A Pandemic Amnesty?

Published December 12, 2022

Brown University economist Emily Oster recently suggested a “pandemic amnesty” for “the many important choices we had to make under conditions of tremendous uncertainty.”  Her essay has riled many libertarians still angry over the unprecedented restriction of freedom.  If public health officials fully accepted the professor’s observations about uncertainty, I could accept letting bygones be bygones.

          Professor Oster correctly observes that “gloating and defensiveness” uses up “social energy” and produces “heated, unpleasant and, ultimately, unproductive” discussions.  The Professor was called a teacher killer and worse for her analysis demonstrating that schools could be safely reopened, making her attitude noteworthy.

          Amnesty differs from forgiveness, as Barry Brownstein reminds us.  Amnesty is legal; individuals forgive.  Forgiveness contributes to mental and emotional health.  In addition to Professor Brownstein’s examples, Nelson Mandela said after 27 years in prison, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

          The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted ignorance as a fundamental social and economic condition.  Everything we know about the economy must be learned or discovered.  The nature of economic knowledge ensures discovery never ends, as economist Friedrich Hayek explained.  While scientific knowledge is objective and constant across time and place, economic value is subjective and consequently conditional.

          This has profound implications for society, beginning with the limited nature of expertise.  Experts cannot know enough to make good decisions for others, much less plan or organize the economy.  Experts unaware of their limits exhibit what Hayek called, “The Fatal Conceit.”

          Today most government and university experts deny the limits of expertise.  A field like public health where university programs train government bureaucrats almost surely will exhibit this conceit. 

Public health must recognize its proper role in a free society.  A liberal society recognizes all citizens’ equal moral value.  Morale equality means that government must serve citizens, not the other way around.  The consent of the governed must be tangible and continuously reaffirmed.

          I used the term free society to highlight the danger of by rule by experts.  Elite experts fervently believe that their guidance improves citizens’ lives, so they (illegitimately) infer consent to their dictates.  Yet experts, in addition to overestimating their expertise, frequently presume everyone wants exactly what they do; they forget that value is subjective.

          The public health profession must learn its proper role in a free society because most people would consent to temporary restrictions on freedom to control disease transmission.  Government’s “police powers,” including but especially public health, are vulnerable to abuse.

          Public health disregarded fundamental ignorance and exhibited the “Fatal Conceit” throughout the pandemic.  Consider the oft-repeated admonition to “follow the science.”  Science only informs us about tradeoffs, perhaps that banning public gatherings could save X lives.  We then must decide how to act based on our personal values.  Too many public health officials slipped into authoritarian control mode as opposed to helping Americans make informed decisions.

          The evidentiary base for the nonpharmaceutical intervention policies comprising the “lockdowns” was basically nonexistent, as a comprehensive 2019 review concluded.  Whether such measures truly save lives likely mattered for most Americans in deciding whether to put our lives on hold.  Many officials made unsubstantiated claims of effectiveness and appeared indifferent to the truth; the CDC, for instance, never conducted a randomized control trial of masks.

          Censoring dissenting voices, as the ongoing litigation by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri is revealing, was inexcusable.  Scientific and economic discovery require challenging preconceptions and experimentation, not enforced silence.  The campaign to smear the proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration’s focused protection alternative to society-wide lockdowns reflects a moral failure of health officials.

          Acting in a world of ignorance and discovery inevitably produces decisions later appearing cringeworthy.  Mistakes made in ignorance are forgivable only if experts acknowledge their ignorance and learn humility.