In the past few weeks, all around the world, governments have held their own citizens hostage in the name of “protecting the people.” What they have failed to understand is that, every restriction they put in place comes at a cost. By forcing the lockdown on its citizens, the government has taken away the ability for private individuals to assess that cost for themselves.
The wounds that coronavirus has inflicted on society will only be deepened by the unheralded amount of government intervention. Governments have given the people one more foe to battle with in this war against the coronavirus. Those who argue that the measures taken are necessary to prevent unnecessary death are unable to see that these same measures will no doubt cost a great many their lives and livelihoods in the future. Too often it seems that only one side of the equation is taken under consideration during this crisis. The UN recently released a report stating that due to the economic downturn caused by the lockdown, hundreds of thousands of children could die just this year. They also estimate that 42–66 million children could fall into extreme poverty in the coming years. Although these figures are estimates, it does raise a question for authorities: How much is too much?
The government does not have a good track record of providing an answer to this question. In even attempting to answer it, they’ve already set themselves up to fail. We have seen time and time again throughout history that central planning does not work. Limits such as thirty people to a funeral and ten at weddings are examples of arbitrary restrictions that come as a result of a small number of bureaucrats trying to centrally plan an optimal solution. A government attempting to organise society in this way, is no different from the then Soviet Union’s command economy trying to figure out how many potatoes to produce for the year. Both scenarios have reverberating consequences, and the ramifications of a suboptimal reaction to this virus could haunt us for generations to come. The only solution is to allow individuals to freely decide their own actions based on their own risk preferences.
Although the coronavirus is indeed a pandemic, it is not different from any other scenario in which an individual must act. The individual must decide based on their own calculation of their cost versus benefit. Only each individual can know for themselves what decision is optimal for their risk preference and personal situation, not the government.
The concern that the medical system's capacity and its ability to handle the overload of patients has been raised to the point that “Flatten the curve” has become chic. The optimal societal decision may well be to limit risk to the point that the curve is flattened. However, using that as a reason to impose restrictions is unjustified. Looking back through history, government’s handling of these so-called externalities has been dismal at best, the reason being that these bureaucrats whom we are trusting to make these calculations to “optimise” social benefit are in fact just humans like us. They are subject to bias, influence, and human error.
Nevermind the fact that in situations like these, the government’s interests are rarely aligned with those of the people. Our interests last longer than their terms in office. When the time has come to pay back the debts of lockdown, the bureaucrats who have kept us locked inside our homes will long be gone. Their interests rely on them being able to fool you into thinking that they are keeping you safe. This will involve their use of Orwellian language on an emotionally charged country in the spirit of “never letting a good crisis go to waste.” They will claim how many lives they’ve saved in the short term without any consideration of any long-term harm done by the lockdown. You will not hear any leaders on television speak about the lockdown's economic cost, because it is not politically favourable to “put a price on life.” Yet individuals do so every day, in all aspects of their lives. An individual understands the risk that they put themselves in while driving on the road, yet persist in driving, because the risk-reward tradeoff is worth it to them. It is this freedom of choice that must be protected, especially in times like these. The coronavirus will undoubtedly have negative effects on the welfare of people, and so taking away this freedom of choice further paralyses an already crippled society.
In a recent article posted at The Lancet, Swedish infectious disease clinician Johan Gieseck writes that lockdowns don’t reduce overall total deaths and claims that when it’s all over, nonlockdown jurisdictions will likely have similar death rates to lockdown areas. He believes that it is inevitable that the entire population will be exposed to the coronavirus at some point and that the lockdown will only delay the severe cases for a while. Whether this is true is to be seen, but it shows that blindly sacrificing one’s liberties in the name of safety would be naïve. If it is true that governments have just delayed the inevitable while summoning forth a tsunami of economic hardship, will the government stand up and take responsibility? Unlikely. The coronavirus, while being the initial cause of the pain, will be used as a scapegoat for the ensuing illness caused by the government. Forced strategies such as “flatten the curve” or “lockdown until vaccine” are justified based on the advice of health experts, who are themselves inconsistent. The true optimal strategy will be one borne out by the actions of free individuals, as it always has.
In light of this, it seems reckless to hand our fate over to the government and trust them to calculate how many people can attend a boot camp or tell us which four reasons are worth risking exposure for. With the new information released by the UN, it is obvious that governments around the world are incapable of evaluating tradeoffs in society’s best interest. As tempting as it may be to believe that the government is protecting us with the lockdown, they are harming society more than they are helping it, just as they do with all their other forced regulations. At a time when a misstep by the government is costlier than ever, maintaining our individual freedoms is paramount.
Reprinted with permission from Mises.org.