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Shouldn’t the state do whatever it takes to combat a pandemic?

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series The Pandemic Bites

Another way to ask this question is, “Why shouldn’t the government get special power to fight infectious disease?” There are so many entailments within this kind of question. First, whenever you hear the phrase “whatever it takes” you should immediately be skeptical. These are weasel words that sound exciting, decisive, and construe importance and value. But we cannot allow such language to give ideological cover to the reality that “whatever it takes” may be awful in and of itself, or have terrible unintended consequences. 

The issue with granting “special powers,” especially in the United States where the government’s powers are (supposedly) more limited, is that the government does not become suddenly “more knowledgable” and “more capable” upon receiving those powers. Centralized planning and decision-making doesn’t work in a complex economy – especially at the scale of a large country like the United States – and neither does it really work in dealing with infectious disease.

Friedrich Hayek makes this plainly clear in his seminal article “The Use of Knowledge in Society”. Hayek argues that knowledge is distributed in society, and, thus, having a centralized authority make decisions is beyond flawed. In fact, it will result in actions that have tremendous negative consequences. 

We can easily discern how government policy has played out with regards to the COVID-19 pandemic. In late 2020, the Reason Foundation released a report entitled “Collateral Damage From COVID”, and it demonstrates that not only did the state bungle the actual disease-management side of things, but also their policies resulted in extraordinary loss of life, loss of mental health, and loss of economic productivity due to shutdowns. 

Here are a few highlights from the report:

  • “COVID cost us far more lives than the surge in unnatural and Big Four deaths, mostly in the lowest-quality end-of-life years, but this ‘collateral damage’ may well have cost twice as many years of life as COVID.”
  • “The non-COVID death toll that has accompanied the pandemic is large, well into six digits. The aggregate toll from “collateral deaths” for the country, measured in years of life, almost certainly exceeds the aggregate years of life lost to the virus itself, perhaps by two-fold or worse.”
  • “The death toll from unnatural causes has risen sharply and is not likely to fall as quickly [as deaths from further COVID variants]. Research shows that collateral effects on health, direct and indirect, following unemployment and other economic disruption remain elevated for several years. The same seems likely to be true for overdoses and homicides, due to lingering mental health effects, though perhaps not for accidental deaths.”

I highly recommend reading the report in full and retaining a grasp on these poignant examples of unintended consequences of government policy.

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