Since March last year I’ve been saying that the way most Western politicians and their public health sidekicks have handled this corona virus amounts to the worst public policy decision-making of the last few centuries. It’s been a disgrace. And that’s saying a lot. So here’s my flowchart or decision-making tree of how any freedom-respecting politician (to be clear, this obviously does not include Scotty from marketing) should have approached this pandemic and any future ones. Because without these sort of background commitments the authoritarians will sooner or later win. It’s inevitable. My take is that in any liberal democracy you need to have a prima facie presumption against heavy-handed authoritarianism. As Lord Sumption says, during this pandemic we’ve had to live through the biggest inroads on our civil liberties for over 200 years. So any politician inclined to go down the heavy-handed lockdown route in a free, democratic country needs to run through at least these five criteria or decision-making steps and he or she has to answer all of them ‘yes’ to justify imposing lockdowns:
Question 1: Is the damage from lockdowns themselves – think missed cancer checks, mental health suicides, the health effects of massively ratcheted-up debt, etc. – ultimately less than the damage if you shunned lockdowns? This, of course, requires some evidence that lockdowns work (and many studies can’t find that evidence) and to justify what we’ve seen in Australia the question has to be answered in a clear and unequivocal ‘yes’. The burden of proof is on those impoverishing and locking up so many people. So it’s got to be more than just some absolutist public health-type guessing on the basis of modelling from Imperial College, modelling that doesn’t even meet the balance of probabilities burden. Given what’s at stake it should be a lot higher burden than that to justify heavy-handed authoritarian measures. If and only if you answer ‘yes’:
Question 2: Is this a situation where no alternatives work moderately well? Not necessarily as well as the authoritarian lockdown but in the same league in terms of protecting people? And here we had Sweden, which is about 20th in Europe in deaths per million. Leaders with a scintilla of respect for individual freedom would try the voluntary road first. You tell people ‘Here are the risks’. And say ‘We’re going to focus on the old and on old-age homes and on hospitals, that’s what the data indicates.’ (And note that Sweden badly screwed up the old-age home sector, as its decision-makers readily conceded last summer. Moreover, old- age homes and hospitals turn out to be the biggest sources of infection, and death, going. Fix that before locking the rest of us down.) Looking at this approach, it’s worth noting that staying-open Florida, with loads of oldies, had about half the deaths per million as lockdown-mad New York. (Both states have equivalent populations, Florida obviously being warmer.) Florida’s deaths were about as good as lockdown-mad California, with unemployment now 4 percent lower. And South Dakota did nothing in the way of compulsory closures – no businesses deemed inessential, no school closings, no nothing. The governor gave out advice all the time. People made their own calls. Now South Dakota had higher deaths than the states around them, all of which locked down. But since October, South Dakota Covid deaths have plummeted. And throughout the whole pandemic its hospitals never came close to being overwhelmed. Until the voluntary route fails, and fails badly, any alternative ought to be done first. That’s what happens in free societies. If you answer ‘yes’:
Question 3: Does the balance between imposing lockdowns and destroying civil liberties look palatable, remembering we don’t lock people up to prevent flu deaths or car accident deaths and a whole lot more besides? Require and publish a cost-benefit analysis. The more the pandemic looks like the Black Death (more than 1 in 3 die) or even the Spanish Flu (around about 3 per cent death rate?) then the more we can live with civil liberties inroads. But to do what we’ve been doing, to justify the worst inroads on our civil liberties for a couple of centuries the virus simply has to be delivering big, big scary numbers of deaths. You need that to come close to justifying all this hysteria and the ruined young lives and debt that will take generations to pay back. If you get past that third ‘yes’, then proceed to:
Question 4: Is the damage you’ll cause from lockdowns spread more or less equitably? If not, it’s out. So in WWI and WWII near on everyone had skin in the game. Politicians’ kids were in the military being killed. Everyone was being bombed. But in this pandemic the doctors, the epidemiologists, the politicians, the bureaucrats – everyone making the decisions – have no skin in the game. They keep their jobs and pensions; they deem themselves essential workers so their kids can go to school and not lose a year. No hotel quarantine for them, just VIP jets. If we are going to devastate big swathes of the population then the people doing the devastating need to have skin in the game. All the doctors and modellers and epidemiologists need to lose the median level of pay and pension of the society at large. Because if it’s really as lethal as they say they’ll presumably pay the price; they’ll forsake 20 per cent of their pay. And this disciplines them. Right? Because at the moment I don’t see them paying anything. Zero. Zippo. In fact, they’ll come out ahead. (And I don’t just mean in terms of their newfound status, etc.). Meanwhile whole swathes of people in the small business private sector will lose their business and family home. As in the Great Depression. So no lockdowns ought ever to be allowed where the decision-makers aren’t paying the same costs as the median costs they’re imposing. Of course nothing like that is true here. And the same analysis applies as between the young and the old, which is also nothing like being equitably distributed. Answer ‘yes’:
Question 5: Are there fail-safes built in to end these lockdown measures as soon as possible? We know from history that heavy-handed rules are brutally hard to unwind. So before we put them in have we built in how to get out?
That’s five queries off the top of my head that I would say all need to be answered ‘yes’ before any democracy ought to do what we’ve done. I’ve spent a career criticising the lawyerly caste and its conceits about being good decision-makers. But, incredibly, the doctors now seem worse to me than lawyers. They focus only on the suppression or eradication of the disease. Many are economically, as well as morally, illiterate. They’re absolutists. They treat society as though it were a hospital ward. They have guaranteed public sector jobs (the ones making these calls). And they seem to have little concern for many non-medical life goods. I, personally, don’t think any of the five questions can be answered in the affirmative. But to do what we’re doing around the Western world all five need to be.
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