Don Boudreaux on the Pandemic
Jul 12 2021

coronavirus-lockdown-300x200.jpg Economist Don Boudreaux of George Mason University talks about the pandemic with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Boudreaux argues that a perfect storm of factors created a huge overreaction, including unnecessary lockdowns that accomplished little at a very high cost in physical and emotional health. Instead, Boudreaux argues, we should have focused attention on the population most at risk of dying from COVID--the elderly and especially the elderly with co-morbidities. The conversation includes a discussion of externalities and the insights of Ronald Coase applied to the policies during the pandemic.

John Cochrane on the Pandemic
Would the impact of the pandemic have been different if government and policymakers had been more open to more market-based responses and less committed to a top-down approach? Economist John Cochrane of Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks with EconTalk host...
Ronald Coase on Externalities, the Firm, and the State of Economics
Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase of the University of Chicago talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about his career, the current state of economics, and the Chinese economy. Coase, born in 1910, reflects on his youth, his two great papers, "The...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


krishnan chittur
Jul 12 2021 at 12:55pm

Thanks Don (and Russ) – Incentives aside for the media and politicians, I have wondered why – Is it just social media and the ability to amplify panic and fear that caused the overreaction?  Possible – but my own theory is that the world at large has grown so prosperous that humanity has forgotten what tradeoffs are – that we can indeed get something for nothing.

I too fear the future when our response to the flu virus could be draconian because of what the world did with sarscov2.

Don – your prediction of “excess” deaths – may be true for the elderly because of what sarscov2 did to them.  My feeling is that we will see “excess” deaths in younger age groups for all sorts of reasons nothing to do with the virus.

Sonny ElHamahmy
Jul 12 2021 at 1:32pm

Thanks Don (and Russ), while I very much agree with many of your points. I think your playing Monday morning quarterback. Again, I agree with your points, but you can’t blame public health officials for doing what they felt was best at the time with the information they had at the time.

I have my fair share of criticism of public health officials, but I recognize I am not playing with all the information.  So I tamp down my criticism for that very reason, I suggest you may consider doing the same.

John Petty
Jul 12 2021 at 3:29pm

Thank you for a a great discussion.  Something I have not heard anywhere else was told to me back in February ’20 by a senior partner at a major property and casualty insurance company.  He told me to watch events and large business operations that dealt with the mass public (e.g., the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and shopping malls) shut down or close their doors, if the WHO or CDC declares a pandemic with COVID.  The reason was almost all business’ or event’s liability insurance has a waiver clause which would be invoked in the case of a declared pandemic.   The event or business would be financially on their own for liability if someone contracted COVID at their event because the event/business should have known it was a likely to occur event given the contagious nature of COVID and a declared pandemic.  Within single days of the WHO/CDC declaration, the NCAA tournament was called off.

The NCAA publicly said it was done for public safety and out of caution.  My suspicion, given the heads up I had been given a month prior, was this was virtue signaling and perhaps the reason for a lot of the “voluntary” closures by businesses and/or public events was purely financial.  God forbid, someone contracted COVID at an event and died, to what heights could the costs run?

Bottom line: I would think P&C insurers were somewhat relieved to have government-mandated shutdowns, as they were no longer the bad guys.  And if a business violated the government-imposed shutdown, that would be a perfect defense by the insurer for reckless behavior on the part of the insured.  I sincerely believe there were likely financial motives at work outside of voluntary altruism.

Martin Dertz
Jul 12 2021 at 5:07pm

Good discussion on risk mitigation and trade-offs, but both Russ and guest seem to be conflating risk of suffering from Covid with risk of dying from Covid. Or at least making the assumption it’s the only risk worth discussing.

For example, Russ says “When we put restrictions of various kinds on young people on the grounds they could interact with older people — that’s the real argument… they may go out and associate with an older person…. and they’ll die”. I don’t think that’s right. The “real” argument is that Covid cases can blow up fast — especially in densely populated cities — due to its over-dispersion (ie most spread is from super spreader events) and that healthcare capacity is fixed so easily overwhelmed.

While the risk of Covid death to 65-74 year olds is 95x relative to 18-29 year olds and for those aged 75-84 it’s 230x. Knowing that alone, Don’s thesis makes sense. However, relative risk of hospitalization for those age groups is just 6x and 9x, respectively. Put another way, if you’re under 60 and contract Covid you’ll almost certainly survive, but there’s a relatively good chance you’ll be hospitalized. From what I’ve read of Caplan he misses that as well. I was really hoping Russ would raise that — especially since it’s come up in previous episodes — so we could hear Don’s thoughts on systemic risk of a novel pathogen spreading fast and overwhelming hospital capacity — especially in urban areas — in a very short period of time.

Todd Kreider
Jul 12 2021 at 8:31pm

Put another way, if you’re under 60 and contract Covid you’ll almost certainly survive, but there’s a relatively good chance you’ll be hospitalized.

This simply isn’t true and for those under 60 who are not severely obese, have diabetes, etc. the odds of ending up in a hospital from Covid-19 are extremely low.

Martin Dertz
Jul 12 2021 at 11:43pm

Maybe I’m wrong, then.

I’m basing what I said on CDC risk ratios available here . I also took a look at this Statista chart showing hospitalizations per 100K by age group. If you look at those you’ll see hospitalization risk increases roughly linearly with age from ~121 per 100K for the 30-39 age range to ~362 per 100K in the 65-74 age range. This is unlike death risk which increases exponentially with age from 2x to 95x for the same cohorts.

My reading from those data are you have roughly 3x higher chance of hospitalization if your 70 vs 35. Lower, yes, but I think that’s still relatively high. Especially when we’re talking about a new disease and risk of overwhelming healthcare systems.

I can’t find rates with same age cohorts so comparing to influenza’s a bit tricky, but based on these CDC 2018-2019 estimates it seems likely the hospitalization risk profile for a 35 year old with Covid is similar to a 55 year old with influenza. For the one cohort that is the same — 50-64 years old — hospitalization risk of Covid relative to Influenza is ~1.7x. Looking at 2015-2016 Influenza hospitalization rates it’s even more drastic: A 2.4x risk of hospitalization from Covid relative to Influenza for those 50-64. For those 18-49 it seems to be somewhere between 2x and 6x.

So it seems to me that “for those under 60 who are not severely obese, have diabetes, etc. the odds of ending up in a hospital from Covid-19 are extremely low.” is another conflation of death risk with hospitalization risk. But like I said, I could be wrong. Can you can help me understand what I’m missing?


Sean Wordingham
Jul 21 2021 at 2:53am

Yes, I was fascinated to hear a proper, long interview with this different point of view but I’d hoped Russ would’ve pushed back a bit more on some of the stronger claims e.g. that lockdowns “don’t work” and bring up the question of overwhelming hospitals.

In terms of hospital admissions – in the UK from September 2020 to January 7 2021:-

Over 85 – 42,500

65-84 – 64,732

18 – 64 – 52,793

Todd Kreider
Jul 12 2021 at 8:35pm

Put another way, if you’re under 60 and contract Covid you’ll almost certainly survive, but there’s a relatively good chance you’ll be hospitalized.

This simply isn’t true and if someone under 60 gets Covid and isn’t severely overweight, has hypertension, etc. then the odds are extremely low.

Todd Kreider
Jul 13 2021 at 11:03am

Here are the odds of a person being hospitalized in each age group using the Statisa link:

85+……….. 865/100,000 0.9%………1 in 100
75 to 84… .570/100,000 0.6%………1 in 200
65 to 74…..360/100,000 0.4%…….. 1 in 300
50 to 64…. 265/100,000 0.3%…….. 1 in 400
40 to 49…. 175/100,000 0.2%…….. 1 in 500
30 to 39…. 120/100,000 0.1%…….. 1 in 1,000
20 to 29….. 80/100,000 0.1%……… 1 in 1,000
5 to 17…….. 10/100,000 0.01%…….. 1 in 10,000
0 to 4…….. 20/100,000 0.02% … ….1 in 5,000

I don’t think most people would consider a 1 in 1,000 chance of hospitalization for a 35 year old who got Covid as “a relatively good chance.” This table includes those who have had Covid and were severely obese, had hypertension etc. so the odds of a healthy or somewhat obese (BMI <35)  35 year old being hospitalized are far lower than 1 in 1,000.

Last fall the CDC redefined a hospitalization as anyone at a hospital for Covid who spent 4 hours or more at a hospital whereas a hospitalization used to require much more time like an overnight stay. The CDC also considers a pregnant woman or a teenager who had a broken leg with a positive Covid test to be a hospitalization.

There is no good comparison with the flu for hospitalization (or deaths) because that requires symptoms which Covid does not nor does the flu use a PCR test run at high magnification cycles when the person may have had the flu weeks earlier without symptoms. I have seen an analysis that concluded had the CDC tested for influenza and labeled deaths as they have for Covvid-19, instead of the 60,000 to 80,000 flu deaths in 2017/2018 there would have been 150,000 to 250,000 influenza deaths declared.





Martin Dertz
Jul 13 2021 at 12:03pm

I don’t think most people would consider a 1 in 1,000 chance of hospitalization for a 35 year old who got Covid as “a relatively good chance.”

If it’s isolated to an individual I would agree. But when it’s a novel pathogen with exponential growth in an urban environment, those hospitalization rates can easily overwhelm healthcare systems. That’s what we saw in Italy, NYC.

So the two points I think those data make are

Hospitalization risk decreases linearly with age, not exponentially as does death risk. That really surprised me when I first saw b/c I assumed Covid all risk profile decreased exponentially with age b/c of how it’s portrayed by, say, Don Boudreaux
That hospitalization risk profile could easily overrun a healthcare system, especially with an infection rate growing exponentially.

Eric Johnson
Jul 13 2021 at 4:51pm

I suspect this data is wrong, or at the very least misleading.


As an example, for someone 85+ You have the odds of hospitalization at 1/100. The infection fatality rate for someone over 85 is over 20%. It’s hard to square that circle.

Todd Kreider
Jul 13 2021 at 5:21pm

The IFR for 80+ is 10% and haven’t seen 20% for 85+. What this shows is that for all the 80+ year olds, many don’t have a serious comorbidity and survive.

To Martin Dertz: Italy was not hit with a ton of Covid patients under 60 to say nothing of 30 year olds and was almost entirely those over 70 in the hospitals.

Also almost no hospitals were overrun with Covid patients in NYC even if very busy, but at least two in Brooklyn were.

Eric Johnson
Jul 14 2021 at 1:12pm

So according to your own numbers, the IFR for those 80+ is 10%, but the odd of hospitalization for those 75-84 and 85+ are 1-200 and 1-100 respectively.

So the odds of death are at least 10x the odd of hospitalization. Does that make sense to you?

Walter Clark
Jul 12 2021 at 5:43pm

You guys didn’t bring up the natural means of fighting a pandemic. Shortly after the world recognized we were in for it, there were experienced epidemiologists who proposed getting as many kids exposed to each other as fast as possible. That solution properly went away when the race was on for a vaccine. Now delaying the exponential rise made sense.

Vincent P
Jul 12 2021 at 7:34pm

The segment on externalities and Coase were great, though I think most people would not be convinced by those arguments. The ideas are so counter-intuitive that I think most people just refuse to accept them.

Jul 19 2021 at 7:33am

I think that intuition is largely correct in this context.

When discussing externalities, Don and Russ completely omit any discussion of the magnitudes of benefits and burdens involved. The frame of Coasean bargaining makes little sense when the transaction costs involved dominate any prospect of bargaining. Here, the transaction costs are effectively infinite since one has no way to know who will be at an event to which we are going, no way to know where they have been, whether they have been suffering symptoms, whether they have already had the vaccine or an infection, etc.

If the transaction costs are such that the bargaining will never occur, observing that externalities are (in some sense) a result of joint action is just a feckless justification for imposing externalities. Russ and Don did not in any real way discuss the magnitude of the externalities involved here (either personally or societally) other than to merely handwave and say it is overblown and mostly concentrated in old people. Moreover, neither Russ nor Don took the care to discuss how our reactions can or should differ depending on the nature of the externality-producing behavior. There is a legal and moral difference between coming to a nuisance vs. it coming to you. Similarly, there is a difference in an externality imposed because the risk of infection can never be eliminated vs. an externality that is imposed because I could not be bothered to take basic precautions that imposed minor cost on me.

I think the lockdowns were overbroad and went on for too long. But I found this to be a disappointingly unthoughtful discussion that did not add to the discourse.

Greg G
Jul 13 2021 at 9:24am

>—-“I think the best evidence, and I think the overwhelming amount of evidence is that lockdowns have absolutely no effect on the spread of the virus. ”

No effect? Look I understand that opinions vary on the tradeoffs between fighting the disease and infringing on individual liberties.   And I understand that opinions vary on how big a public policy issue 600,000+ deaths and a lot more permanent health problems should be.

But to claim that lockdowns have no significant effect on the spread of a contagious disease transmitted by exhaled virus is nothing less than a repudiation of the germ theory of disease.

When the lockdown happened NYC area hospitals were overflowing and short of  most types of labor and supplies.  Doctors and nurses were dying at alarming rates and begging for lockdowns.  Meanwhile the case load was doubling every few days.

The lockdown arrested that trend and a few weeks later cases declined sharply.  When lockdowns were relaxed cases began trending upwards again.

I don’t know what the right policy would have been. The number of biological and behavioral factors affecting the spread of this novel virus is so fiendishly complex that it is more than a little ironic that someone calling himself a Hayekian would be so confident he understands it so thoroughly and so uncharitable to those who disagree.

Durandal F
Jul 13 2021 at 10:52am

I find myself in the awkward position of agreeing that many measures to contain covid were excessive and theatrical, but also thinking that some of the major arguments used during this episode swing too far.

First, as Martin Dertz points out above, we should acknowledge that death is not the only negative consequence of contracting covid. Martin points out the many hospitalizations for people under 70, and sending someone to the hospital for days or (often) weeks seems like a nontrivial cost to impose on someone even if they survive.  Additionally, while there remains much research to be done on long-term symptoms, I have seen several studies done showing a significant fraction of even young people having symptoms like loss of taste and/or smell, fatigue, shortness of breath, impaired concentration, and memory problems for several months after becoming ill. In some cases it looks like there’s long-term organ damage. It’ll be important to get a handle on the prevalence and severity of these symptoms if we want to do a reasonable cost-benefit analysis.

Second, while it’s true that it takes two to tango, there’s a pretty broad consensus that you can only increase others’ chance of death or serious injury so much before your actions have become negligent or even reckless. We knew early on that covid had an IFR of at least 0.5%, and the average person who caught covid early in the pandemic was passing it on to about three other people. Now, if you drove your car in such a way as to cause yourself and three other people to each have a 1-in-200 chance of dying (and a greater chance of other long-term damage, and/or weeks of hospitalization), that would get you pulled over for reckless driving. But covid is much worse than that, because if you on average passed the disease to three other people, and they each passed it to three other people on average, and so on, it doesn’t take long before you are almost guaranteed to have caused someone to die. Preventing just one transmission of covid early in the pandemic plausibly prevented a raft of deaths later.

Third, to add to what Greg G wrote above, there is now a fair amount of evidence that various restrictions did more than slightly slow down the rate of spread. See, for example, “Inferring the effectiveness of government interventions against COVID-19” by Brauner et al. Limiting gathering sizes and closing “nonessential” businesses and schools helped bring the rate of transmission down significantly, albeit at a huge cost.
We can only do the crudest estimation of how many deaths and long-term symptoms were prevented until we could get vaccines deployed. I’m sure the methods used to suppress the pandemic were not close to ideal, but it’s still a mistake to overstate the case against them. Scott Alexander’s blog post “Lockdown Effectiveness: Much More Than You Wanted To Know” is skeptical that the restrictions were worth it, but it seems like a more careful assessment of the tradeoffs than much of this conversation.

Fourth, let’s talk about what it means to have a proportional response. Don suggests that if SARS-CoV-2 is 10 times as deadly as seasonal flu, our reaction to it should only be 10 times as great as it is to seasonal flu. But there are good (and bad) reasons that no human society treats that relationship as linear. It’s much more sensible to say our response should be proportional to how effective the response will be, i.e. how much damage we can prevent relative to the cost of the intervention. Not all diseases are equally preventable or treatable: SARS-CoV-2 started in a very small population with only one strain, and we needed time to learn how to treat and vaccinate against it, so it was plausible (and turned out to be true) that delaying infections would prevent them or greatly reduce their severity. And if we slowed the rate of infection, we would reduce the rate at which new mutations developed, making it easier to develop effective vaccines. We couldn’t say the same about the many strains of seasonal flu.

Another reason the strength of our response is not linear with respect to deadliness of all causes is that the arrival of a new cause of death is more alarming than the equivalent number of existing causes of death to which we’ve already adapted. An unexpected event that kills a lot of people without dramatically affecting the overall death rate, like the nearly 3,000 deaths on 9/11, is concerning not just because of the immediate deaths but because it signals a change in the threat environment.

A lot of what Russ and Don said in this episode is eminently sensible, and I have great respect for both men going back at least 15 years, but I think there was some overreach here.

Todd Kreider
Jul 13 2021 at 12:33pm

Dr. Fauci was correct when he said in February 2020 that “Lockdowns don’t work, historically” and the head of the WHO practically begged leaders in a speech not to use lockdowns during the  2009/2010 H1N1 pandemic since they were both ineffective and destructive. This had been the WHO’s position that was again stated in late 2019. China was the only country that locked down a city in 2009 and a study concluded that it was ineffective.

Here is a summary of over 30 papers that show lockdowns did very little to nothing to slow coronavirus in spring 2020:

Scott Alexander’s post on lockdowns was disappointing because he made several errors about Sweden that commenters pointed out. (Sweden’s age adjusted excess deaths from March 2020 to April 2020 were 3% higher than normal and rank #24 for Covid-19 deaths per capita. The U.S. and the U.K. are tied at #13.)

The infection fatality rate for the flu in the U.S. has been 0.13% from 2010 to 2019 and according to the WHO, the IFR for Covid-19 isn’t 0.5% but 0.23% and John Ioannidis’ latest estimate from April is 0.15%.

Mike S.
Jul 13 2021 at 1:45pm

Econtalk is a blessing, mostly because of Russ, his curation of topics and guests, and his respectful interviewing style.  But also because of the comments, which on controversial issues may be the only source of civil and intelligent dialogue we have left.

Now to Covid.  On lockdown effectiveness, the alarming rate of fatalities among healthcare workers does not seem to be an argument for lockdowns.   As I understood it, lockdowns aimed to prevent new patients being turned away from hospitals already overrun; lockdowns or no, doctors and nurses would be seeing a steady stream of patients during a pandemic, so would presumably have to rely on their now famously prioritized access to PPE.

The most resonant part of this podcast for me was the concern that, having had this experience, we will never be able to end it.   A couple of the comments note that slowing the spread of the virus yields a permanent reduction in fatalities if vaccines are imminent.   Yet even widespread deployment of vaccines never seems to translate to ending the restrictions that were imposed while awaiting them.  Similarly, the Delta and other variants justify continuing some lockdown policies, even though they do not come anywhere near meeting the harm thresholds that were required to impose those policies in the first place.

I agree that the more hidden harms of lockdown policy will become evident over time, and they will be more severe the more persistent the underlying policies.   Global travel provides an example — it’s still essentially impossible to travel outside the US for business or casual personal reasons.  The longer that remains the case, the more extreme the implications for our global economy (and the many benefits and some detriments it has produced).  Australia’s “success” in eliminating Covid, followed by its sudden vulnerability once restrictions were eased, should remind everyone of the pre-global era when meeting people from other continents meant extreme risk of infectious diseases for which no immunity had been established.

Steve Wotton
Jul 13 2021 at 2:20pm

Don made an assertion, that (and I am paraphrasing) “lockdowns have no effect on the spread of the virus”. This was stated without any evidence whatsoever. I would content that it is demonstrable false and, Russ, you should have called him out on it. Don was making arguments to debunk some of the guidance and rules of lock downs (some of which are valid), but this glib statement totally undermined his overall argument.

Lockdowns work (see below) to control the spread of the virus and if implemented early and effectively, allow for measures to be lifted earlier, limiting the economic impact. He needs to argue why his solution is better, and importantly needs to demonstrate that institutions are actually capably of a more sophisticated approach. I would strongly suggest they are not – based on various examples of botched attempts to guard and protect vulnerable groups (like elderly care homes).

I live in the UK, we have had 3 lockdowns, 2 were “hard”. In the 1st (Spring 2020) and 3rd (winter/spring 21) everything was closed. The 2nd “soft” lock down (Nov 20) was shorter and schools, universities, colleges remained open. In the “soft” lock down, cases started to fall after about 2 and half weeks, death rates flatted, but did not fall. In the “hard” 3rd lockdown, cases started to fall after 3 days. We don’t have good case data for the 1st lockdown.

Lastly, you did not discuss the role that mixing of young people has in fomenting viral mutation. Something that could lead to vaccines becoming less effective. One reason why I have little time for vaccine choice.

Jul 13 2021 at 2:35pm

If 2020 was not an election year and if pharma didn’t own politicians:

We could have seen that lockdowns did not work and, as mentioned, even WHO disagreed with them.  The proof is obvious by comparing the curves and severity of lockdown vs non-lockdown states.
Fauci might have not flip flopped on his position that masks were utterly useless, as proven by his FOIA released emails from March 2020.
We could still talk about herd immunity, which has been proven to work by the almost zero number of deaths now (and which makes further vaccination useless.)
People would have known that the inventor of PCR repeatedly and firmly stated that it should NEVER be used for diagnosis, especially at amplification levels so high that false positives were guaranteed to be widespread.
We would have not counted the fear mongering “died with” as “died from”.  (Notice how any death from the vaccine needs to have every other possible cause ruled out, but a car accident with COVID counted as COVID?)
Discussions about treatments would have been allowed by the Democrats and their allies in the MSM and social media.  We could have had open discussions about HCQ and Ivermectin, which would have saved tens of thousands of lives.  For the first time in history, treatment was never an option.  If sick, go to the hospital, get on a ventilator, and pray.  (I apologize in advance if the mention of those two words results in Google shadow banning this episode.  I wish that I was joking.)  I am sure that it is just a coincidence that an effective treatment that would have negated the hundreds of billions of dollars lavished on pharma for a vaccine was quashed.
We could discuss now that vaccinating children is extremely dangerous. That the UK just reported that 25 children died last year “with” COVID.  Half had “life limiting illnesses”, and half of the remainder had multiple comorbidities.  For reference, 250 children died from accidents in the UK.
People could talk about how the inventor of mRNA vaccines said that they should never be given to anyone under 30.
We could have an honest discussion about lockdowns and masks endangering the normal development of an entire generation of children for no reason.
We could discuss the real possibility that the vaccine did no good at all, that viruses follow a known infection pattern and that COVID did just that, with herd immunity occurring and the virus evolving into a “more contagious” (Delta?), but far, far less deadly variant which is advantageous for both the virus and its host.

…and on and on.  But we couldn’t (and still can’t for a number of them.)  The people who used everything in their power to lock down debate on these topics have blood on their hands.

Jul 18 2021 at 3:05pm

PCR has been used clinically for over 2 decades without major issues of false positives.

Like CRISPR, PCR had a number of people in its development not a single inventor. One of those individuals, Kary Mullis, believe AIDS was not caused by HIV and so presumably thought that PCR to detect HIV was inappropriate.

Jul 13 2021 at 2:42pm

Great episode.  I always enjoy Don’s commentary.  He said it is amazing how many of the best ideas in economics come from such simple ideas and I continue to be amazed at the seeming simplicity of Coase’s many ideas (The Firm, Externalities, Marginal Costs) and the depth of understanding one has to employ to fully grasp them.  I am always shocked by how much I take away from a conversation Coase.

To that point,  my understanding of Coase as it relates to something like the Polio vaccine is that the law should mandate it.  The low cost solution is the vaccine.  This may be missing something, but the parties are those that contract the disease from air, water, surface, etc. (not sure how polio works but it is unimportant) and those that own those spaces.  If you come to my house, I may have Poliovirus floating around.  The cost of knowing and maintaining a polio free environment is impossibly high. Therefore the potential recipient of the virus should vaccinate to avoid the externality.  The low cost avoider is the potential infectee.

I hate mandates, but via coaseian logic, that is where I got.  What am I missing? Or what is wrong with my assignment of property rights?

Jul 13 2021 at 9:43pm

I think the population and medias response was appropriate for the information and risk at the time. The early mortality figures from Italy in particular and all counties generally were far higher, and there was little information on the total number of cases, so the transmissibility and mortality were not clear. Eventually we will encounter a pandemic with far higher mortality and transmissibility, and the early response to this pandemic would be the appropriately cautious response.   Even with this virus there is a small probability of the development of a far more lethal virus, either by mutation or hybridization. All that said, 12 months into the pandemic the data was far clearer and his comments have validity.

Kevin Ryan
Jul 14 2021 at 7:23am

I guess I’ve been listening to Econtalk for about 10 years now.

I tend to associate Russ in my mind with sound and interesting ideas, but a philosophy that in practice ‘it’s difficult’, taking on board the lesson of ‘the curious task’, and a reflection that he he was more bullish when he was younger but is wiser now.

However this goes by the way from time to time – and it seems most likely to occur when he meets up again with his old mates who have not lost the faith.  So Econtalk can be a platform to allow these to hold forth without too much challenge; and in particular without needing to address the downside of what they are proposing – and of course if it is never implemented, these will not come to light.

So what would it really mean to try to protect the old or vulnerable and let the rest carry on as normal in a real environment where ages mix?  how long could this be kept for – would it really be tolerated by the population at large?  what about international travel and people from abroad travelling to the US?  Does Long Covid not apply to young people?

Perhaps fortunately, here in the UK we’re moving into a live experiment where we remove restrictions at a time of rising cases.  Let Covid run through the youngsters and the vaccine refusers.  The rest of us will be lower risk than before, anyway.

Many people, at least those who get (social) media coverage, seem to worry about rising hospitalisations, crowding out of other medical treatment, long Covid, activity slowing down with some people hiding away out of fear and others (with Covid, or contacts thereof) obliged to stay home.

Me – what do I know?  It’s difficult!

There will be some results over the coming months;  and people will argue about their meaning.

Kevin Ryan
Jul 15 2021 at 4:59am

On re-reading this I’ve realised that what I meant to say was ‘it’s COMPLICATED’ rather than ‘it’s difficult’

Keivan MK
Jul 14 2021 at 7:50am

Thank you for the great discussion–especially the segment on Coase’s ideas on externalities. Early in the conversation Professor Boudreauxo made the following claim: “the overwhelming amount of evidence is that lockdowns have absolutely no effect on the spread of the virus.” Luckily, there are examples of countries that did not take preventative measures soon enough (Brazil and India come to mind), leading to new variants of the virus that might entirely change the trajectory of the pandemic. Consider the presumable scenario in which a mutation more severe and faster-spreading than the Delta variant had emerged before vaccines became widely available. Such a scenario could have been realized had we chosen not to go into a lockdown. In such a scenario we would be probably living in an entirely  different world today.

Lucas Hendrich
Jul 14 2021 at 9:30am

Professor Boudreaux bases his critique of the governmental response to COVID 19 (not sure which government specifically, but assume the United States of America) on the argument that in March of 2020 there was no doubt that the population at risk was limited to the elderly and/or those with existing conditions. Later, he compares sharing the road with teenage drivers as an analogy to argue against locking down (they are allowed to drive, even though they statistically put others at risk, including the elderly). The problem with this argument is that while there was observational data about the early impact of COVID 19 on the elderly, there was a degree of uncertainty about its impact on other populations (I would argue that there still is). 

But let’s take this analogy further. If a teenager crashes into an elderly driver, the event ends with the crash. It would be difficult to imagine the teenager getting back into the same car, driving one town over, and crashing into five more elderly people. Yet that is precisely how the virus spreads, without the noise and destruction that might provide advanced warning. A car crash is an isolated event in time. It cannot spread. How can you possibly equate the two in terms of risk, even ignoring the vast amount of data known about automobiles and safety?

Part of his argument for an initial proportionate response was also based on supply:

“But, resources are scarce. This is Econ 101. By focusing response, we can marshal our resources, husband our resources better where they have the best impact rather than just randomly imposing costs on people worldwide.” 

While there were interruptions to supply at different points in time, beginning at the outset and continuing today (not just PPE, other goods as well), the problem seems to have been more the allocation than the supply. If supply were truly limited, then a focused response is a trade-off. But the ideal solution for a future pandemic could be a combination of both focused response (get the elderly and their caregivers PPE first, require others to use scarves) along with a general precaution against uncertainty (the necessary evil of a general lockdown).  

It seems that we should learn a combination of lessons to have a varied approach to the next pandemic as opposed to choosing only one because it has the least impact on individual freedom. Scarcity is a solvable problem. Transmission is a harder problem to solve. 

Mort Dubois
Jul 14 2021 at 6:41pm

Lockdowns don’t work?  I happened to take a trip to New York City in mid June last year, and was amazed by two things:

 I decided to visit a client in New York City. I crossed state borders (PA to NJ, then NJ to NY via the Holland Tunnel) in my car.  I didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission and nobody stopped me at any time, even emerging from the Holland Tunnel and driving past a number of police officers.  I was almost the only car on the road.  Since there was no enforcement, it’s hard to argue that the lockdowns, in practice,  were anything more than suggestions by the government.
The streets of New York were utterly deserted.  Again, I was one of the only cars on the road.  I was in Greenwich Village, normally teeming with pedestrians and tourists.  Crickets. I probably saw less than 50 people on the street in the course of a 2 hour visit. So if nothing else, the lockdowns got almost all of the inhabitants of New York out of public spaces.  Very hard to imagine that this didn’t have some effect on airborne transmission.

This episode sounded like a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking to me.  Consider that this is an unprecedented event being experienced by pretty much every person and institution in the entire world, and at each point all of the actors had imperfect knowledge to work with, the sum of all of those reactions is necessarily complex and unpredictable.    One might even call it an emergent phenomenon.  I’m not worried that the next time a pandemic appears that there is an over reaction – I think it’s a lot more likely that the reaction will be inadequate.

Todd Kreider
Jul 14 2021 at 8:56pm

So if nothing else, the lockdowns got almost all of the inhabitants of New York out of public spaces.  Very hard to imagine that this didn’t have some effect on airborne transmission.

I agree it is hard to imagine in part because viruses are so tiny. There is an interesting graph that plots Covid-19 cases and deaths for both NYC and Sweden with the populations adjusted. There is a vertical yellow line for when the lockdowns in NYC started and the cases/deaths shoot way up in early April. In Sweden where there were no lockdowns but distancing advisories, the cases/deaths also shot up in early April with a flatter top and then quickly fell. Apart from the flatter peak for Sweden, the graphs look almost identical.

Greg L
Jul 15 2021 at 8:52am

So you are comparing graphs of the spread between Sweden and NYC and because the pattern and/shape are similar you draw the conclusion that public gathering restrictions had no impact?  [I pause to search population densities].  Sweden = 25 per sqkm, NYC = 38,000 per sqkm.  Is population density not a material input variable in your model?  I imagine if I was the mayor, my decisions might differ if I’m the mayor of a dense metro than if I’m the mayor of a community of 15,000  in rural midwest USA.

In my line of work of healthcare analytics, population density and public mobility do often seem to be worthwhile explanatory variables for the questions my clients pose, which admittedly aren’t grand economic questions like the question posed in this podcast which was seemingly framed by the guest as having a Y/N answer…

Q:  Were “lockdowns” absolutely uniformly bad in all situations?

A: Yes or No…choose one and dig in your heels.

I would comment further but I think one of the other Gregs (i.e. Greg L) summarized my thoughts better than I could.

Todd Kreider
Jul 15 2021 at 2:19pm

I’m saying that lockdowns and government warnings like Japan had had little to no impact on slowing the virus which more than 30 studies show and Fauci understood this when he said in February that “lockdowns don’t work, historically” and that what was tried in Wuhan would never happen in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.

Remote New Zealand never had many Covid cases to begin with and then closed off the country. It banned most travelers from Wuhan in early February and then closed the country on March 19 and ended up with a peak of 80 cases a day out of 5 million people in late March and early May before dropping of sharply.

The 30+ studies showing lockdowns were not effective:

Not included in the list is the Norwegian health department’s study showing that their lockdown wasn’t effective as cases were already decreasing. (This also happened in Japan with the first warning for large cities and a week later a warning for the entire country. )



Jul 16 2021 at 8:17am


I think it is hard to argue that your anecdote about NYC was the result of government shutdown.  In one sentence you say that there was scant enforcement, and the next that the lack of pedestrians was a result of the lockdown.  Those seem at odds.  What the government mandates and what people do are not always the same thing (e.g. prositution, drugs, speed limits).  It seems obvious that people in NYC made a decision to self quarantine.  This may have slowed transmission, but we cannot say that lockdown laws = lower transmission.  People may ignore the laws, or they may meet in secret indoors, which we now know was worse.

Where Don is resting his claim, I am not sure.  I think the excess death data will be very interesting.

I think the broad argument here is that we did not know in march of 2020.  Caution was critical, and New Yorkers responded with caution as a result of the little information they had (probably not because they were told to react in any way).  But the argument continues, that we learned.  We continued to make costly decision about school’s and business despite knowing the effects on certain populations.  We did not adjust our strategy or make the decisions about trade-offs.  We just blindly accepted the dogma that stopping a virus, of which there are thousands we are affected by each year, was the only goal of public policy.

Andy McGill
Jul 16 2021 at 4:27pm

The average age of death from COVID in the United States is above the average life expectancy, which means by long-accepted measurements of a pandemic the loss of expected life years is going to be very small.

The public debate jettisoned all the academic views of pandemics to seize upon the “total deaths” data, which massively warped as compared to the loss of expected life years.  That of course was not an accident, and that was politics, not science.

Al McCabe
Jul 15 2021 at 7:01pm

Where is academia? We HAVE hundreds of graduate schools and programs of public health and epidemiology at US colleges, and many thousands of PhDs. Yet these “academics” utterly failed society and academia deserves a massive amount of blame.

Public Health long ago studied the questions about what age a disease attacks and in fact uses “reduction in life expectancy years” rather than “deaths” as the primary indicator of the danger of a disease. Did anybody use that in the public COVID debate? No. Not even the “experts”. The politicians were cowards, but they couldn’t do anything if academia didn’t back them up.

We all know why. We all know we live in a time of academic terror and cancel culture that has made academia 1estroy academic freedom and academic integrity.

We can’t talk about this yet, but eventually, when it is safe to come out of hiding and have honest discussions, we can learn a great deal about academia itself and its place in the human condition.

George B
Jul 15 2021 at 10:05pm

Point 1) Love listening to libertarian economist complain about our free-market press chasing dollars.

Point 2) The Great Barrington Declaration is to the Covid pandemic what the Leipzig Declaration was to climate change… now watching the world slowly burn 25 years later I am not impressed.  Delayed, partial and inconsistent responses likely added to the pandemic death toll and followed strictly Don’s prescription could have led to 2, 3 or 4 fold deaths… but of mostly just people over 70. So glad we had the advice of the best Epidemiologist and Public Health people even if we had a very “free-market” leaning POTUS, congress and state Houses when this hit.

3) So glad we had a massive Keynsian response to the economic devastation that seemed it would be much worse. Compared to the meager response to the 2008 collapse that lead to a slow recovery I think it’s clear Keynes knew what he was talking about.

4) Don predicted based on nothing that future excess mortality would supersede the baseline… sorry but you lost that debate before COVID struck. Agin, 30 years after Milton Friedman met with Ronald Reagan and neoliberal economic policies have had time to take they full effect excess mortality was showing up before COVID with American lifespans falling dramatically over the pre-COVID years.


Jul 16 2021 at 8:45am

Hi Russ,

I agree that we are causing a lot of harm to schoolkids now, and everyone’s life course from imposing restrictions. You discuss secondary effects of lockdowns, or unintended effects.

But do you really discuss the counterfactual? We have no idea on the impact of the virus in economic terms on people’s life if we completely ignored it. Teachers may have died etc., and we may have had even larger labour supply shortages than we have now accross the world. Also this seems silly. As you point out it is human nature to react in a precautionary manner to save our species, e.g. wearing ziplock bags on your hands when shopping. It is unlikely that we will ever see human beings not reacting in the way we did in the future and I think this is for a valid reason.

Further, the Coasian analogy to the factory doesn’t quite hold because that is a counterfactual you can normally assess. We can see how much the factory is causing to others or assess this easily in terms of pollution. This is even okay if there is no matket price for the pollution etc. that may be more harmful than first expected by the market.

But what happens when you cannot even assess the size of the externality? We cannot assess the counterfactual of not imposing a lockdown in quite the same way as there is even a second level of uncertainty.

First question:

Also, the guest states we could target policies to protect old. Where do you draw the line for who should stay home? Assuming a significant proportion of under 60s would still end up in hospital too, letting everthing spread would have very large externalities on elderly needing treatment for covid and other reasons if emergency rooms become full, since we would reduce capacity from others filling them up, even if the young are not at risk of death. So maybe not such a great idea.

Second, precautionary principle means we first need to collect information, and meanwhile prepare for the worst. Isn’t this justification for an intial hard lockdown? You don’t how how deadly it is until it hits.

Also, compliance with measures goes largely unobserved except in studies that use google data on where people actually are. Studies using “causal” economic models will always have this and potentially attenuation bias will reduce any estimated effect of a lockdown because actual behavior goes unobserved. Even outcome variables of deaths have this problem. Most data driven models, e.g. done by the Economist intelligence unit find much larger estimates of excess deaths. This is especially the case for the developing world.

Here I would also like to appeal to eyeballing: just look at countries that imposed hard lockdowns early. Australia has had many hard lockdowns with freedom of movement restrictions. This somewhat annoys me because I am from there, live oveseas and cannot enter the country, but these result in things returning to “business as usual” much faster than less harsh lockdowns. They have also had potential negative effects, like low vaccination rates (although the government bet on AstraZeneca). They also have increased uncertainty as a lockdown can happen “tomorrow”.

Personally, IMHO from causal observation the biggest problem has not been whether a single lockdown has been effective or not, but whether countries are at all able to coordinate or not. For example, within the EU, policy has been heterogeneous, as countries react to country specific numbers.

Many large outbreaks in Germany this year in aged care came from superspreader events due to aged care workers coming from across the border and infecting residents. If the EU is to allow freedom of movement, surely some coordinaton here might help to male sure high infection rates do not occur in one country that can spill over, which is the whole logic of how a pandemic can start. This I don’t understand. Just my two cents.

I am also personally surprised with the manner of interviewing in this episode. I feel you are normally quite critical of empirical studies, e.g. in an episode about the science of happiness, and as a critical listener I expect the same critical attitude here. This sounded more like a chat between people at a bar to me. I have listened to Econtalk for ten years regularly while studying philosophy, economics and economics in grad school, and felt I learned a lot and am sad that the critical attitude has disappeared in political subjects like this. I felt little challenge from the interviewer, and no matter whether an in the interviewer agrees, I expect this.

Thanks for the past ten years.




Andy McGill
Jul 16 2021 at 4:21pm

I found it easier to teach the Coase Thoerum if you use a topic that has less at stake and the initial rights allocation less familiar.

I have had a lot of success teaching it at the college level using noise restrictions in dorms/apartments.  Students already debate the question a lot and have elaborate ideas about parsing and allocating the rights of quiet or making noise — noise curfews, dorms designated as party dorms or study dorms, different noise hours on weekends or during finals, different expectations for rooms in the middle or on the end of a hallway, etc.

Throw in some “willingness to pay” or “willingness to accept payment” and the students can debate and understand how different initial allocations of rights can lead to the same outcome at lower costs.  Remember the whole point of the Coase Theorem is to set up parties to negotiate — it is not a rule of morality.

Jul 17 2021 at 6:51am

My state (in Australia) had a lockdown last March for around 8 weeks. Everything was closed apart from essential services (hub schools were opened for children of essential workers and vulnerable children, income support was paid to people who lost their jobs so they could afford to stay home). Of course it was difficult but the lockdown stopped community transmission and since then life has pretty much gone on as normal (with ongoing testing and tracing and border and quarantine restrictions for people travelling from interstate/overseas). Since July last year we have had virtually no restrictions on public gatherings and events. Business is booming, the economy is doing great. My kids barely even know that there’s a global pandemic. In total, since the start of the pandemic the state has only had 124 COVID cases and THREE deaths. I can’t see how anyone can argue that lockdowns don’t work.

Mark Raymond
Jul 18 2021 at 7:09am

Thanks Russ for another thought provoking conversation with Don. I live in Melbourne Australia and we are going through lockdown 5.0. I agree that the costs of lockdowns are significant and they may not become apparent for years to come. However, in a country with very low vaccination rates (5-10%), I can’t see any alternative with the Delta variant.

Are you suggesting that we let the virus run and that people use sensible precautions eg. masks etc? Practically, how do you propose that older people be protected? Your solutions don’t seem practical.

Jeremy Coghlan
Jul 19 2021 at 9:13am

This discussion was disappointing because all the talk of pandemic restrictions were taken from the perspective of a country in which the inconsistent on again off again restrictions *didn’t work*.  600,000+ deaths is a dramatic failure. If costs imposed on society have no clear benefit then we can all agree it may not have been justified. But in countries where those restrictions have clearly and directly saved many lives, and protected businesses and the economy, we can confidently say “mate, you’re just wrong”. And stop saying Australia and New Zealand are small countries so not comparable to the US. That’s grasping at straws; Public health interventions scale with populations.

Simon O'Brien
Jul 20 2021 at 7:23am

Excellent critique of this total madness imposed on people all over the world.

I agree 100% that if the world still has any notion of rationality in 20 years time it will look back at the reaction to the Wuhan flu with incredulity- how could they have been so stupid!

And why did people put put with this!

For an excellent historical analysis on virus mania- see the book Virus Mania.

Also check out the very brave Dr Sam Bailey and her tube videos which examine how unscientific this world wide government reaction to the coronavirus has been.

Jonathan G Harris
Jul 21 2021 at 9:05am

Mr. Boudreaux’s account of the Imperial College study is inaccurate and unfair. The higher numbers he cites were for cases where there were no behavioral changes.  The study also forecasted much lower numbers given various public health measures.

There was no claim of great accuracy; people were well aware of the uncertainties.  Nevertheless, the US death toll and UK death toll have greatly exceeded the best case numbers of the Imperial College study and over 1/4 of the worst case numbers. In comparison the 600 K US death toll so far exceeds some of the “optimist” predictions of (10-40K deaths) by over 10X.

Robert W Tucker
Aug 2 2021 at 5:52pm

I look forward to Russ’s podcasts but found this one less informative than most. While Russ tried to ground the discussion in medical research where appropriate, Don’s goal was perhaps better described as selecting subsets of facts and interpretations that reinforced his personal views. Some of Don’s criticisms of the way the pandemic has been managed rest on his presupposition that someone is once again whole after recovering from Covid-19. Although it will be awhile before we fully understand long term sequelae, there is already a growing body of evidence suggesting that even mild cases might result in long-term reductions in quality of life, including dementia, reduced pulmonary capacity, and Parkinson’s-like neurological conditions (more are possible).

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

Watch this podcast episode on YouTube:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

    No specific article or book. This is an open-ended discussion about what economists talk about amongst themselves.

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

* As an Amazon Associate, Econlib earns from qualifying purchases.

TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: June 29, 2021.]

Russ Roberts: Today's June 29th, 2021, and my guest is economist Don Boudreaux of George Mason University. Don blogs at Cafe Hayek. This is his 15th appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in January of 2021 talking about the work of James Buchanan.

Don, welcome back to EconTalk.

Don Boudreaux: Always good to be here, Russ.


Russ Roberts: Our topic for today is the pandemic, and your take is I think quite a bit different from any of the guests we've had before on the program to discuss the pandemic and corona. I hope we'll be able to explore some new issues of policy compared to previous conversations that I've had on the topic.

So, I want to start with our taking a long view of how the world, the United States, other countries have reacted in terms of policy to the pandemic. You argue that we've overreacted and overreacted badly. Make the case.

Don Boudreaux: What we learned early on about SARS-CoV-2 is that it is for people basically 70 and older, more dangerous than the flu. It's not definitely going to kill you, but it's got a higher infection-fatality rate than does ordinary influenza.

For people younger than that, it really doesn't. The--I think the images that came out of Wuhan back in early 2020, where you saw people lying on the streets with shopping bags as if they'd just been walking along and they just dropped dead, that frightened a lot of people. My guess is--I don't know for sure--my guess is that those photographs were staged, because we know now that's not how SARS-CoV-2 kills. It can kill you quickly, but it's not as if you're walking along healthy and the next minute you're dead.

There were some real problems in Italy. So, we saw these horrible images coming out of Northern Italy of people in hospitals. And these images, in part, because of our enormously advanced technology, media technology, to show images from around the world, and I think the psychological biases that we humans have always had--you look at the present and we've never been very good at assessing risks. I believe that this combined in the United States with a historically unpopular president among the media elites and intellectual elites--all this was a perfect storm for causing people to use this virus as an excuse for social control.

I don't think it was a conspiracy. I'm not buying into the whole great reset thing: this is all designed by someone.

But, I think all the incentives were in place such that when people did panic and then the media started playing these images over and over again, almost as if B-roll[?], of old people, of people being wheeled--they were always old--but, people being wheeled on gurneys through crowded hospitals, and we got the constant reports of cases and deaths with COVID.

All of this put this particular pathogen, in my view, and its consequences, its health consequences, vastly out of proportion to its real dangers.

Then famously, of course, the Imperial College model, led by Neil Ferguson which was--

Russ Roberts: the British doctor. British epidemiologist.

Don Boudreaux: The British doctor at Imperial College, London. I think he's actually a physicist. I don't think he's a--don't quote--I mean I wouldn't bet my pension, but I think he's actually trained as a physicist. I do not think he has a medical degree.

And he was predicting these enormous numbers of fatalities.

A lot of people in Britain, in Europe, on the continent, and in the United States, took this as a gospel. They took this as a scientific fact that was going to happen unless we did something extreme.

And so the world start shutting down. And Ferguson later said, if you remember, not long afterward, that he was--I don't remember his exact words, but he thought lockdown to be a good thing, but he didn't think we could do them. And then he saw that the Chinese government did it, so, Wow, it's possible to do!' So, he advises the British government in some capacity to do just that.

And so, starting in mid-March of 2020, it became overnight--literally, almost overnight--the longstanding recommendation of public health officials to not engage in general lockdowns. To engage in what in the Great Barrington Declaration is called focused protection.

All of that was just discarded and immediately treated as unscientific heresy and dogma of the unwashed. And the scientific--what was believed to be, what was taken then to be the scientific approach was to lock everybody down and kind of hope this thing goes away.

And of course, we had the varying excuses for it. First, it was going to be two weeks to flatten the curve. 'We don't want to overwhelm the hospitals.' I think that that by the way is probably the single best argument ever given for the lockdowns. If it was the case that we had limited emergency rooms and--

Russ Roberts: ventilators--

Don Boudreaux: Yeah, exactly.

And at that point, of course, it makes no difference why it would have been limited. It could have been artificially limited because of unwise government policies in the past.

But, given that's the given in March 2020, it may be that the best way to deal with that sad reality is harsh measures.

We know now--and by now, I mean, I'm thinking at least a year ago, as of June of 2020--we knew that the lockdowns were not working.

There are some people who still claim that they do. I've looked at the evidence. I think the best evidence, and I think the overwhelming amount of evidence is that lockdowns have absolutely no effect on the spread of the virus. They may slow it down a tiny, tiny bit, but--


Russ Roberts: Let me push back on that. First, I want to pile on, though, for a minute. When you talk about the media's scare tactics, and obviously they're trying to sell newspapers, and hits, views, etc.

Don Boudreaux: Yep. Clicks--

Russ Roberts: Clicks. One of the things that I've found and still find somewhat disturbing, but natural, of course, is the highlighting of some special case. Some one-in-a-million tragic outcome that gets a lot of attention; and people start to misunderstand what the risks are.

In these cases, I remember vividly images of people's lungs that were being shown online to suggest that--doctors saying--'I've never seen anything like this.' Like a science fiction alien creature had invaded our lungs and scrambled them in ways that were unknown.

I don't think that was a common phenomenon. I think it may have happened.

Similarly, I think some of the heart issues that people worried about, reasonably so in the beginning, I don't know if any of them manifested in any large numbers.

And, so let me--that I agree with you. I think there was an enormous anxiety produced by that across most ages. Certainly for older people. I remember being uneasy touching my mail. I remember being uneasy going grocery shopping, uneasy bringing the groceries into the house, uneasy with the checker--you know--touching my groceries or taking something--

I remember going to the grocery and I couldn't find an item, and the employee took it off the shelf and put it in my cart--to my horror. Because he had touched it. I just wanted him to find it. I could get it myself! I'm wearing plastic. You know, I'm wearing Ziploc bags on my hands, trying to reduce holding my shopping cart.

It was a very scary time. And reasonably so. I think at that point we didn't know much about it.

I think the word 'lockdown' is a bit confusing. I think there are many, many variations on it. So, we have countries like Israel, where I am now, Australia even now very recently, and certainly China, forbidding people from leaving their homes at all, other than to--I think in Israel, I think at the beginning to walk your dog 100 meters. But, you couldn't--you really were supposed to stay in your house. You were really, literally, quarantined as in the old time sense of the word. I guess if you're literally quarantined, it's 40 days. Sorry about that. But, I meant--

Don Boudreaux: I know what you mean. Yeah, quarantine taking on a broader meaning.

Russ Roberts: Yeah--kept from the rest of the world.

At the same time, I think in, I remember that weekend in mid-March, certainly in the Washington, D.C. area, where I was at the time and in New York City, a whole bunch of things were closed. Not quite the same as quarantining. Any place where people gathered in numbers: bars, restaurants, religious institutions, churches, mosques, synagogues, sporting events.

Many of those were done voluntarily by the private enterprises that ran them. They canceled the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] Basketball Tournament because they felt it was dangerous for large groups of people to be crowded into an indoor arena.

And I have to say I'm somewhat sympathetic to that, in that we had read--and I think this was true; I'd be curious on your take--of many so-called super-spreader events. Where, one--a choir in a church where people were standing close together for an extended period of time singing--which of course produces a lot of particulates into the air--a lot of people in that church choir got COVID and many of them died.

Now, it's true many of them were older people, but not all of them.

So, it's not obvious--it seems to me that it would be a somewhat good idea to stay out of large, crowded groups when this thing is running wild. Whether you do it voluntarily through the private choices of people while letting others choose to take on more risk and attend those sporting events or go to those bars. That doesn't seem like the worst idea.

Yeah--I think I would make a distinction between that and shutting down the entire economy other than so-called essential workers, food supply people and health workers, where basically you were told to stay in your house for the foreseeable future. Do you think any of those were worth doing? Or do you lump them all together?

Don Boudreaux: I think they're two things to this thing. First of all, you're correct, the term lockdown means different things. In Virginia, where I am, back when Governor Ralph Northam announced his first extreme measure, it was called a Stay at Home order. Now, unlike in Britain, we Virginians weren't really running a risk of being arrested if we technically violated all the details of the stay at home order. But, it was called a stay at home order.

The two things to distinguish is voluntary versus coerced. And, the second is generalized staying at home versus focusing your protection on those who are vulnerable.

So, what I oppose most, was the rejection of, what had been up until 2020, as I understand--I've read about it since, and it seems to be true--what I oppose most is the rejection in 2020 of the standard public health guidelines that when a respiratory pathogen such as this one--and it is especially dangerous for older people--there's no question about it, or people with severe comorbidities.

Russ Roberts: Comorbidities being things like other diseases: obesity. Other things that aren't good for you to interact with this in a particularly bad way.

Don Boudreaux: YeS. There are very few people who die of COVID who have no comorbidities. One reason, it mostly kills old people, because the older you get, the more likely you are to have cancer or [crosstalk 00:14:10]--

Russ Roberts: I know all about it. I don't have cancer, but I've got a lot of things wrong with me.

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. Anyway, what I oppose most was this rejection of the standard public health recommendation up until 2020 to focus the protection on the vulnerable groups and let everyone else go about their lives as well as possible.

What happened in early 2020, is we reversed that. Whatever measures were engaged, it wasn't focused on the vulnerable groups. We were just said to stay home. In some cases, obviously the dictates were more harsh and draconian than in other places. But, even in the United States, most of us Americans were told to stay home.

And so, businesses were shuttered, so we couldn't go about our ordinary business of life. Schools were closed. Everybody starts Zooming in to meetings. I like Bryan Caplan's, my colleague, your former colleague Bryan Caplan's early take on this. It's a take he still has and is one I return to frequently. He said, 'Why didn't we have a proportionate response?'

I think a proportionate response would have been in twofold aspects to it.

One, it would have been what the Great Barrington Declaration office[?] called focused protection. We knew in March--we had strong evidence even in March of 2020--that this disease, it focuses most of its damage on very old people. We knew that. And so, let's protect them and let other people go about their business. That's one element of proportion.

Another element of proportion is the degree to which we react at all. And so, as Bryan put it in one of his blog posts--a very scholarly blog post at EconLog--he said--I forget; I'm not quoting him exactly. But, he said: If SARS-CoV-2 is 10 times worse than the flu, then there's no reason that we shouldn't maybe have 10 times the degree of reaction to it. But, the reaction we had worldwide by mid-March of last year was vastly out of proportion to the dangers of this pathogen compared to ordinary pathogens that we human beings live with annually.Live with every day.

So, in my view, the world panicked. And it was a panic set off by a grotesque failure to be able to assess risks properly and to put risks in perspective.

One final thing and then I'll shut up. Part of the benefit of a more proportional and focused approach would be that it allows other important aspects, including narrow health aspects, to be properly considered. It is as if starting 16 or 17 months ago, the only goal that humanity had was to protect people from coming into contact with SARS-CoV-2. Everything else was cast aside or dramatically diminished in importance. It's almost as if we said, 'Well, we don't care if that child dies of cancer or if that person can't get emergency treatment for diabetes. That's okay as long as they're not dying of SARS-CoV-2.'

And so, all of the costs of these lockdowns--again, both the narrow health cost, of the sort that I just gave a hypothetical example, and the larger cost of the narrow economic cost--just the cost of suffering is massive disruption in our social lives.

People not being able to go to funerals. It was just a few weeks ago that the Mayor of Washington, D.C. decided it was legal once again to dance at weddings in Washington, D.C. Just as recently as a few weeks ago, it was illegal to dance at a wedding.

This madness, I call it COVID derangement syndrome. And what I mean by that is, the focus on the one goal exclusively, at the expense of all others: and that is of avoiding contact with the coronavirus. Everything else is ignored or severely discounted. And that's a derangement. It would be deranged if we had as our one goal protecting people from dying from cancer, or protecting people from dying of ordinary flu, or protecting people from getting seasonal colds, or protecting people from dying in automobile accidents. If you have one goal above all, then you become obsessively deranged.


Russ Roberts: So, I want to focus on the costs of our response, which are often forgotten. It's fascinating to me. I think they'll increasingly be remembered as the months and years pass and we see them more vividly. But, you talked about some of the fact that I think people were very afraid to go to the hospital for health treatment for a while at the beginning of the crisis in particular. Again, some of that would have happened regardless of government policy. I think it would have been a natural response to the media coverage. And then the next--so, you have these direct sort of health-related costs where treatment or availability of treatment, or the willingness of people to get the treatment was reduced.

Then you have the financial--the so-called, I will call monetary cost. People out of work, people losing their businesses, their livelihoods. For me, the most interesting set of these--let me add the children who lose a year or so of schooling. To me, that's the most stunning, inexplicable part of this. Yes, there are older teachers who may have been at risk. A colleague of ours, who I will not name--

Don Boudreaux: Then they should have stayed home--

Russ Roberts: Yeah. A colleague of mine, who I will not name--actually a former colleague--suggested to me very early on in the pandemic that public choice would lead one to conclude from this that the people in power who made the decisions about economic activity are older. And, had we had a measured response of the kind you're talking about, they would have had to stay home and everybody else would have gone about their business. And, those positions of power--CEOs [Chief Executive Officers], government officials--would have been filled by younger people. So, they did have a natural incentive to have a general response to this rather than a focused one on the elderly.

I don't know if that's played a role. It is an interesting hypothesis.

Does any of this--so, you have students, children under the age of 20 who have virtually no risk of dying of COVID; and certainly we don't close down schools, as you say, in the winter because there's a flu risk. Tragically, children do die of flu, young people die of flu.

Don Boudreaux: They are more likely to die of a seasonal flu than they are of COVID-19--

Russ Roberts: And we don't close schools, at least for now. It will be interesting. We'll talk about that in a minute.

So we had that loss--the loss of socialization, the loss of learning. Mostly, tragically I think for poor people in public schools, which were much more likely to shut down than private schools.

And then, the next set of losses and costs of this policy, I think, are the more interesting ones, because they are the hardest to see. It's the inability to dance at the wedding. It's the inability to see someone's smile when you're having a tough day because they're wearing a mask. The inability to be a human being. We basically took 15 months and shoved people into their caves, their homes, on Zoom, and said, 'Stick it out.'

Now, if it had been a real plague, like the Bubonic Plague or the Black Plague, maybe that would have been a good idea. It seems we did kind of overreact.

And, of course, the financial costs that were incurred by the government, we don't know what the full cost of those will be. And, possible inflation, other costs--

Don Boudreaux: I think it's happening already.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, possibly.


Russ Roberts: So, I agree with you. The question is: Could we have done anything differently in the political sense? So, let me try to give the alternative view. And, I give it because I've said on here before, I'm sure, that everybody has their own weird COVID thing. You might look at what somebody does: I have a colleague here in Israel who told me that he wouldn't touch his mail for three days for a while. I don't know how--maybe he still does it. That turned out to be unnecessary. We didn't know it at the time. I remember being uncomfortable picking up my mail. I remember thinking I should wait a while after it's gotten put in the box. So, I understand all that, but so many times you see someone else doing something and you think, 'Well, that's ridiculous.' Then you realize, well, but I do X, which that person thinks is ridiculous. Just that makes me feel good, so I do it: I wash my canned peas or whatever it is.

So, I think when you talk about the media response to this--and it was a tremendous opportunity for the media to get attention. It was unavoidably attractive for them. Once that's out there, I think it's quite difficult for human beings to respond to these kind of situations rationally. It creates an enormous demand for political action.

I'll give you an example here. In Israel--again, we're recording this in late June of 2021; we have a new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett. The early days in Israel with the virus went very badly, but Netanyahu or his ministers--I'm not sure who was responsible, but he's clearly had something to do with it--negotiated a deal with Pfizer where they would get very quick access to large amounts of Pfizer vaccine in return for giving Pfizer data on its impact. As a result, Israel got vaccinated in a very quick rate and very quickly returned to normal life. Really a great thing.

And yet, right now the Delta variant is starting to spread here in Israel. As far as I know, and maybe I don't know the science--don't quote me; no one should live their life according to what I'm about to say. But, as far as I understand it, at least here in Israel, the Delta variant is mostly asymptomatic. I don't think it's led to any hospitalizations or deaths, but people are very nervous. And I think the new politician, the new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, wants to show he's not going to be asleep on the job. He's going to be--so, they've already started talking about mandates of masks in indoor settings. Perhaps--perhaps--they will also start to curtail outdoor gatherings, which of course is the beginning of a return to something more like a lockdown.

Now, I'm not going to criticize Prime Minister Bennett for that. I understand that as a new prime minister, he has to look zealous. I don't expect the Prime Minister of Israel, the President of United States, the Prime Minister of England to say, 'You know, it's a free society. People should make their own decisions, make these decisions for themselves. Of course, if you're older, we advise you to take more precautions.'

That just is so hard to imagine that flying in 2021 in a Western country.

And, in a minute, we'll talk about externalities, and some listeners, especially those trained in economics, are immediately going, 'Of course they can't rely on people's own judgments. They're imposing costs on others if they don't wear a mask.' Et cetera, etc.

But, anyway, I just want to make the point that I think the political response to this is not surprising. It is demanded, I think, by most of the public. They expect their leaders to save them, protect them from the ills of everything, COVID being one of them. And because of that media coverage, it became the ill that we expected everyone to focus on because we were focused on it. I certainly was. I looked at, every single day, looked at the paper for cases and deaths, hoping for a turnaround. Looking at states that I might be visiting soon and whether I'd be able to get there and what I'd be doing.

So, I think when you decry the response, I'm sympathetic, but I'm not sure the politicians, given the culture that we live in, in the United States and elsewhere in the West and elsewhere, I'm not sure it's so surprising that we quote "overreacted." It's almost as if anything less than an overreaction would be intolerable to the body politic.

Don Boudreaux: So, I'm the last person to defend government officials. I think you're correct about the logic of political action. Politicians are not leaders. Politicians are followers. But, this fact is combined with the myth that they are leaders and--

Russ Roberts: Correct. And, are to be praised for their great response to whatever.

Don Boudreaux: So, ironically, the science--the claim was that our leaders are following the science. So, the science, of course, can't tell you what to do. The science tells us, as best as it can, what reality is about. Science cannot make trade-offs for us. Science can't tell me what the appropriate amount of risk is I should take when I decide to drive an automobile when it's snowing outside as opposed to staying home. That's not a scientific question. Science can say: Your risk of driving with this amount of snow, of being in a automobile actually goes up by X percent compared to driving absent snow. Then it's up to me to make the judgment.

And so, if the goal--and this is what is surprising to me--so, I'm not surprised by politicians, of course responding to whatever they think the public wants in order to increase the public's prospects of voting for the politicians in place. What surprised me was not so much the politicians: what surprised me is how easily the general public was spooked by this one disease.

Now, I'm a little less surprised now as I reflect on it, when you reflect on how the media utterly distorted--utterly distored--this disease. I believe utterly distorted it, way out of proportion. I'd like to give you a couple of examples in just a moment. Once the media utterly distorts it--again, seeing pictures of people with shopping bags lying dead on the street in Wuhan, B-roll[?] of people being rolled through hospital emergency rooms, then the public is panicked. The public, yes, wants action. And we have this ideology now that the government somehow contains powers that are almost God-like. And, if only in emergencies we let this God-like institution exercise its powers, then it can save us. Of course people have believed that government has God-like powers long before COVID came along. Government has God-like powers to, in many people's minds, to raise wage rates, to protect people from shortages caused by the natural disasters. On and on and on. Russ, you and I write about this all the time.

But the mediat--so, I don't excuse politicians. But, you and I, I agree with you about their incentive system. Maybe I should say the same thing about the media. They have--

Russ Roberts: You should--

Don Boudreaux: incentives, too.

But, just a couple of examples, and there were many. I could spend the whole rest of our time just giving examples. But, I'll give two examples of how the media, in my view, utterly misinformed people.

Number one, the Wall Street Journal--I don't remember when this was: maybe February or January of this year, 2021. Maybe December. The Wall Street Journal had this headline report of how middle age men are bearing the brunt of COVID. I can't remember exactly the headline. Middle aged men are bearing the brunt of COVID. Implying it's not old people. It's middle-aged men. So, you read the--'bearing the brunt of,' I think that is part of the quotation from the headline--you read the story. You know what the story was? You know what the finding was? That middle-aged men have a slightly higher risk of dying from COVID than do middle-aged women. Well, this is not middle aged men bearing the brunt of COVID. Right?

The second, there's this columnist for The Washington Post, a physician, Leana Wen, who also is a personality on CNN [Cable News Network ].And as recently as this month, June, and last month, May, and again in this month June, she writes these columns in The Washington Post saying, 'It's a myth to think that COVID is not a danger to children. We can't let our guard down until all children are vaccinated.' Then she says, 'The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] reported that 16,000 something children have been hospitalized with COVID in the past 12 months.' Or some time period.

So, when I read this, I went to the CDC. Sure enough, her figure is correct. Then I looked at the hospitalizations of children for other things: falls, influenza. And, the hospitalizations of children, people 18 and younger, or 17 and younger, for COVID was way down in the list. But, she picks out this one number. It sounds huge. And, then she says, 'As a mother of three, I myself keep my children masked.' And she even wrote, and quoting The New York Times, not long ago, 'COVID is a major killer of children.' It is simply not. This is just a false--it's a lie.


Russ Roberts: But, I think it's a great example of what being trained in economics does for you, versus trained in other fields. And, I think how to look at life, it's not easy, but I think it's an extremely important point.

COVID does kill children.

Don Boudreaux: There are a lot of people who are trained in economics though who I think went off the rails [?]--

Russ Roberts: Maybe we'll come back to that. But, my point is that, COVID does kill children. No doubt about it.

Don Boudreaux: Not many.

Russ Roberts: Not many, relative to other things. I think what's interesting, that we just [crosstalk 00:34:38]--

Don Boudreaux: Not even absolutely. I mean, even absolutely, I think the number of children, I forget the exact age breakdown, but the number of children--the CDC, maybe 14 and younger, 12 and younger--and literally it's in three digits. It's like 324.

Russ Roberts: Right. But, it doesn't matter because that could have been your child, and therefore you as a parent have an obligation to keep your child safe.

Now, when I say it that way, I think a lot of people go, 'Well, that makes sense.' Of course, it means that you should not send your kid to school in the fall when it starts to get cold in the fall. Maybe you should--

Don Boudreaux: You should not let your children ride in automobiles.

Russ Roberts: Never, unless they're wearing a special kind of suit or a helmet of some special kind. It's a very interesting thing that we put our kids in--

Don Boudreaux: You should not let your children leave the house. You should put them in a bubble.

Russ Roberts: Right. Of course. And we all understand: well, that's a mistake. But we can't take that logic--we struggle to take that logic that we see as normal, especially as economists, and bring it to bear on the issue that is front and center in our minds because of media coverage and our own brains, which right now is COVID.


Russ Roberts: Another example of this, which I know bothers you and I'd like you to talk about it for a minute--it bothered me--I'm not going to get it right. It doesn't matter. 'More people have died from COVID now in the United States than World War I and World War II, the Civil War.' It's not the Civil War, I don't think, but a whole bunch of wars combined.

Don Boudreaux: Close to the Civil War, according to the records.

Russ Roberts: I'm thinking: That's not a relevant comparison. You don't want to talk about the tragic deaths in wartime of 18 and 20 year olds in defense of a freedom or your national sovereignty or whatever it happens to be, to people who die of a disease that, if they chose, they could take more or fewer precautions. The people who die tend to be, as you say, 75 and older. It's not the same level: It's not a meaningful comparison. And yet it was invoked often by people. Sometimes economists.

And, it's interesting: I found it offensive. I think when I say that, people go like, 'Well, what's wrong with you? They're all deaths.'

But, I think it's important and useful to distinguish between certain kinds of deaths--deaths that you can avoid by your behavior. Going into war, it would be foolish not to wear your helmet. There are certain things you try to do to reduce the risk of death, even in war, which is extremely dangerous when you're on the front lines.

And again, I think in COVID, the right response was for people who are particularly vulnerable, people with comorbidities and the elderly, to stay out of groups. We understand, of course--we should, that that's harder for some people than others. I think a lot of people died in multi-family groups, multi-family households where people had to work, had to go out into the world, and probably infected their elderly relatives living with them. It's an incredible tragedy. I don't want anything you're saying or that I'm saying to suggest that there aren't horrible, tragic aspects to this disease.

Don Boudreaux: Right. No one here is denying COVID. No one hear is denying that COVID for certain groups is much more dangerous than--

Russ Roberts: And it's horrible; and it's been a--and that there were other responses other than even proportionate lockdowns or focused lockdowns that might've been better.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk--

Don Boudreaux: Can I say where you mentioned the comparison that I've seen, you know, 'COVID has killed--the number of people--it's dozens of jumbo jets falling out of the sky loaded with passengers.' I think it was the 2017, 2018, a recent flu season in the United States, one year, flu season, killed roughly 60,000 people. I didn't see anyone back then--I don't recall it; I'm quite sure no one did it: 'Oh, this is terrible. This has killed more Americans than were killed in Vietnam.' But, if someone had said that and if the press had focused on that, they could have whipped this up into a frenzy of whatever variant the flu that was a few years.

Russ Roberts: That's my question. Is it possible that if we treated the flu like this, we could get people to be as worried about their general activities in the winter as they are now about COVID generally?

Don Boudreaux: This is my great fear. This is my great fear. We're all going to die of something. It's unfortunate, I know, but it's true. And so, every day, each of us encounters a range of risks. Part of that's by choice, part of that's just by happenstance, and things suck. And a lot of these risks are shared in the sense of being passed on from one person to another without--

Russ Roberts: Awareness.

Don Boudreaux: contact[?]. Respiratory diseases are not new. They're not going away. They are on a spectrum of--some are more risky than others. SARS-CoV-2 is more risky than the typical respiratory disease.

But, SARS-CoV-2 was treated as a categorically different threat. It was not and is not a categorically different threat. It's higher on the spectrum.

And, again, its targets are, thankfully, very focused and, thankfully, very focused on the part of the population that you would, given that it exists, you want it to be focused on: far better, that it kills mostly old people than kills mostly children. Anyone who disagrees with that, I think they're either inhuman or they don't really believe what they say. You and I, Russ, are both over 60. And if given the choice, if someone says, 'Okay, we've got the disease. It's going to have disproportionate impact. The disproportionate impact is going to be on people 60 and older, or it's going to be on people 30 and younger. What would you choose?' It's not even a choice. Of course, 60 and older. Right?

Russ Roberts: I think every human being--Don, I know you've been engaged in some philosophical debates about this. Of course every life is precious. But every life is finite. I think we're pretty much in agreement on that.

I think most human beings act the way you say. Whether they debate the way you say is a different question. I think most people, certainly parents, feel that way about their children. Whether they feel that way about strangers' children, I guess, is a little more complicated.


Russ Roberts: I want to come back to the 60,000 number on the flu, which is, by the way, an entire football stadium of deaths--

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. Can you imagine how horrible that would be?

Russ Roberts: if you could dramatize it. And I think the question is--and I think I'm kind of drilling down here in our thinking about the policy related to this--I think most people would say, 'Well, it's horrible that 60,000 people die of the flu, but what, you're not going to send kids to school in the winter?' And the answer is: No, that would be foolish. Given that 60,000--if it was 600,000, or 6 million, or 60 million, or most children died of the flu, we'd probably shut down school in the winter.

Again, this gets back to the idea of proportionate response. We don't shut down school in the winter. In fact, we generally understand we--there's been a slight change, I'd say, in our culture over the last 20 years. There is a lot of encouragement of hand-washing and covering your mouth when you cough in the winter and sneeze. That's probably a good thing. I'm not against--

Don Boudreaux: I've done that all my life. I'm 62 years old. I've done it all my life.

Russ Roberts: But, I think that's a good thing. I think the feeling was that this was different. And, it's not just different because it disproportionally kills older people or affects older people than younger people. I think the idea was: we can stop this without doing anything. It's imaginable. Flu is not imaginable. I think most people would say, 'Well, flu, that's what happens in the winter. But, COVID, we can take these measures.' I think the real question is not--

Don Boudreaux: It's a fatal conceit.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. There's no answer. There's no answer to the question of whether it's worth it. You've criticized the Neil Ferguson, Imperial College forecast. The defenders of those policies would say, 'Well, if we hadn't done anything, we might've lost 2 or 4 million people in the United States.' Or 40, whatever. I can't remember now the number. And we did lose a much larger number of people than I expected we would lose. I would have lost many bets early on about what the--I thought it would be--it's not worth it, talking about. It's silly.

But, the point is, is that you can--I think most people feel that the measures we took, some draconian and some merely strong--they saved thousands if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives. And I think the burden of proof for you and others--and I'm sympathetic to your viewpoint; I'm not 100% convinced--but you've got to show that that isn't the case. That these strong measures that were both mandated by law and urged by our culture were ineffective. And we should have gone about our lives unless we were old and infirm. The old and infirm shouldn't have gone about their lives. We should have done everything to protect them. And I think the great insight of the Great Barrington Declaration and the folks--Jay Bhattacharya, who has been on this program, and the two other epidemiologists who signed it--

Don Boudreaux: Sunetra Gupta and Martin Kulldorff.

Russ Roberts: Right. Thank you. Since we spent billions--hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars, in response to this, much of which was ineffective and theater alone, we could have done glorious things to reduce the risk to the people who were most at risk.

And I think that's the policy failure or the public health failure.

I don't know if that would have been politically possible. I don't know if it will be politically possible if we have another bout of it, a different variant down the road.

But, I think that's what we should have done, if you are an interventionist. If you don't believe in the rights of individuals in a free society to choose their own levels of risk, then please respond proportionately to the people most at risk; spend the funds to help them who are most at risk.

We didn't do that. It's weird what we did. And I think--where I agree with you is, an enormous proportion, the question is whether it's 100%--of what we actually did was theater? And, I don't think it's true in large clusters of groups. I think there probably was a good idea, especially for older people, obviously.

But, it's going to be hard the next time not to do the exact same thing. I think that's what's on the table.

Don Boudreaux: I think, and this is a great fear of mine. I think it's happening as well. A couple of things: In fact, the best data to measure the impact of SARS-CoV-2 and the reaction--well, people's reaction--to it private and mandatory, will be, I think, excess deaths over the course of a few years. And so, I wouldn't bet my pension on this prediction, but I suspect that, I'm quite confident that excess fatalities over the next few years will run lower than average for the next year or two, because COVID has killed it's main victims [crosstalk 00:46:53] vulnerable--

Russ Roberts: Some of the most vulnerable people who would have died shortly thereafter--

Don Boudreaux: in the population. This is why I disagree with those people. There are many, Left, Right, and Center who insist that the age profile of COVID's impact is irrelevant. I alluded to this earlier. I can't get my head around why anyone would think that that fact is irrelevant.

I think it's relevant chiefly or in large part because it's important information for how to react to it. If this disease is killing people randomly, regardless of age, regardless of health, then one kind of reaction--the best kind of reaction--would surely be different than the reaction that we ought to have had knowing early on that SARS-CoV-2 is overwhelmingly dangerous to old people. Because, we can then focus our response. By focusing our response, of course--this is the economic point--and it's no surprise that Jay Bhattacharya himself has a degree in economics as well as a medical degree. But, resources are scarce. This is Econ 101. By focusing response, we can marshal our resources, husband our resources better where they have the best impact rather than just randomly imposing costs on people worldwide.

I forget what my second point was, but--oh, oh, I know what it was. So, I get it. You raise a political point: Yes, politicians cannot be--in a way, of course it's not surprising that politicians screw things up. Politicians screw things up all the time. I mean, it's almost like a profession. They're in the screw-things-up profession, in my view. I'm very cynical--not cynical: I think I'm realistic about politicians. I know not everyone agrees with me on this. You're closer to agreement with me on this.

But, I don't think the incentives that politicians face and respond to--as we predict that they will respond--I don't think that is an excuse to let them off the hook, of course. Every time there's a natural disaster, politicians will complain about, and some of them will take actions against so-called price gouging. Right? It's not the economist's role to say, 'Well, that's the political incentive.' We understand why that's a political incentive, but we don't say, 'Well, therefore, what else can we do? We just have to accept it.'

We understand when a natural disaster comes, prices start to rise. The media is going to complain. Politicians will pontificate against the price increases. It's the economist's job to point out why what's said about the higher prices and about the proposed attempt to keep prices from rising, why all of that is economically mistaken. That's what we do.

Yes: people were thrown into a fright, a huge fright, about COVID. Politicians of course responded in the ways that they did for the reasons that you pointed out, but that is all the more reason why we economists should have kept saying, 'Look, there's an opportunity cost to what you're doing.'

Russ Roberts: Well, I think that's why we have to salute--

Don Boudreaux: A huge opportunity cost--

Russ Roberts: I think that's why we have to salute the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, because--

Don Boudreaux: I salute them every day--

Russ Roberts: because, obviously, public health officials have a choice--just like economists, just like politicians--as to whether to get on the bandwagon of making sure everyone's really scared on the grounds of, 'Well, it's better than not being scared. Better safe than sorry.' I think that ignores the trade-offs that are inevitably involved with being overly cautious. Whether they're losses in the quality of life and so on.


Russ Roberts: I don't want to miss our chance to talk about externalities and Ronald Coase. Because, I think: there was a profound moment--I think I've alluded to this before--but after the tragic death of George Floyd, there were a lot of protests, and many of them were done without masks in the street. People close together for long periods of time. And I believed and I think most people believed what they thought about or not, that there's an issue of justice here. And, it's true, it could be risky to be in a large group of protesters. But, some things are more important than the riskiness of death. And, fighting injustice is surely, I think, I hope, one of those things. And, no one said, 'Well, we have to ban'--excuse me, not no one. But, most people didn't say, 'Well, we have to stop those protests because those people who are protesting are spreading COVID to others against their will.'

There was a negative externality. People understood that a negative externality by itself is not sufficient to invoke a government ban; that that's often a price worth paying.

And, I think people often use a negative externality as, it's an automatic proof that something needs to be done, when, in fact, it's a lot more complicated than that.

And, I think the vaccine opportunity--which has been an incredible tribute to human creativity, unbelievable story, it makes--I remember getting my first shot, it was really an incredibly moving thing for me. It hurt--one reason it was moving[?]--but when I realized how much knowledge was in that syringe that was--right? If you think about how crazy this is: I'm poisoning myself and I'm doing it with joy, because I know that it will make me better, give me more choice, give me more freedom.

And a lot of people have argued: 'Everybody has to be vaccinated, because if you don't vaccinate, you're at risk of spreading the disease asymptomatically to people who are vulnerable.' And, I think that's just a fundamental misunderstanding of externalities. I think you agree with me, so why don't you make the case?

Don Boudreaux: So, before we get to the Coase point, let me just mention Jonathan Haidt and his work. So, during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, summer of 2020, lots of the very same people in the media who were just horrified that college students who would go to the beach and party--'No excuse for congregating'-- somehow they would say things like, 'Well, the importance of protesting against racial injustice is greater than the risk.' Now, I think this is--

Russ Roberts: I think they're right--

Don Boudreaux: a nice recognition of--

Russ Roberts: trade-offs--

Don Boudreaux: trade-offs. Right?

But, protesting--fighting racial injustice--is not the only alternative that human beings have.

There are many, many things that are lost if we are prevented by law or by fear from congregating with others. The protest against race--but Jonathan Haidt's idea about how if you want to believe something, the mind can construct a justification for cognitive dissonance and all--

Russ Roberts: I think he got it from David Hume, but--

Don Boudreaux: He did. Well, and by--

Russ Roberts: you can give Jonathan Haidt credit.

Don Boudreaux: By his own admission, he got it from David Hume.

Russ Roberts: I think so. And it's probably in the Bible. Confirmation bias, I'm sure--I can't remember where [crosstalk 00:54:40]--

Don Boudreaux: I'm sure--

Russ Roberts: Confirmation bias is a well-[understood]--

Don Boudreaux: I'm sure--

Russ Roberts: People have understood it for a while.

Don Boudreaux: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But, I love Jonathan, by the way. God bless him.

Don Boudreaux: The Righteous Mind is--

Russ Roberts: past EconTalk guest, yes. No problems with him. But, go ahead.

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. I was praising him.

Anyway, so, I don't think that the very distinct age profile of COVID's impact is necessary to justify what I'm about to say. But, it only makes what I'm about to say, I think, stronger.

As Ronald Coase pointed out--so, let's define externality. And negative externalities. One person acts and has a negative impact on someone who didn't agree to be--

Russ Roberts: Against their will. Yeah.

Don Boudreaux: negatively.

So, the first thing to note is, we are a gregarious, herd-like species. We are constantly acting in ways that have, quote, "negative impacts" on other people. Only a small handful of which are legally classified or even ethically classified as a negative externality.

But so, pollution is the classic. That's what we students of economics learn about as 18-year olds: Well, pollution is a classic externality: smoke stacks spewing out soot, and it's harming the residents or the other businesses nearby.

And, the standard view that most people have is, 'Well, the pollution is caused by the factory. And so, we've got to impose the cost on the factory and make the factory stop imposing externality.'

And so, Ronald Coase's brilliant and yet simple insight--it's amazing, Russ, how much of good economics come from very simple insights--it was that, 'Well, it's not just the factory that's causing the pollution. It's also the people who are living near the factory that's causing the pollution.' It takes two to tango. It takes two to externalize.

If no one lived next to the factory, then the factory particulate solutions that fall to the ground would be an externality to no one.

And so, the question is: Which is the lowest cost means of avoiding the problem? Do we move the factory? Do we impose a tax on the factory? Do we compel the factory to reduce the amount of particulate solution? Or do we put the responsibility on the homeowners to move away from the factory's airflow or to--

Russ Roberts: Or to wear masks--

Don Boudreaux: endure or to wear masks? Right?

And so what this insight immediately points out is: It's a mistake to look at the physical emitter of something and then conclude that, 'Well, that physical emitter should the party that bears the cost of avoiding the problem.'


Russ Roberts: Before you go on, Don, I'm going to interrupt for a sec. Sorry. I apologize. But, I think the average listener is going, 'Are you out of your mind? I mean, come on, who else is at fault if it's not the person emitting the poison?' And, I think the way to think about it, if you want to try to open your mind to this Coasean idea, is that, really it's wrong to even think about the factory. The factory is making some product that is enjoyed by hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of people. Let's suppose that the people near the factory are uncomfortable. They could be uncomfortable from the pollution. They could be harmed. They could be killed. We could think of a whole range. And, similarly, we could think of the fact that the people who enjoy the product that the factory makes should pay a little bit more or maybe they shouldn't be allowed to have the product at all. We could have an enormous range of responses.

And, I think what people often forget in these situations--and we may be able to bring it back to COVID I hope and illustrate it--is that, once you say, it's only the so-called polluter, the emitter, who is at fault, and it's not a joint problem, you're giving license to the people who live nearby to impose costs on others.

You may decide, 'Well, that seems fair,' in this situation. But, when you start to think about it, there will be other cases where it won't seem so fair.

The example I just gave: If the factory makes the people living near the--let's say it's a noise pollution. It's unpleasant. It's not murderous. It doesn't kill the people. It just makes a certain time of day less pleasant. Should they have the right, therefore, then to not allow the--do they have the right to stop the people who enjoy this product that is made with the noisy mechanism, the opportunity to enjoy it? What if it's a life-saving product? Right? If you start to think about it in the different range of costs and benefits, you start to realize that it's more complicated than you thought. And I think that's really Coase's great insight.

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. Coase's great insight was not what we economists call the Coase Theorem. Coase's great insight was the bilateral nature, the mutual causality of so-called externalities.

The second place I lived in Northern Virginia was in Old Town, Alexandria. So, in December of 1985, I moved into a high-rise at a condo. I rented a condo in a high-rise that was right by the flight path of planes coming into what's now Reagan National. I knew that when I moved there, and sure enough--

Russ Roberts: The rent was less as a result, almost certainly.

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. I knew that as well. I knew that as well. I would have liked to have gotten the lower rent and not had plane noises.

But, so Coase's point is: Who's causing my harm? I chose to move there. I contributed to me suffering this negative impact. But, truly no one would say I'm a victim. And so, that's what Coase means.

To put this into the COVID context: Let's grant that shutting everyone in their homes or doing whatever was the range of the various lockdowns that different governments did, had a positive impact on COVID cases, and COVID hospitalizations, and COVID fatalities: it actually reduced those. That, of course, is a good thing. But, that fact is not sufficient to then conclude that therefore these measures were justified.

What did we get, what did we--so, this kind of subtle. What did we give up? What did we lose? Even if we discover, you know, God comes down and does a cost-benefit and says, 'Well, the cost of what you lost as a result of these actions are greater than the benefits of the lives saved.' Assuming even--because, the benefits of the lives saved are greater than the costs of the actions--it still doesn't prove that the actions that we took were appropriate. Because, there might have been a better set of actions that we could have taken--

Russ Roberts: Cheaper--

Don Boudreaux: Yes--so, that the benefit--

Russ Roberts: Less oppressive, less destructive of the human experience--

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. A pedantic economist, as you and I know, will nitpick at what I just said about how we reckon cost and benefits.

But, the Coasean point is: If there is a lower-cost way of dealing with the problem, that's the way we should go.

And so, because--particularly because of the differential age impact of COVID, focused protection was especially easy, or easier, compared to what would have been had the disease stricken--struck--randomly.

So, let's have older people and people who are at unusually high risk of suffering from COVID, let them take steps to protect them and let the rest of us go about our business. This is the focused protection point.


Russ Roberts: But, I think it's especially important when we think about vaccination and the vaccination of children, especially as we get to younger and younger ages. A lot of people have said, 'We need to start vaccinating all the children.'

The children--of course, there are side effects of vaccination. I think they're quite small. I want to be clear about that. That's not, again, irrelevant, but it's quite small.

But, the real argument is: When we put restrictions of various kinds on young people on the grounds that they could interact with older people, that's the real argument. Most people concede, as you have pointed out, that the risk to younger people is quite small. But, the externality is what's relevant. They'll then say, 'They might go out and associate with an older person.' And the older person, unknowing, because of the asymptomatic, say, nature of the disease that the young person has, they'll pass COVID on.

The real question then is: Should the older person have the right to mandate X? X could be a vaccine. It could be a lockdown. For their freedom to be able to go outside.

The great insight of Coase is that, those two sides are really hard to judge, even forget his--his main point is you do the one that's cheapest.

But, there's also an ethical point there that I think is often lost. People often criticize Coase on ethical grounds saying, 'Well, he treats everything like it's a cost-benefit analysis.'

But, I think there's a deeper point here, which is that: if we say to young people, 'You don't have right to be free because you might put older people at risk,' you are essentially empowering older people to say, 'I have decided you cannot enjoy life because I'm at risk. And, I don't want to bear the cost of having to stay inside. I want to be free to go out.'

And it's really kind of hard to argue ethically which one of those is better.

There are other costs, though, you'd want to bring into the question. But, I think most people just kind of go, 'Well, the younger person is putting the older person at risk.'

There's an inexpensive way most of the time for the older person to reduce that risk. And that's, tragically, unfortunately, this, we'll all just have to stay home.

Instead, we've told the young people to stay home. I don't see that as a great moral achievement. I think the invoking of externalities there is a misunderstanding of the ethical situation.

Don Boudreaux: So, everyone knows--I don't think it's doubted--that teenagers, particularly teenage men, teenage boys of 16, 17, 18, 19, they are much more dangerous drivers than are older people. So, whenever a teenage male gets on the road, there is an increased risk of death or injury to everyone else on the road. So, do we say, 'Teenage boys, you can't drive.' I mean, that would in fact reduce the risk. It is a fact that when teenage boys get on the road--

Russ Roberts: you'd save lives.

Don Boudreaux: It saves lives. But, we [crosstalk 01:06:13]--

Russ Roberts: If they don't go. If we stopped them.

Don Boudreaux: We don't do that, because we recognize sort of, if you are especially fearful of being killed by a teenager on the road, don't drive. You have that freedom.

But, you know, Russ--you and I are both in our 1960s--we know this about teenagers. I drive all the time knowing in the back of my head, that whenever I get into an automobile, my chances of being horribly killed go up slightly. You know that, too.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. Well, it's also the case of course that it's a U-shaped curve.

Don Boudreaux: Well, yes.

Russ Roberts: As you get older, we're both heading toward that territory where--

Don Boudreaux: Not there yet, but well you--

Russ Roberts: But, we're both heading towards the territory. I want to just say for the record, Don is recording this with very little sleep. So, don't get behind the wheel of a car, Don. I don't mandate it tonight, but I would request it as your friend.

Don Boudreaux: I have to drive to Arlington to teach later on, but I'm going to take a nap. I'm going to take a nap.

And so, I think the point here is: Merely pointing out that person A's actions has a potential negative impact on person B is not sufficient to--

Russ Roberts: It's not a proof--

Don Boudreaux: classify that as a negative externality that requires government intervention.

Particularly when--particularly when--each individual party or the party negatively impacted has a great deal of scope to protect himself or herself against the matter.

You know, I don't want to talk about global warming, but that's sort of the ultimate global phenomenon. Very few of us have the--in some sense, we can buy better air conditioners or something, I suppose. But, in the case of COVID, because we know, if I'm 85 and I have diabetes or some other ailment, I'm still going to wear a mask if I'm going outside. I'm going to stay away from public gatherings. But, I am not, if I'm that age--and I really believe this--I am not going to demand that other people restrict their lives in the way that I restrict my life just on the grounds that by them staying at home, that adds a further minuscule reduction to the risk that I undertake, or that I am subjected to.

Russ Roberts: I just want to add, I have no problem with a society that views its elderly with reverence and thinks that--

Don Boudreaux: Me, too--

Russ Roberts: people who are 75 or 80, or even 66, hypothetically, that their lives might be worth more than we might think, even though their remaining life spans might be short. And we might choose--not as a society; that doesn't have any meaning--but we might choose as individuals to behave in a certain way out of respect for the elderly.

But, to ensconce that as government policy, doesn't automatically follow, I would argue. But,--

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. And what happened with COVID is, it is almost as if the goal was to, that adding a few months or years to the lives of very old people was worth whatever costs the rest of society had to bear in order to do that.

I think that was a horrible mistake. I believe that if human beings remain rational, that history will look back upon the past two years as probably the single greatest self-inflicted damage to humanity short of shooting wars.

Russ Roberts: And while I just spoke a minute ago of the reverence we could have for the elderly, I think most of us, especially the way we feel, those of us who have children, I have plenty of reverence for my children. I do not want them to have restricted lives in order to make my life better. I find that rather appalling, actually.

Don Boudreaux: Yeah. I fully agree.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Don Boudreaux. Don, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Don Boudreaux: Thanks, Russ.