Thomas Sowell predicted the unconstrained response of the government to the COVID crisis.
Situated between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties on the California coast, Ventura County boasts a population of about 850,000, living amidst pristine beaches, occasionally snowcapped mountains, and plentiful farmland. Since April, Ventura County’s 7-day rolling average for deaths attributed to Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has only barely exceeded 2 a handful of times, and for the past 14 days our County has had one death due to the Coronavirus. Only 0.02% of the population has succumbed to Covid-19 and to the best of my ability to determine, all of these poor souls were elderly and/or had comorbidities.
The number of cases per 100,000 has now increased to over 15, but (thank God) while some are being hospitalized, and some even have been placed in Intensive Care Units (ICU), there are still plenty of hospital beds and ventilators in the county. Yet, Ventura County was relegated to the most restrictive of California’s four-tier system along with much of the State before Thanksgiving even though not many people are dying and the hospitals are not being overrun. When reflecting on the data and what governments have done in an attempt to “flatten the curve” or “stop the spread,” why is there such a great disconnect between the lethality of the Coronavirus and governmental response to it?
In The Price of Panic, Douglas Axe, William M. Briggs, and Jay W. Richards offer a contemporaneous answer to this question while at the same time exploring alternative ways to deal with the pandemic that are not violations of mere social norms, let alone the inalienable rights that are enshrined in the Bill of Rights. There have been violations of the free exercise of religion and the right to peacefully assemble, both enshrined in the First Amendment. The Second Amendment’s guarantee of right to keep and bear arms, which is fundamental to allowing a free people to defend themselves against both criminals and the government has also been restricted; this is particularly important when the government does not protect its people from criminals. The sanctity of private households, the Fourth Amendment, has been disregarded. Presently in most of California, you are not supposed to have any friends or family over to your house. Many governments have disregarded the right of due process and property, which as part of the Fifth Amendment are not to be ignored. The Twenty-First Amendment’s guarantee to drink liquids of one’s choice is in many places functionally returning to the Eighteenth Amendment. While some may quibble at “intoxicating liquors” as an inalienable right, the ability to drink such liquids is certainly part of the natural law tradition.
The first part of the book focuses on how the media (both mainstream and social), spread news about the Coronavirus in a viral fashion. This panic was induced by the actual noticing of deaths due to Covid-19 and obsessing over the number of cases, rather than those that were actually really sick or dying rather than merely infected. Further, the media offered no actual context to the number of deaths—that is, no context within which the public might have attempted to understand the threat.
For example, alongside never-ending daily updates of cases, the media never thought to compare this virus to a more-deadly-than-usual annual influenza like the Swine Flu (H1N1, 2009), or the calamitous Spanish Flu (H1N1, 1918-20) that killed approximately fifty million of the five hundred million infected. A lack of context is always dangerous; lacking context on the dangers of this virus led to a media panic.
Public officials were in many cases all too happy to regulate the minutia of individuals’ lives in response to the panic. The experts and the politicians always had a supposedly irrefutable answer for why they trampled on individual’s rights: We’re following the science! However, what is meant by the science here? The authors rightly identify the provenance of the panic as mathematical-cum-statistical models. Thus, the science is not the science of test tubes and petri dishes, but of computer models.
There were two models that lead to the Covid-19 hysteria: Imperial College London’s Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis and University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); following The Price of Panic. I’ll refer to these, respectively, as the Imperial College and IHME models. Every model, which is a formal way to describe part of reality, has a dichotomous tension as well as choice between two purposes. The tensity is between overfitting or underfitting the data, that is, scientists hope to avoid the dangers of either a model with large variance or large bias. The goal is to have a model with low variance (it is able to model similar situations with different data) and low bias (it models the given data very well.) They must also choose between a model that is used to explain and one that is used to predict. While some models can be both explanatory and predictive, generally a model will only excel at one of the two. A model with both high variance and high bias, results in a model that produces the greatest possible prediction error. Axe, et al. persuasively argue that both the Imperial College and IHME models are guilty of this double-sin.
The authors point out the Imperial College model, which the World Health Organization (WHO) relied on in early March of this year, was predicting 40 million deaths worldwide and 2.2 million of those in the United States. This would mean Covid-19 would be as dangerous as the Spanish Flu, which came on the heels of World War I and with the rudimentary medical science of a century ago. Not only was the model incorrect in its mortality predictions by late March by a factor of two thousand times, there were numerous issues with its methodology, code, replicability, and complexity. For example, the Imperial College model assumed that there is no natural immunity to Covid-19 (which given how children fight the virus is prima facie at least a questionable assumption) and their code was riddled with errors that gave inconsistent outputs based on different inputs.
Like the Imperial College model, the IHME model was in the business of making a number of predictions, but unlike the Imperial College model it did give plus-or-minus bounds for each one of them, e.g. the number of US hospital beds that would be needed on April 14: 13,000 to 192,000. That is certainly a wide range of values, particularly when you realize this prediction was made the day before on April 13th! In sum, for both of these models, politicians and health officials took worst-case scenarios from dubious models as if they personified religious truth, and then bandied the models about with the fervor of the most extreme fundamentalist resulting in lockdowns, social distancing, and masks. The use of these models turned a pandemic into a catastrophe.
While there is no evidence that imposing lockdowns, social distancing, or masking on everyone was helpful in “flattening the curve” or “stopping the spread,” I’ll just consider the most egregious of these three measures from a liberty standpoint, viz. lockdowns; however, much of what I say here about lockdowns can be extended to social distancing, masks, etc. There are a number important questions with respect to lockdowns that while being asked, have not been afforded the national and local discussions they deserve.
Are lockdowns legal? I cannot be alone in my surprise at how many “emergency powers” governors, mayors, and appointed governmental executives like Directors of Public Health have over us. If all a governor has to do is to close down, say, gun stores is to declare an emergency and then use emergency powers from his own declaration, then we should all be concerned about such power being left unchallenged. The legislatures, boards of supervisors, or city councils, should stand against actions of executive tyranny, but they have remained silent with a handful of exceptions or have been even more extreme than the executives whose power they should temper. The courts exist to thwart excessive governmental power, but sadly as is the norm in the United States, some judges uphold the Constitution while others play the role of both executives and legislatures, but not jurists. That being said, there does thankfully finally seem to be a trend toward courts being more respectful of the rights of the individual particularly with respect to the dicta of governors.
Even if the lockdowns are legal and effective in stopping the spread (more on that below), are they morally justified? Is it appropriate to radically alter society due to a single virus that has over a 99% survival rate in the general population, and much higher for those who are not elderly and/or suffering from comorbidities? There is not a sound moral argument that demonstrates that the Coronavirus should be used as a reason to not allow people get cancer treatment or other life-saving medical treatments. It is not moral to consider the dangers of Covid-19 without considering the expense of more children being abused. It is unconscionable to not protect those that are truly susceptible to the dangers of Covid-19, while forcing protection on those of us that don’t need it. It is demonic to destroy social ties and jobs with the result of growing feelings of isolation and an increase in the number of suicides without a consideration for any illness except the Coronavirus.
Over the last few weeks, I have spoken to owners and employees at a number of breweries and gastropubs across six counties in Southern California as they were facing the inevitable lockdown and ban on outside eating. It is absurd that these businesses spend so much money obeying the whims of California’s government while trying to stay afloat, only to be shut down over and over again. There is a steep economic and mental cost to these lockdowns which cannot be ignored in the name of so-called science.
In introductory ethics, one is often given some forced-choice problem such as saving a baby or saving ten elderly people. To strain the metaphor, those supporting the lockdowns approached this dilemma by killing the baby and nine of the elderly in order to save one person with Covid. Perhaps one could make a utilitarian argument, faulty as it would be, for the lockdowns if Covid-19 actually was Spanish Flu-level dangerous as it was originally thought to be, but even then that argument would still have to be made—and it ought to have been debated in state legislatures across the nation. The rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the very foundation of the United States and lockdowns are anathema to all three of these principles.
Perhaps the legal and moral questions are not persuasive, or you are naively willing to cut the government some slack to supposedly save lives. But if the lockdowns are a failure in practice, then Americans are enduring violations of their legal and moral rights for no reason whatsoever. If the lockdowns could really alter the course of the pandemic, then the number of cases (and hence, deaths) should have dropped significantly whenever lockdowns took place (with the necessary ten day or so time lag.) As the authors perceptively point out, when looking at a graph of confirmed cases or cumulative cases for a country or state that had a lockdown without knowing when the lockdown occurred there is no way to guess when the lockdown actually occurred. This surely makes one question the efficacy of lockdowns. Axe, et al. also compare US states that had ranged from severe lockdowns to limited infringements on civil liberties; and the conclusion is that all states began to level off with the number of cases whether or not there were lockdowns due to undoubtedly a myriad of factors such as the changing seasons and the onset of herd immunity. While there is no clear evidence that lockdowns do work, neither is there any evidence that they do not work. For such an extreme measure to be enforced on a free people, we need better arguments to give up our liberties and humanity than we have thus far.
Lessons from Panic
I am left with a few thoughts after reading this impressively concise book, one written on a firm deadline regarding a dynamic situation with the goal of informing the general public of the perils that are associated with the pandemic panic. The authors did an excellent job explaining complex topics and tracing the evolution of our present pandemic predicament.
The manifest hypocrisy of so many of the political leaders who are at the forefront of the tyranny highlights that they do not believe the so-called experts but merely use their pronouncements that without tyranny there will be of millions of deaths as an excuse to violate the liberties of those they loath the most: small business owners, religious believers, gun owners, and Trump supporters. This leads to the second thought: we cannot but see so much of the governmental overreach as a harbinger of when governments around the world declare “Climate Change” to be a health emergency. It too will be based on faulty and unreliable models, and the political leaders will still take private jets and as they hope to ban gas combustion cars for the serfs. “Climate Change” is, don’t forget, an existential threat.
I am in no rush to die; I hope to grow old with my wife, watch my children grow into adulthood, be blessed with grandchildren, and so much more. But I know that I am going to die. The vagaries of life mean that it could happen at any moment, and there is no governmental power of earth that will stop me from dying. The inalienable pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness do not mean that I will live with wanton abandon, but with prudence. The virus justified commandments from different levels of government do not allow me to practice that virtue, but rather constrain my liberties and freedom; they shrink who I am as a human. Lockdowns, mask mandates, and social distancing that apply to everyone are not effective tools against the Coronavirus, but they are effective tools against allowing humans to interact with one another. I don’t fear Covid, but I do fear the destruction of that which binds us together as humans: socializing, reading expressions, and human touch.
It is telling, of course, that many politicians only rely on the experts that grant them the power to control people’s lives, with regrettably few exceptions. The authors of The Price of Panic conclude that Americans’ response to the pandemic panic could decide if America continues to exist with a government of the people, by the people, for the people or instead with a government of the experts, by the experts, for the experts with their all too willing politicians excited to have any excuse to not let a crisis go to waste. Lamentably, I concur with the authors’ verdict.