The (Not So) Great Barrington Declaration

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

I recently got wind of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), a manifesto against coronavirus "lockdowns" drafted by the American Institute for Economic Research and co-signed by a large number of "medical and public health scientists and medical practitioners."

I did not speak for or against it at the time, because I had not read or thought about it, but I did mention a policy document I have read and agree with, "A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease: Planning for the Next Pandemic," by the Ayn Rand Institute in June of this year.

I am glad I held my tongue: In my opinion, the Great Barrington Declaration is unclear about the proper role of government regarding communicable disease and -- as an unsurprising result -- it advocates a dubious policy regarding the disease.

Although I have from the start been opposed to rule by edict in general; and to universal, indefinite home imprisonment in particular; I cannot support the GBD.

In his Bloomberg piece criticizing the GBD, Tyler Cowen generally argues that the GBD is wrong to focus on herd immunity. This is on the right track, and I believe it is worthwhile to consider (1) why he says so, and (2) why I think there is an even stronger case -- a pro-liberty case -- to be made against the GBD.

Early in his line of argument, Cowen correctly notes that the stress on herd immunity leaves proponents of the GBD wide open to arguments by those who would force us all to wait for a vaccine:

Image by Andrea Lightfoot, via Unsplash, license.
By the middle of next year, and quite possibly sooner, the world will be in a much better position to combat Covid-19. The arrival of some mix of vaccines and therapeutics will improve the situation, so it makes sense to shift cases and infection risks into the future while being somewhat protective now. To allow large numbers of people today to die of Covid, in wealthy countries, is akin to charging the hill and taking casualties two days before the end of World War I.
And that's not the only problem:
The declaration also sets up a false dichotomy by comparing its policy proposals to lockdowns. The claim is this: "Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health." The health problems are very real, but in most of the U.S., the lockdowns are not severe.
So far, then, the GBD gives us no compelling reason not to wait for a vaccine to arrive or to question the wisdom of our government's response, even from an economic perspective.

Cowen goes on to note that many people would voluntarily refrain from many prohibited (or once-prohibited) activities, anyway. That fact further shows the focus on herd immunity -- this time indirectly via the economic effects of the "lockdowns" -- is a thin reed on which to build a case for a major policy shift. A reader could understandbly wonder: If we were going to have a recession, anyway, how have lockdowns really mattered?

It is at Cowen's most compelling criticism of the GBD that I come closest to cheering -- and yet find myself wanting to urge him on. Cowen is objecting to the GBD calling for governments to "allow (!) those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection:"
What exactly does the word "allow" mean in this context? Again the passivity is evident, as if humans should just line up in the proper order of virus exposure and submit to nature's will. How about instead we channel our inner Ayn Rand and stress the role of human agency? Something like: "Herd immunity will come from a combination of exposure to the virus through natural infection and the widespread use of vaccines. Here are some ways to maximize the role of vaccines in that process."
Let's indeed "channel our inner Ayn Rand," but much, much sooner.

First: I am a human being. If my getting sick ultimately spares someone else the same, great. But I'll be damned if I'll trade one politician throwing me out of work for another setting up a national chickenpox party. Beyond protecting me from the objective threat of another's deliberate or negligent actions pertaining to this disease, my health is my business, not the government's.

Herd immunity is a fact the government should account for, but not an excuse for the government to either dictate our lives or sit on its hands.

Second, and as for what the government should be doing: How in hell has it come to it that a libertarian think tank speaks of the government allowing anything? Isn't the whole point of government to protect individual rights, that is, to protect human agency from infringement from others? Such a government by default protects our right to exercise agency so long as it does not violate the rights of others, as spelled out in advance by objective laws.

And what does this mean in the context of the pandemic, a massive outbreak of a communicable disease? "A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease" clearly explains in part:
The path that a first-world and free country should take, the truly American path, is for government to test and track the infectious in order to isolate them and quarantine those they might have exposed, and for noninfectious individuals to voluntarily take the actions and countermeasures they judge appropriate for their lives and circumstances.

In other words, a proper government should secure our freedom. This means that it must simultaneously strive to isolate carriers of an infectious disease severe enough to present a threat to the rights of the noninfected and work to preserve the freedom of the noninfected (or those for whom there is no specific evidence that they may be infected) to continue to live their lives. The government of a free society should have been laser focused on isolating the infectious and, insofar as that was impossible, given us the freedom to deal with the risk of the virus as rationally as possible. [first emphasis added; second emphasis in original, but changed to bold]
So, yes, the GBD is wrong to focus on herd immunity and that focus greatly undermines its calls against "lockdowns."

Worse than that, as with so many modern debates involving science and government policy, we end up with camps of unqualified laymen squabbling about science when the real issue goes completely unnoticed: We and our governments have lost sight of what government is for.

Taking government's role as, in part, to protect "public health," we're misusing it to protect ... whom? ... from a disease, rather than individuals from the initiation of force (or the threat thereof) from others. And the debate, instead of starting from Is this what government is really for? ends up being on the wrong question entirely: How can the government best stop the pandemic? Notice that the ARI, which did ask the former question, was able to give a compelling case against lockdowns and a comprehensive alternative applicable to any future disease in June.

(And yes, it would help the pandemic end, by the natural order -- which proper government enables -- of individuals being careful on their own behalf or actively fighting the disease for profit. This is the result, although not the goal, of proper government. And this is the way to "maximize the role of vaccines in the process" of ending the pandemic -- by maximizing freedom.)

By contrast, the GBD, as well-intentioned as it is, can only belatedly offer us the freedom to get sick on behalf of our fellow man as a weak justification for "allowing" the "low-risk" to resume their lives. And who knows what we'll do the next time a pandemic hits?

By implication, the GBD also invites everyone to assume that the question of locking down is just a cost-benefit analysis. I invite the reader to ask: At whose cost, for whose benefit, and calculated by whom?

The saying, "When your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail," is vastly underappreciated: Such a myopic view can lead one to worsen a problem with the very tool that could help solve it. For example: Wolves are coming and your front door is broken. Should you run out and swing the hammer at the wolves while your family hangs back, or should you find a room, where you can swing at the wolves with a hammer while your family hides behind you?

Wrong. You hold the door in place and fasten it with nails until the immediate problem passes. You can lay traps for or hunt the wolves later, or pay someone else to do it.

Our pandemic response has been just as ridiculous a misuse of government as the above would be of a hammer.

One could understandably argue that, against the many public figures arguing for (or enforcing) the more draconian lockdowns, the GBD is better than nothing at all. This is not true: While it is true that the lockdowns have worsened the damage the pandemic would have wrought anyway and debatable that they have helped control the spread of the disease, simply pointing that out is not enough.

Laying out such facts absent an interpretation that includes using government for its proper purpose can (and has) resulted in another bad policy proposal. Worse, it leaves intact the premise that it is okay for a collectivist government to run our lives.

It may be true that a more rational government policy might superficially look like what the GBD proposes, with the pandemic out of control as it is. (To wit: Some argue that Sweden may already have herd immunity, although this never was the goal of Sweden's pro-freedom pandemic strategy.)

There is nothing wrong with pointing out the costs of our government's many blunders, nor with using them to buttress calls for a better policy. But that is completely different from using a cost-benefit argument that ignores individual rights to advocate a policy whose goal is well outside the proper scope of government.

-- CAV

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