevented by the excessive reaction to COVID to avoid or delay these other health measures, these other medical procedures.

It’s almost like a law of arithmetic. If you want to spend more time pursuing that goal, well you’re spending less time pursuing that goal. Everybody can remember prior to COVID, we’re all told how important it is to see your doctor and preventive care is the best care. These public service messages are all over the place and they’re constantly a part of life. What happened to that wisdom? When COVID struck, it seemed to have been thrown out the window.

Defenestrated, just gone. The only thing that mattered was fighting COVID. I call it COVID derangement syndrome. It’s not a technical scientific malady. It’s my own word. But the derangement that I refer to is the failure to recognize that COVID mitigation. Mitigating the risks of exposure to COVID comes at a cost.

The failure to recognize that means that you live in this deranged, bizarre reality for you, where the only thing that matters is avoiding COVID. I think that’s very dangerous, not only for the individual, but obviously for society.

Mr. Jekielek: I’ve been thinking how to talk to you about this stuff. This COVID derangement syndrome affects all sorts of people, including people that create policy, obviously.

Mr. Boudreaux: Very much.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s hard to imagine a path out, given what I know about the impacts of the current policy, talking to all these different folks affiliated with Brownstone as you are. But from the economics perspective, clearly this is something that you’ve been thinking about.

Mr. Boudreaux: One of my favorite books in all of economics is a very classic textbook published in 1987 by the economic historian Robert Higgs. It’s called “Crisis and Leviathan.” What Bob Higgs does in that book is look at all the crises in American history from the beginning up through the mid 80s—mostly wars, but economic crises as well. Bob Higgs is a very famous and competent economic historian.

What he finds is that whenever there’s a crisis, some of which are more real than others by the way, government officials have an incentive to gin up the crisis because it gins up their power. Whenever there’s a crisis, government powers expand. Usually they’ll contract a little bit afterward, but they never relinquish all of the powers that they gain during the crisis. So government power ratchets up.

We now have the perception of a crisis of a sort that I’ve never seen in my lifetime. The whole COVID thing. People are walking around. They think they’re going to die within the next few seconds sometimes, and they’re going to drop dead of COVID having put people in this mindset and frightening people into believing that COVID is more dangerous than it really is. By which I also mean failing to recognize that it is much more dangerous to the elderly than it is to the young.

By frightening people in the way that governments and the media have done about COVID, the government’s gotten this power. Maybe some of it will be relinquished. But if Bob Higgs is correct, and there’s no reason for me to believe he’s incorrect and that his thesis does not apply today, we will have ratcheted up the government’s power to a greater degree than would’ve been ratcheted to in the absence of COVID.

In my view, government was already too powerful, big, and intrusive before COVID. Now it’s even bigger, and I think that size, expansion and excess powers, much of it’s going to stick around creating a bad precedent. In terms of how to get out of this, when you frighten people, I don’t know.

I mean, I am genuinely worried that even if at some point the COVID fear is going to diminish, but we have seen how easily it is to frighten Americans—all of humanity actually—with threats of a pathogen. There’s going to be another more lethal-than-normal pathogen that emerges within the next few years. That’s what I read from some scientist whose opinions I respect. When that happens, I fear the same thing is going to happen again.

The narrative will be, you can already see it actually, “Oh, look, if it weren’t for the decisive actions of Governor Newsom and Governor Cuomo, in New Jersey and Michigan, even more people would’ve died. So we had this new pathogen, COVID 24. So we got to do the same thing again.” The precedent has been set and people seem distressingly willing to be frightened out of their gourds by the media and the government when one of these pathogens emerges.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve experienced over the last 21 months a whole series of these lockdown measures, which were by any measure economically catastrophic. Do you have some kind of quantification of this?

Mr. Boudreaux: No. I think it’s impossible for anybody. A lot of the economists claim they can quantify it. There are papers out there claiming to quantify it. I’ve always been very skeptical of the ability to do that, to put actual dollar figures on it, but it’s going to be massive. You cannot shut down huge chunks of the world economy without expecting significant negative effects. You just can’t do it.

You cannot ratchet up government spending in the way that government spending has been ratcheted up. Not only in the US but in most countries around the world, without having negative consequences.

Even if you think the government spending is great, again, everything has a cost. The more the government spends, that means there are fewer resources remaining for the private sector to use. I don’t have a number, but I do have a term—“massive,” “gigantic,” maybe even “unprecedented.”

Mr. Jekielek: You used the term unprecedented, and of course, the impacts are unprecedented based on unprecedented policy. You mentioned earlier that a lot of the lessons of the past have been forgotten. Expand on this for me.

Mr. Boudreaux: Typically what happened in the past, it was a very routine thing. Some politician or pundit would advocate some policy. Again, raising the minimum wage, raising tariffs and good economists come along and say, “Oh, no, hang on. All you see is some workers getting higher wages,” if we stick with the minimum wage example, “but they’re unintended consequences.” The world’s a lot more complicated than you think it is.

When you raise the cost of hiring workers, some workers will lose their jobs. Some jobs will become less attractive than otherwise. Because employers are going to work their employees harder. The prices of goods that are produced with higher cost labor will go up and that’s going to have a negative impact.

Also recognize in addition to that, that although the politicians always say, “Well, we’re doing this for the public good.” Maybe some of them mean it. Politicians are also self-interested. They have their own motives. They want to get reelected and that’s their primary goal. So don’t trust their motives so much just because a statute has a nice name. Don’t assume that the statute is going to achieve what the name suggests it will achieve.

Be a little more cynical. Recognize that the world’s more complex. Recognize that all economic policy, all economic actions indeed, or many stages if you go to a play, you don’t leave the play after act one and think you understand the whole play, if it’s a three act play. You’ve got to stay for the whole play. The economists say, “Stay for the whole play, look at the whole picture.”

But in the case of COVID, that lesson has been forgotten. That lesson was not taught as much. It surprises me how few—there are exceptions—economists failed to do their jobs in my view. The same economist who, if the discussion were about minimum wages, tariffs, occupational licensing or raising capital gains tax would say, “Oh, they have all these unintended consequences. Let’s look at the whole picture.”

COVID comes along, crickets from a lot of these economists. They say nothing. As if the COVID episode somehow is immune to economic logic and immune to the laws of economics that we know operate in every other realm of human activity. I think they operate also in the realm of disease mitigation against COVID.

The lessons—it’s not so much that they were forgotten. I don’t think economists forgot them. I just think there’s some mysterious failure to recognize that the lessons that apply in every other aspect of policy making apply also to this aspect.

There’s no reason to think this particular area of policy making, COVID mitigation, is any different from any other area of policy making when it comes to the importance of recognizing unintending consequences, when it comes to recognizing the fact that the underlying realities are always more complex than the politicians and the pundits usually present [in] those realities. The recognition also that nothing is free.

I teach my students this acronym. I didn’t make it up, but I teach mostly freshman students, 18 year olds. One of the important principles of economics is in an acronym. It’s TANSTAAFL, T-A-N-S-T-A-A-F-L. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. It’s not about lunch. It’s about anything. So you can get more of one thing, but it’s always going to cost you something. It’s a simple point and I keep repeating it. But that point was largely ignored in the COVID hysteria.

It’s as if people thought that it was costless or that the costs were insignificant compared to the alleged benefits of any further increase in COVID mitigation.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s hard to find anybody else, frankly, very few who are talking in these kinds of concepts, let’s say. What do you make of that?

Mr. Boudreaux: I don’t know. I think about that question now every day. I don’t know.

Mr. Jekielek: You don’t talk to some of your colleagues, friends and say, “Hey, what’s up with your not thinking about this?

Mr. Boudreaux: Well, part of the problem is I don’t see my colleague friends much anymore because a lot of them still stay at home. I’m not talking just about my colleagues at George Mason. I’m just talking about how I haven’t been to a professional meeting in quite some time. I just don’t see many people. You see them over Zoom, but the spontaneous interactions that you have with people are for me, is for everyone else, much fewer now than they were pre-COVID.

I’m not a contentious kind of person. Different people have different motivations. I don’t want to get in their face and say, “Why aren’t you behaving like I would like you to behave.?” Who knows? For all I know, maybe I’m wrong. None of us are perfect. I’m just surprised at the silence of many of my fellow economists, but I can’t explain it.

Other than speculating, well, the fear they have of this particular disease is so immense that somehow the costs become insignificant in their view. But if that’s true, then I wonder, “Well, why don’t you look at the actual data?” I mean, it is, again, it’s unusually dangerous for lots of people, but for young people, it’s not at all. For the majority of the population, it’s not terribly dangerous.

I do have a colleague, Bryan Kaplan at George Mason who said early on—and I think he’s correct and he’s never deviated from this—he said, “Look, we were really overreacting to COVID.” This was maybe a year and a half ago, April of 2020.

“We’re really overreacting to COVID. So COVID is more dangerous than the flu. All right. Let’s say it’s 10 times more dangerous. Well, that means we should have probably maybe 10 times more effort devoted to mitigating COVID. They said, “We don’t have that. We have like 10,000 times more effort devoted to mitigating COVID than to mitigating the flu.” This disproportion is inappropriate.” I think it’s a nice way to put it.

I think any sensible person, economist, non-economist thinks that proportion is valuable. The reaction to COVID in my view, I think is unmistakably and has been unmistakably far in excess of the risks, the actual risks posed by COVID. I’ll mention one other unseen consequence of COVID that not enough people take cognizance of, although I alluded to it earlier.

People talk about long COVID and I think the evidence for long COVID is pretty weak. But again, I’m not a physician. Maybe it’s a real thing. Well, yes, you survived COVID but you have headaches for the rest of your life or you turn green or something. You have some lasting consequences that are less than fatal.

I worry about long lockdown. I worry about the consequences of the lockdowns on human society. I think that the lasting consequences, the precedent set by these lockdowns is going to haunt us for a long time. I hope I’m wrong, but I really fear that we are in for a hell of a stretch. Now, the governments know they can basically do anything they want to us if they scare us enough. So I’m very fearful of that.

Mr. Jekielek: So you’re not only just talking about the actual impact of the things that we talked about earlier. For example, not getting the medical screenings, the kids not being in school. I mean, there’s obviously huge impact to all these things. That’s very interesting. The impact of people who seek power, realizing they can get it this way.

Mr. Boudreaux: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating.

Mr. Boudreaux: I think I would classify the delayed cancer screens and such as part of what I’m calling long COVID, the long-term effects.

Mr. Jekielek: Long lockdowns.

Mr. Boudreaux: Yeah, long lockdown. But you’re exactly right. What I had in mind is the precedent that the lockdowns have set and continue to set for government policy. I think that’s going to be with us indefinitely and I’m very fearful of that. I think that will be a far more dangerous, it’ll have far worse consequences for humanity than the COVID pathogen itself will ever have had.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, one of the things that keeps striking me when I look at this whole coronavirus reality around us is how powerful the need to conform to official narratives is, or the compulsion to do so, or the [feeling] of being ostracized. I’ve never had a chance to observe it in this way. First of all, I guess you’ve been, despite being non-contentious, quite outspoken. Has there been any professional cost? Is that an element why economists might not be talking about these things?

Mr. Boudreaux: I can’t say I have felt personally any professional costs. I have gotten lots of nasty emails. Some from people I know, mostly from strangers, I don’t like that. No one likes to get a nasty email. I’ve been told on more than one occasion, literally that I have blood on my hands as if I make public policy. I don’t. So that’s unpleasant, but personally I haven’t suffered in any way.

I’ve always felt very passionately about the importance of human liberty. I mean, I am professionally an economist, but ideologically I treasure and value human liberty. I consider myself to be a classical liberal. I think these are values worth upholding.

I believe that classical liberalism—the liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith, the early John Stuart Mill—I think that philosophy, which I believe is responsible for modernity, it’s responsible for this amazing standard of living that we have in such abundance. We take it for granted.

That philosophy, that understanding, taking a huge battering in the past 21 months. Maybe some hot shooting war in the past was as much of a threat to classical liberalism, World War II, perhaps. I wasn’t around then.

But certainly in my lifetime, I have never seen anything that posed so much of a risk to the values that I cherish and that I think are utterly necessary for undergirding, modern tolerant society, peaceful society as this assault on liberalism that has come along with COVID.

It is a highly illiberal notion to believe that there are a group of experts out there who have the truth and your only duty is to listen to them. If you don’t, you’re not only hurting yourself, you’re hurting your fellow human beings and therefore you should be punished. That’s the kind of attitude, as you know, that a lot of people have had about the scientific proclamations, that a lot of the COVID so-called experts have issued.

Just to use one, Anthony Fauci. I have no idea if Anthony Fauci is a good or bad physician. I have no idea if Anthony Fauci is a good or bad expert in infectious diseases. That’s way out of my wheelhouse. But I do know that Anthony Fauci is not an expert on how you or I should live our lives. Anthony Fauci has no idea what is the appropriate amount of risk that I should take, or you should take in order to avoid one particular kind of disease.

But he acts as if he has that kind of authority and people treat him as if he has that kind of knowledge. People treat him as if he somehow has divined this, because he’s an expert in infectious diseases. People assume mysteriously to me that, well, therefore he’s an expert in how the rest of humanity, or at least the rest of the United States should respond and react to infectious diseases.

This is one of the most appalling things about the past 21 months, this follow the science mantra. It’s alluring because if you believe that, if you believe that science provides an answer to what we should do, well, then there’s only one right thing to do and that’s what science says.

But science can’t tell us what to do. Science can only tell us with more or less precision depending upon the particular question. Science can only tell us what are the likely consequences of pursuing one course of action as opposed to pursuing another course of action.

Science cannot tell us which of those courses of actions we should pursue because each course of action has cost and benefits. Science can’t tell us how we should weigh those costs and benefits against each other. That’s not the role of science. No competent scientist would pretend that science can tell us what to do. No competent scientist would tell us that we should follow the science. That public policy should be made by the science.

Yes, the science should help inform us about policy options. We should take information from science and use it to make more informed judgments about courses of action, but science can’t tell us what to do. The moment you believe that society is a science project where you have the policy makers in the role of scientists and then they’re going to get the knowledge of what society should be like, in corroboration with their experts, they’ll figure out what to do.

Then all freedom is gone. Then we’re all basically just glorified rats in a lab. But a shockingly large number of people seem to have that attitude now about science. There’s a corresponding point to that. It’s one that Martin Kulldorff complains about, rightly, quite a lot. Other people complain as well, but I associate him with this point and he’s very heroic in pointing it out.

That is particularly in times of a pandemic when things are especially dangerous, you do not want to shut down conversation. You do not want to shut down dissent. Because none of us have access to the knowledge of God. We just don’t. We’re human beings and we learn. Human beings learn by sharing ideas with each other, by you telling me why you think I’m wrong and me considering that and vice versa.

Then that conversation process is how we get closer to getting a better understanding of the world. Get closer to truth. But so many people in the past 21 months wanted to shut down dissent. If you didn’t take the official line, then not only were you an enemy of humanity, but you were also a science denier. Well, it’s crazy. It’s crazy talk.

No scientist says, “Look, I have this new theorem. I know it’s correct and so no more discussion. If you question my theorem, then we’re going to silence you. That’s not a scientist, that’s a dictator. So this is another reaction and consequence I would lump under the long lockdown complaint. I have this unfortunate mistaken view about what science can and cannot do for us.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, we’re going to finish up. Any final quick thoughts?

Mr. Boudreaux: I hope all of my predictions and fears turn out to be wrong. Usually when we talk about you say, “Well, here’s how I think the world works. Here’s how I think it will happen.” We kind of secretly want it to turn out to be true, so our genius can be proven by the future. I hope everything that I say about the future is mistaken because I do not have, at this moment at any rate, a very optimistic prediction. My predictions about the future, not very rosy.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, Dr. Don Boudreaux, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.

Mr. Boudreaux: Thank you for having me.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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