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The Second Act Will Be Worse Than the First: Lockdowns Are Not the Answer

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In the first presidential “debate” (I use that word creatively), Joe Biden hinted that he would order a national lockdown in order to “defeat” the covid-19 virus, and there certainly seems to be a consensus in the media and among political elites that if there is another “outbreak” of covid, then the “shelter in place” order will be the law of the land.

Many businesses certainly are making plans for such an order, this time not wanting to be caught unprepared as they were last March:

Grocery stores and food companies are preparing for a possible surge in sales amid a new rise in Covid-19 cases and the impending holiday rush.

Supermarkets are stockpiling groceries and storing them early to prepare for the fall and winter months, when some health experts warn the country could see another widespread outbreak of virus cases and new restrictions. Food companies are accelerating production of their most popular items, and leaders across the industry are saying they won't be caught unprepared in the face of another pandemic surge.

One hardly can blame business owners and managers for wanting to be ahead of the curve, as progressive governments at all levels have been merciless to businesses and employees, driving thousands of firms into bankruptcy and leaving millions of people unemployed. Furthermore, given the overt hostility that progressives have toward private enterprise in the first place, politicians will take shortages and empty shelves as “proof” that private enterprise is in league with the devil to subvert the social order and act accordingly to punish these miscreants.

With Biden well ahead in the presidential polls and with it becoming increasingly likely that he will win the election next month, people should take seriously his calls for another series of lockdowns next winter should the coronavirus spread (in his words). There obviously is much to dissect in those few words, but the simple approach should be as follows: there is no evidence that would necessitate such a drastic move and another lockdown would create even more devastation than has done the first round.

Biden told ABC News, “I would shut it down; I would listen to the scientists,” a statement that invites a number of questions. The first one is: Which scientists? Some are in favor of lockdowns (and Google will make sure you find them) and others are strongly opposed.1 (Don’t expect Google to help you with that search. I found them on another search engine.)

What Works and What Doesn’t Work

First, and most important, locking down most of the population is at best a very temporary strategy at best. Even setting aside the economic consequences of quarantining a majority of Americans and shutting down their workplaces, the lockdown strategy does little to combat the spreading of the virus, since it gives people no chance to build up immunities, which are key to stopping it. Writes Jeff Deist:

From day one the focus should have been on boosting immunity through exercise, fresh air, sunlight, proper dietary supplementation, and the promotion of general well-being. Instead our politicians, bureaucrats, and media insisted on business lockdowns, school closures, distancing, isolation, masks, and the mirage of a fast, effective vaccine. 

The problem is that the virus is not going to disappear, so even if one temporarily prevents its spread by shuttering people in their homes, sooner or later people will have to mingle, and when they do, their bodies will not be conditioned to fight it, so the infection rate certainly will increase. In fact, that is what we have seen so far, as we have lockdowns followed by relaxation of the rules, followed by a surge of new infections. That surge then leads to panic in the media and among the political classes, with the new “solution” being even more lockdowns.

One would think that this seemingly endless cycle of lockdown-relaxation-lockdown would lead the authorities to rethink their strategies, but that is not the case, and this willful blindness is not limited to American politicians. We see governments in Denmark, Belgium, New Zealand, and elsewhere reverting to lockdowns after an increase in new infections.

Meanwhile, the Swedish infection rate clearly is falling, and falling relative to the infection rates of countries that have followed strict lockdown procedures, even if mainstream journalists do not wish to make the comparisons. To a casual observer, it made sense to think that over the past eight months, if the mainstream “experts” were correct, Sweden would be a basket case, as Swedes have carried on with their lives—usually not wearing face coverings—in a way that would seem to be an open invitation to mass spreading of covid-19. Moreover, if the media is to be believed, Swedes should be dying in record numbers. We see none of that happening, yet the Sweden-must-lock-down-or-else narrative continues to dominate the news (and certainly Google’s search engine).

No one should be surprised that last spring Sweden had a higher infection rate than European countries that practiced strict lockdowns, nor should anyone be surprised that Sweden’s current infection and death rates are lower than those of countries that have reopened—and now are facing the so-called second wave of infections. Despite predictions to the contrary, and despite the fact that Swedes pretty much are “maskless” in public, Sweden defies the “common wisdom” courtesy of progressive politicians and their amen-corner media.

The Economic Disaster

Then there is the economic side. For the most part progressives have framed the economic damage as a necessary “sacrifice” in order to bring the covid-19 pandemic under control. Last May, Paul Krugman wrote that unless the government were to aggressively enforce social distancing policies (read that, massive lockdowns), then there would be even more massive unemployment, his thinking being that unless the authorities kept people at home and prevented interactions, people would get sick and miss work, throwing the economy into a depression. So, putting Krugman logic to the test, we must have massive unemployment and business bankruptcies in order to avoid massive unemployment and business bankruptcies.

Anything less than total lockdowns, he argued, would lead to disaster:

retreat from responsibility won’t just kill thousands. It might also turn the Covid slump into a depression.

Here’s how it would work: Over the next few weeks, many red states abandon social-distancing policies, while many individuals, taking their cues from Trump and Fox News, begin behaving irresponsibly. This leads, briefly, to some rise in employment.

But fairly soon it becomes clear that Covid-19 is spiraling out of control. People retreat back into their homes, whatever Trump and Republican governors may say.

So we’re back where we started in economic terms, and in worse shape than ever in epidemiological terms. As a result, the period of double-digit unemployment, which might have lasted only a few months, goes on and on.

Krugman’s scenario, however, never came about. As the diagram in this linked page shows, even when Krugman wrote his column US recovery rates from covid-19 were soaring while death rates were plummeting, and they have continued to fall even as many states and municipalities have relaxed earlier restrictions, the counterfactual of Krugman’s doomsday prediction.

If we should have learned anything in the past eight months, it should be that that massive lockdowns impose huge costs and dubious benefits. The progressive notion that we can just close businesses, churches, sports venues, and other offices—the unemployed being compensated with printed money—until someone develops the magic vaccination and not suffer huge consequences is as fanciful as the belief that if California bans gasoline and diesel-fueled vehicles, its wildfires will disappear. The financial and emotional stresses that come from lockdowns are harmful to both physical and mental health and the evidence is all around us.

Lockdowns Serve the Progressive Political Class

We have to understand that the political classes and their media have a vested interest in the lockdown status quo, and that includes regular provision of what only can be called disinformation. The mainstream media this past summer dutifully reported a highly questionable (I use that term charitably) report that the Sturgis Bike Rally in South Dakota led to more than a quarter million covid infections and more than $12 billion of medical costs. It should have been obvious on its face that the report was deeply flawed, yet in their desire to fuel the covid-is-killing-us narrative, journalists took this too-good-to-be-true story and ran with it.

As for politicians, the covid crisis has been a godsend for those governmental executives and bureaucrats who see constitutional restrictions that limit their authority as mere obstacles to be easily swept away. Governors such as Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Andrew Cuomo of New York, Gavin Newsom of California, and Tom Wolfe of Pennsylvania have received adoring coverage in the media for seizing and employing dictatorial powers, Whitmer even unilaterally deciding that the sale of garden seeds in stores was illegal. Cuomo’s decision to force the housing of covid-19 patients in nursing homes led to the deaths of thousands of people, yet his national media coverage is uniformly positive.

Contrast the affirmative news coverage of Cuomo with the barrage of media attacks on Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota. Noem has emphasized personal responsibility and did not attempt mass closures of schools and businesses in the state, and the mainstream media erupted with fury. That South Dakota has come through this pandemic relatively well does not matter with the media, as the only acceptable action (to mainstream and elite journalists) in response to covid is for governors to single-handedly seize power and lock down their citizens.

Keep in mind that the real losses that Americans suffered because of the heavy-handed governmental response to the covid outbreak are permanent. As Robert Higgs so eloquently pointed out in Crisis and Leviathan, governments often create crises or, at the very least, they manipulate events such as natural disasters and use them as opportunities to expand governmental powers. Even after the crises end, governments keep some of their newly self-granted powers—and most people raise little or no concern even when government has curtailed more of their freedoms.

Second-Wave Lockdowns Also Will Fail

We know how the “second wave” lockdowns will end. At some point, with the economies of those countries in shambles, the authorities will gradually lift some (but not all) of the restrictions while demanding that people “voluntarily” engage in mask wearing and social distancing. Not long after the rules are relaxed, there inevitably will be a new surge of infections, as people who have been long separated come together without having built up their immune systems. (The lack of sunshine and outdoor exercise will contribute to the problem.)

With no other options and because the governing classes have declared lockdowns to be the only way to defeat the virus, there almost surely will be Lockdown III in countries where the regime can get away with it. Whether the political classes here follow the same plan is very much an open question. We know beforehand that quarantining healthy people actually makes the long-term infection picture worse and that the starting and stopping of the economy wreaks havoc on its own.

In the end, we only can conclude that shutting down much of social and business interaction, restricting worship services, and closing schools is ineffective in stopping viral infections, be they from the covid-19 virus or some other pathogen. However, we also must conclude that ordering massive restrictions has become a winning political strategy in progressive America. We also should understand that covid-19 is not the last pandemic that will hit the USA, and when a new pandemic—or even a hint of one—arises, the political classes will reach into that well time and again, even when it is dry.

Despite the persistent myth that governance is about “solving problems” and “serving the people,” it is the rare person in governmental power these days who does not seek power for the sake of power itself. Those who use power to push progressive policies can be expected to receive positive media coverage, even if their policies are disastrous, as we have seen time after time in California and New York City; those who still hold to the belief that there should be limits on their power can expect the Kristi Noem treatment.

We have seen this play out in the lockdowns as the Higgs thesis continues to play out. The lockdowns have done nothing to suppress the long-term covid infections, but the political and media classes continually hold out the next lockdown as the “magic bullet” or at least an effective strategy to follow until someone develops a vaccine. (Whether a vaccine developed quickly actually would work is another subject, for another discussion.)

Thus, lockdowns not only create horrendous damage in the present, but they also empower the very people who are responsible for many of the crises we currently face, thereby ensuring that the only change in strategy when lockdowns fail will be the implementation of even stricter policies in the future. The “they’re keeping us safe” mantra has worked thus far, even when the lockdowns have made us even more vulnerable to both the virus and the economic disasters spawned by government plans.

In the end, the only way that the political classes can “make us safe” is for us to do what is necessary to make ourselves safe, or as relatively safe as possible. When a virus is afoot—as is the case most of the time—we do what we can to avoid it and do what we can to treat it. In other words, we appeal to real medical science, not what the political and media classes have cooked up for us.

  • 1. While I make no claims to expertise epidemiology, I am married to a public health nurse who does have expertise in this field, and who has been involved in dealing with epidemics in the past. That my wife is critical of the “lockdown strategy” would be an understatement. (I also add that her approach to medical care is pretty much the standard industry approach.) Furthermore, if common sense means anything in medical care—and especially in dealing with a virus that becomes airborne—the “lockdown as a first choice” strategy should raise a number of critical questions.
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Contact William L. Anderson

William L. Anderson is a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland.

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