Pandemics and Liberty: An Introduction

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The following is the introduction from the new AIER edited volume, Pandemics & Liberty.

“The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.” ~John Lederberg, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, 1958

“‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.” ~ F.A. Hayek, Nobel Laureate in Economics, 1973

On February 9th, 2022, infectious disease expert and member of the President’s COVID-19 Response Team, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced that the US should begin “inching back to normalcy” (Steenhuysen, 2022). While admitting there is no perfect answer to when the country should begin to roll back restrictions enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Fauci elaborated, “The fact that the world and the United States and particularly certain parts of the United States are just up to here with COVID – they just really need to somehow get their life back” (Steenhuysen, 2022).

Dr. Fauci’s call came over two years after the first confirmed COVID-19 infection in the US (Holshue et al, 2020). Shortly after the first confirmed infection, outbreaks occurred first in the Seattle-Tacoma area and later in New York City. Fearing the worst, political figures at the state and federal level began urging for unprecedented restrictions on personal liberty to stop COVID-19 from spreading. A shortlist of these mandates includes stay-at-home measures, travel bans, closure of “nonessential” businesses (as determined by governments), school and university closures, and wearing face-covering masks in public spaces.

Initial calls for these and other COVID-related mandates were intended for a short period and part of an effort to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with infected patients. Original plans asking citizens for “two weeks to flatten the curve” became multi-year operations as policy targets changed (Allen, 2020). In the process, students lost human capital, the US economy experienced its sharpest decline since the Great Depression, and countless medical procedures were delayed (Atlas, 2020). Further, three covid variants, over 1 million deaths, and countless other hardships later, many remain unsure if they will ever “get their life back.”1 It’s also unclear what measures and government powers granted during the pandemic will persist after COVID (March, 2022).

Widespread hardships caused by COVID-19 and its responses generate many important but complex questions. What measures and actions taken did help slow or stop the spread of the virus? How much was governmental influence necessary? How much governmental impact was harmful or ineffective? Were lockdowns necessary? Did masks help prevent disease spread? Why did some states (and countries) fare better in addressing the pandemic than others?

Questions about the US response to COVID-19 also invite broader inquiry into the role of public policy during pandemics. What should be the goal of public policy during pandemics? Prevent overwhelming hospitals? Minimizing cases? Minimizing death? What roles should the government and markets play in these policies? How much should the government be involved and what specifically should it do? Can individuals and citizens effectively organize and prevent the spread of disease? These are all trade-off questions that policymakers and public discourse often ignore (Boettke and Powell, 2022).

Unfortunately, analysis and policy debate is often overshadowed and politicized during public health emergencies. Costs vs. benefits of policy recommendations become left vs. right talking points. This edited volume hopes to provide something different: a careful assessment of the role of policy and liberty during pandemics based on theory, history, and policy analysis. Each chapter contributes to our understanding of this vital relationship in one of these aspects.

Our first set of chapters examines the theory and history of how societies have and can address pandemics. In Chapter 1, “Government Failure vs. The Market Process During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Powell challenges the conventional understanding of the externality argument made during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Chapter 2, “Liberal Democracy, Economic Freedom and Pandemics,” Geloso argues that while liberal democracies may be constrained to combat pandemics, this limitation must be placed in context with their ability to create wealth and address other public health concerns. In Chapter 3, “A Panoramic ‘Systems’ Approach to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Roy and Minassians review mental models’ role in shaping pandemic response.

Our second set of chapters reviews governments’ historical and contemporary track records during pandemics. In Chapter 4, “Pandemic Central Planning,” Magness outlines historical and contemporary failures of government actions taken to mitigate public health crises. In Chapter 5, “Pandemic Socialism: Hayek’s Critique of Scientism and the Fatal Conceit of Government Lockdowns,” Kibbe and Waugh analyze the role of experts during the COVID-19 pandemic through a Hayekian lens. In Chapter 6, “Silence is Golden—Or is It? Presidential Communication During Pandemics,” Harrigan and Harrigan analyze how US Presidents have addressed pandemics historically by contrasting the presidencies of Woodrow Wilson and Donald Trump.

Our final set of chapters analyzes separate aspects of public policies undertaken during pandemics and provides implications for improving them for the next health crisis. In Chapter 7, “Public Health For Sale! Privately Improving Welfare and Public Health,” Carson examines several case studies where private actors provided effective public health efforts to combat malaria, HIV, and Ebola. In Chapter 8, “Polycentricity and COVID-19 Vaccination,” Herzberg argues for a polycentric approach to distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. In Chapter 9, “A Government Role Conductive to Liberty: Operation Warp Speed,” Escalante and Earle review the role of Operation Warp Speed in developing and distributing COVID-19 vaccines and make a case for when public interest and private enterprise can have meaningful collaboration. In Chapter 10, “One Size Fits All? Evaluating the Appropriateness of Monocentric Policies in COVID-19 Response,” Yonk and Janaskie explore how one-size-fits-all policy responses fail to account for real differences between local communities and suggest better alternatives based on polycentric approaches. In Chapter 11, “Desperate Times Call for Deregulation: How Less Oversight and More Markets Helped the US Battle the COVID-19 Pandemic,” March reviews the role of deregulation played in developing and providing COVID-19 treatment and tests within the US. In Chapter 12, “Rational Basis Review: The Irrational Obstacle to Challenging State and Local COVID-19 Mandates in Court,” Younes examines the legal environment and how courts have responded to COVID-19 Mandates. In Chapter 13, “After the Pandemic: The Long-Run Impact of Pandemics on Liberty,” Goodman examines the long-term effects of policies enacted to mitigate disease spread.

The COVID-19 pandemic will end. But there will be more pandemics, and how (and how well) we can address them strongly depends on learning from contemporary and historical successes and failures. This volume aspires to take a step in this direction.

References

Allen, Scott. (2019). “Fauci admits moving goalposts on herd immunity for COVID-19.” Axios. Available: https://www.axios.com/fauci-goalposts-herd-immunity-c83c7500-d8f9-4960-a334-06cc03d9a220.html

Atlas, Scott W. (2021). A Plague Upon Our House: My Fight at the Trump White House to Stop COVID from Destroying America. Bombardier Books.

Boettke, Peter and Benjamin Powell. (2021). The political economy of the COVID-19 pandemic. Southern Economic Journal, 87(4):1090-1106.

Holshoe, Michelle L., et al. (2020). First Case of 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 382: 292-236.

March, Raymond J. (2022). “COVID-19’s Ratchet Effect is Becoming Endemic.” American Institute for Economic Research. Available: https://www.aier.org/article/covid-19s-ratchet-effect-is-becoming-endemic/

Our World in Data. (2022). “Daily new confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people.” Available: https://ourworldindata.org/explorers/coronavirus-data-explorer

Steenhuysen, Julie. (2022). “Fauci says time to start ‘inching’ back toward normality.” Reuters. Available: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/fauci-says-time-start-inching-back-toward-normality-2022-02-16/