Artillery Row

Follow the Who Funds You

Oddly nobody’s shadowbanning conspiracy theories about the Great Barrington Declaration

The American Institute for Economic Research is not a think tank with which I am very familiar, but it seems to have a broadly similar outlook to the organisation to which I belong, the Institute of Economic Affairs. Looking at its website, I see that it aims to bring about a “truly free market and a free society” and that one of my colleagues, Dr Stephen Davies, is listed as a senior fellow. Good luck to it.

Thanks to recent events, the AIER may be more famous for its address than anything else, for it is based in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Two weeks ago, a group of scientists signed and launched the Great Barrington Declaration on the green hills surrounding the think tank’s office. The declaration called on governments to abandon lockdowns in favour of “Focused Protection” in which “those who are at minimal risk of death” from Covid-19 would “live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk”.

There are reasonable arguments for and against this strategy and much depends on how we deal with uncertainty. Those who believe a vaccine is imminent and that natural immunity soon wears off are likely to dismiss it. Those who are less optimistic about vaccine development and are concerned about the social and economic damage done by lockdowns are likely to be more sympathetic.

We are in uncharted territory and disagreement is inevitable

As it happens, I proposed a Barrington-esque strategy in The Critic last month, but I am a mere barstool epidemiologist [“distinguished think tanker,” shurely? – ed.] whereas the lead authors of the Declaration are actual epidemiologists from the universities of Harvard, Oxford and Stanford. Whatever you think of their approach, they are not libertarian crackpots like me, nor are they on the very fringes of science. What they are suggesting is no different to what the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Advisor and SAGE were espousing until mid-March and it is more or less what the Swedish government is still doing.

It is not the UK’s strategy anymore, however. The sudden U-turn in March suggests that the Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Advisor and SAGE now think it was misguided. Plenty of people still think that Sweden got it wrong. We are in uncharted territory and disagreement is inevitable, but in 2020 it not enough to disagree. Our opponents are not merely mistaken. They are wicked and probably in the pay of vested interests.

This is where the American Institute for Economic Research comes in. For those whose noses start twitching whenever they hear the words “free market think tank”, the AIER’s involvement has been a Godsend. The “Byline Times” website, which this year switched seamlessly from Brexit conspiracy theories to Covid-19 conspiracy theories, reported that the think tank had received $68,100 from the libertarian billionaire Charles Koch in 2018. It claimed that Koch and his late brother were “well-known for being among the worlds biggest founders of climate science denial” and that the AIER has “published climate science deniers”.

As if this were not shocking enough, it also revealed that the think tank has an investment fund which includes shares in ExxonMobil, General Electric, Nike and PepsiCo. This, apparently, is prima facie evidence that the Great Barrington Declaration is “less the product of a rigorous, reliable and impartial scientific process, than the outcome of an opaque lobbying effort.” The article concluded that the whole thing may be “a form of predatory neoliberal economics in disguise”.

The journalist in question, Nafeez Ahmed, is no stranger to chasing shadowy cliques. When a group of British scientists wrote to the government on 21 September arguing that the policy of suppressing the virus was “increasingly unfeasible”, he produced another Byline Times exclusive revealing that one of the authors “is a Government consultant who has worked with a range of government agencies including HM Treasury.” As if having connections to the Treasury were not suspicious enough, readers were also treated to the news that he had “worked with the Conservative-led Government since as early as 2013”.

Like a dog with a bone, Ahmed was back on 13 October with the news that the AIER “has received PR support from an agency bankrolled by the Charles Koch Foundation to the tune of $1.4 million to support a range of climate science denial groups.” The head of the agency in question, Emergent Order, told the Byline Times that “I’m not aware of the Great Barrington Declaration, so I cant comment on what that is other than to say that we have not participated in it as a firm.” Enthusiasm undampened by this denial, the tireless investigative journalist concluded that: “Questions must be asked about the influence of a political ideology with a long history of interfering with science to protect vested interests.”

Everyone’s a libertarian in a pandemic

But who are these vested interests and what do they want? Here the trail runs cold. The Byline Times flagged up a $10,000 donation from the Bartley J. Madden Foundation whose eponymous founder is a policy advisor to the Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute, in turn, runs the “Free to Choose Medicine” campaign which wants to give people “the freedom to try promising medicines before theyre fully approved by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]”. This would include hydroxychloroquine and experimental vaccines for Covid-19. There are several degrees of separation here, but even if you join the dots there is no suggestion that Bartley J. Madden stands to gain financially from this campaign. Moreover, it is the vaccine-chasers, not the proponents of natural herd immunity, who are keenest on cutting regulatory corners at the moment. Everyone’s a libertarian in a pandemic.

Where the Byline Times leads, the Guardian and Observer follow. In an op-ed for the latter, Sonia Sodha said that the Great Barrington affair was “a sorry parable about what happens when bad science gets co-opted by shady ideological interests.” Who are these interests and what do they want? Once again, this crucial question went unanswered, just as it did in a more recent Guardian article in which three “public health” academics angrily denounced the “right-wing stealth campaign” to undermine lockdowns, and asked “who funded this piece of political theatre”?

Who indeed? One can understand why an oil company would support climate change sceptics, but what financial motive could anybody possibly have for proposing a policy which will kill millions of people and further set back the economy (or so its critics believe)? The authors of the Guardian op-ed call for a “debate” to begin on the identity of “the political and economic interests that lie behind this declaration”. This is the Carole Cadwalladr school of journalism: throw mud, ask questions and demand someone else investigates.

The only vaguely coherent motive I have seen from anyone comes from Richard Murphy, the self-styled father of Corbynomics, and it is nuts. Murphy reckons that “herd immunity” (which he wrongly thinks is a veterinary term) is “the economics of neoliberalism running riot” and that the end goal is a “cull of the elderly”. Aside from the fact that the explicit aim of Focused Protection is to protect the elderly, it is a mystery why Charles Koch, aged 84, would support such a diabolical plan.

I don’t know for sure how the AIER ended up working with the scientists behind the Great Barrington Declaration, but one obvious explanation presents itself. The American Institute for Economic Research is a libertarian economic think tank and is therefore likely to be drawn to any alternative to the extreme illiberalism of lockdowns and the economic carnage that accompanies them. You can call this an ideological bias if you like. You could even build an ad hominem argument around it (“they’re libertarians so of course they would say that”). But it is not a vested interest. It has nothing to do with tobacco, oil, sugar, or any other industry. Nor, indeed, does it have anything to do with “neoliberalism”, predatory or otherwise.

This explanation is so obvious that it seems extraordinary that journalists have resorted to convoluted follow-the-money theories instead. But they have to. If they admitted that think tanks believe the things they say they believe in, all the other conspiracy theories about them would melt away.

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