Picture credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Artillery Row

Lockdown lessons

People should have been allowed to manage their own risk

Travel on the London Underground on a rainy day and you will be informed by a recorded message, broadcast over the sound system in the station, that surfaces may be wet and you should take care not to slip. The Mayor of London, or whoever is responsible for the message, seems to believe that people either do not know that wet surfaces are slippery or do not adjust their behaviour in response to increased risks.

He is wrong. No one is so stupid as not to know that wet surfaces are slippery, and people adjust their behaviour to the risks of a situation, even without advice from their betters. That doesn’t mean no one will run and slip. They may be in such a rush to get to an important business meeting or a date with an impatient lover that the risk is worth it.

In the case of wet tube stations, we are merely warned. But the authorities often force our hands, banning behaviour that they deem to be not worth the risk, such as smoking in bars and driving without a seatbelt.

We liberals think governments shouldn’t do this. Each individual is in a better position than any politician to know whether the risks he takes are worthwhile. Even if a politician knows the health risks entailed by smoking in bars, he can’t know how much I enjoy hanging out in smoky bars. So he can’t know whether the risk is worth my taking.

Some of us liberals thought this logic extended to the Covid pandemic

Some of us liberals thought this logic extended to the Covid pandemic. The government should have left each individual to decide for himself how to respond. Other liberals supported the lockdowns, claiming them to be a classic example of a warranted governmental restriction on liberty (for reasons I’ll get to soon). A book by academics at Johns Hopkins and Lund University, published by the Institute of Economic Affairs last week, shows us purist liberals to have been right.

The report describes the results of a meta-analysis of the life-saving effects of strict lockdowns, such as the one imposed in the UK (compared to a baseline of the liberal Swedish response). It shows that they reduced Covid deaths by only 3.2 per cent. In other words, the lockdowns saved 1,700 Brits. European lockdowns saved 6,000 lives and American lockdowns saved 4,000.   

The principal reason for the tiny life-saving effect of lockdowns is that voluntary responses sufficed for most of the life-saving. Once people heard about rising case numbers they began working from home, reducing their socialising, and cancelling visits with elderly relatives – and that was all before the formal introduction of lockdowns. This shouldn’t be surprising. People don’t want to die, and they don’t want their friends and relatives to die either. They don’t need to be forced to avoid crowds or wear masks on buses when a lethal virus appears on the scene.

But they also want to keep their business open; they want their children to attend school; they want to see their friends; they want to attend weddings and funerals. Many would have considered the Covid risks entailed by achieving these goals to have been worthwhile.

They weren’t allowed to make such choices. The UK government forbade them acting on their own judgement. By doing so, it imposed a massive financial loss on the population, irreparably damaged children’s educations, eliminated most socialising and made millions profoundly sad and anxious. All for the sake of saving 1,700 lives, which is less than 10 per cent of the average annual death toll from flu. Lockdowns were a monumental policy blunder. That’s what the study shows.

Why did anyone think that our individual decision-making about how to respond Covid should be replaced by the decisions of politicians? Two justifications are common. One is that, when the first lockdown was imposed in late March 2020, we did not know how virulent Covid was. The lockdown was required because we didn’t know what we were facing.

It is a peculiar argument. Imagine you were lost in the mountains at night and happened upon a cave. It would provide welcome shelter for sleeping in, but it might be home to a grizzly bear. Should you enter?

Your ignorance about the chance of being eaten by a bear makes the decision difficult. But it won’t help to transfer the decision to a politician (supposing you could phone one) who is equally ignorant about the likelihood. In fact, it would make matters worse because he is also ignorant of all the relevant facts that you do know, such as how tired you are and how capable you would be of fleeing a bear. For the same reason, ignorance of the risks posed by Covid provided no reason to transfer decision-making from individuals to politicians. 

The other argument starts from the common idea that individual decision-making should be relied upon only when the decisions impose no costs on others – only when there are no “external costs”, as economists put it.

People will take risks that are worthwhile for them. But sometimes their risk-taking also imposes risks on others. The gain to the risk-taker might not exceed the cost to everyone he affects. For example, the pleasure Jack gets from smoking might be worth the risk to him. But add in the risk to all those who breath Jack’s second-hand smoke and it might not be worthwhile. Hence the ban on smoking in bars and other enclosed public spaces.

Similarly, the reasoning goes, people who went to the gym during Covid, or to a funeral or restaurant or what-have-you, would be not only taking their own risks but imposing risks on others. Hence the transfer of decision-making from individuals to politicians. Hence the lockdowns.

Such “externalities arguments” for governmental control typically involve two mistakes. The first is that they ignore the fact that external costs are often accepted voluntarily. When they are, the “victim” benefits. For example, if I choose to go to a bar that permits smoking, I bear the risks of passive smoking. But I must think those risks are worth the upside, since otherwise I wouldn’t go. The prohibition doesn’t protect me. It stops me from doing something that is a good deal for me.

Similarly, if I go to the gym during Covid, I might pass the disease to someone there. But she knew the risk and chose to go to the gym anyway. When she visits her friend later in the day, her friend will also be accepting the risk voluntarily. And so on. Because social interaction is voluntary, there is no need to prohibit it. Those who socialise must deem the risk worthwhile.

The second mistake is failing to recognise that the problem of externalities is nowhere greater than when politicians make decisions for everyone. When Boris Johnson imposed the lockdown, he experienced just 0.0000014 per cent (1 in 70 million) of the costs and benefits of his decision (or would have, if he had obeyed the rules). If you worry about people making decisions when they do not bear all the costs and benefits of them, you should be more alarmed by people making decisions when they bear none of the costs and benefits.

But that’s what happened. And we got the predictable debacle, as the new IEA book confirms. Its authors conclude that lockdowns should never be a response to pandemics. They’re right. But the implications are wider. The lockdowns were merely a dramatic example of a mistake politicians make all the time.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover