Remember when we were going to shut down stores, restaurants, schools, and churches for two weeks to flatten the coronavirus curve? We are now in our eighth month of lockdowns, mask mandates, and conflicting health advisories with no clear path forward and rapidly eroding public confidence in expert opinion. Now we are heedlessly headed into Round Two.
With COVID-19 cases spiking, the United Kingdom and European countries like France, Italy, and Spain are imposing new restrictions on business, social gatherings, and travel. With public authorities in Germany and France admitting that they’ve lost control of the virus, it’s almost as if the last eight months did nothing. Blanket lockdowns and curfews? Localized restrictions designed to avoid the sort of employment and economic devastation of the spring and summer? Take your pick. There’s something for everyone.
This top-down bureaucratic management approach does not work is because the knowledge we need to plan is local, widely dispersed, and held by individuals.
There are no easy answers for any of this — unless, of course, you are in a position to urge more lockdowns and more restrictions from the commanding heights of the public health bureaucracy. Remember not so long ago when we were assured that smartphone contact tracing (never mind the privacy issues; this is a pandemic!) would keep us safe? The German system is now overwhelmed.
We are cut off from our former way of life — even among those who have retained or regained their jobs — and we continue to operate in physical isolation. We are paying a heavy price, with deep stresses in our social life and with mounting evidence of a mental health crisis.
We worship from home, we get married with dashed expectations about the celebration, and many religious gatherings are postponed. Let’s remind ourselves: The family, the community, and the church are the spine of civil society. When these institutions are violated, self-determination, social generosity, and the common good are weakened. Moreover, individual freedom and self-determination are the solutions to crises, not the cause of them. If we want to come out of COVID-19 with community resolve and the sort of innovation that will help us overcome the virus, we must bolster our faith communities and those institutions that undergird freedom.
The COVID-19 lockdowns are greatly influenced by scientists who create models that attempt to provide “if this, then that” predictions. Now we’re reading about a “reasonable worst case scenario” for a second spike from the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which, according to one account, “points to 85,000 deaths until the end of March, with restrictions lasting until then.”
But don’t expect the panic-spreading media to add the report’s cautions that “this is a scenario, not a prediction. The nature and precise timings of any peaks in infection and, in particular, demand on healthcare are subject to significant uncertainty.”
Economist F. A. Hayek in his groundbreaking 1945 essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” warned us about the dangers of scientism, which can be defined as an over-reliance on the power of scientific knowledge and techniques when applied to social phenomena. Hayek referred to it as “slavish imitation.” He was worried about the attempts to rebuild Europe after the war, and the establishment of global bureaucracies such as the World Bank and the World Health Organization.
With the best of intentions, these organizations were constituted, and staffed with highly credentialed experts, to solve global health and economic crises. But they are necessarily limited in their form and thus their function. Today, these institutes and organizations are global directorates, with budgets larger than some countries, run by technocrats who attempt to engineer solutions to complex social problems.
The reason that this top-down bureaucratic management approach does not work is because the knowledge we need to plan is local, widely dispersed, and held by individuals. Hayek’s point, which won him Nobel honors in 1974, was that there is no such thing as a centralized repository of knowledge from which epidemiologists, policy-makers, or anyone else “in charge” can pull any required data at any time and then — poof — solve societal problems. He further warned that we must treat economic problems differently from scientific problems. Truer words have not been spoken regarding how we should think about the COVID-19 pandemic. Successfully containing COVID-19 is a problem that both requires scientific investigation and economic thinking.
The models informing policy decisions are only as good as the assumptions built into the model architecture. Here, the axiom from computer programming applies: garbage in, garbage out. Too many of the models have been devoid of the facts of the social sciences, which offers insights on the behavior of people. We must account for not only the reality of the coronavirus in our models but also the effects on its hosts — men and women and children in real life. Economics is the science of human action based on the subjective nature of choice and preferences that occur under the conditions of scarcity and radical uncertainty. Thus, perfectly predictable human behavior is impossible to know.
Let’s take Hayek’s advice and bring more wisdom into the mix. That should include front-line physicians and clinicians, businesspeople, parents, church leaders, and those managing charities. In other words, we need a grassroots effort that has both the knowledge and the incentives to solve the problems we face.
Anne Rathbone Bradley is the George and Sally Mayer Fellow for Economic Education and Academic Director at The Fund for American Studies.