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Public Choice and the Pandemic

Op-Eds and Articles

Shocked by the large numbers of people congregating on California beaches, Governor Gavin Newsom recently decided to shut some of them down altogether. Large numbers of people then congregated at the beaches in protest, and the beaches have since been reopened, for exercise at least. Earlier this week, a top public-health official in Los Angeles announced that stay-at-home orders might be extended through the summer. An uproar ensued, and Mayor Eric Garcetti almost immediately walked backed the announcement.

Similar “orders” across the country are now prompting reactions like this tweet, which captures the situation facing public officials:

COVID-19 is an extremely dangerous virus. It will almost certainly be one of the top five leading causes of death in the United States this year, and may remain in the top five for years to come. But people are reaching the ends of their tethers with lockdowns. Amid the most massive job losses since the Great Depression, people sense that some draconian health measures aren’t worth the squeeze. Mass protests and noncompliance may be rare for now, and the lockdowns continue to enjoy substantial support in principle. But opinion varies widely from region to region and between rural and urban areas. As Scott Rasmussen has pointed out, a large majority of people think that every business that establishes safe social distancing should be allowed to reopen. Public officials struggling to find the right balance of health measures need to realize that the public will soon start making those choices for them.

Dr. Anthony Fauci has said that the virus will determine the timetable for reopening, but that simply cannot be true. Rates of infection, mortality, and immunity are of course crucial factors in getting the policy right, but the most crucial factor of all is public choice. It is people who will decide when to reopen, what safety measures are reasonable, and what risks — to themselves and others — are worth taking. Government officials face a difficult set of incentives. They are held responsible for the impacts of both the virus and the measures taken in response to it. Their interest in political survival will make them increasingly sensitive to popular sentiment. It is worth asking whether public opinion should have such a decisive impact on health policy. But it does, whether we like it or not.

The reason that many states’ highway speed limit is 65 mph is not that some transportation expert decided that is the ideal speed limit from a risk–benefit point of view. People simply won’t accept a lower speed limit on the interstate, even if it would save 20,000 lives a year. On the other hand, most people agree that driving 100 mph is excessively dangerous. The moral of the story is that people need and want a lot of things; balancing those priorities is what sets the bounds of “reasonableness.” And as it turns out, people think it’s perfectly reasonable to do lots of things that put both themselves and others at risk.

Read the full article at National Review.