Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Hayekian Evolutionary Libertarianism of Justin Amash and His Presidential Candidacy

As I anticipated in some posts last year (here and here), Justin Amash has announced that he is running for the American presidency by seeking the nomination of the Libertarian Party.  Last year, he became the first Republican member of Congress to call for the impeachment of Donald Trump; and then he left the Republican Party to become an Independent.  Now, he has become the first member of the Libertarian Party to be serving in the Congress.  Having denounced the two-party system in the United States as corrupt, he now offers his race for the presidency as an alternative to that system.  He has explained his reasoning for doing this in an interview with Reason magazine's Matt Welch.

Amash's decision raises lots of questions.  Is there anything distinctive about his libertarian political thought?  Can he defend his libertarianism as rooted in some American political traditions?  Can he answer those members of the Libertarian Party who doubt that he speaks for the principles of their party?  If he is nominated by the Party, does he have any realistic chance of winning?  Or is it more likely that he will only take away enough votes from Joe Biden to allow Trump to win?

Amash regularly quotes Friedrich Hayek or paraphrases his ideas in a way that suggests that he has actually read Hayek with some care.  Most often Amash appeals to one of Hayek's central ideas--the evolutionary emergence of social order through the spontaneous interaction of a number of people who each possess only bits of local knowledge.  In this way, markets and market-like orders allow for the use of dispersed knowledge that can never be held in the minds of central planners, who falsely pretend to have the knowledge necessary for planning everything by design.

In "The Pretence of Knowledge," Hayek's Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Hayek said: "To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm."  Hayek and the other Austrian economists rejected the concept of economic equilibrium, because they saw the economy as an everchanging evolutionary process that is naturally prone to shocks and disruptions that require the spontaneously adaptive adjustments of free markets, which are impeded by governmental interventions.  (I have defended Hayek's evolutionary liberalism herehere, and here.)

Amash expresses the same idea in his interview with Welch.  In explaining what he means by the need for "humility with respect to how much one individual knows about things," he says: "What you really have right now are two presidential candidates who think they know everything and want to run everything.  And you see the mess that's happening right now just with the coronavirus relief, where you get this one person thinking they know everything, instead of using the type of knowledge that exists out among the public, which is the knowledge of time and circumstances, things that only people on the ground know, that no one in Washington can know, or no one in the state Capitol can know."

The reference to someone "in the state Capitol" is probably pointing to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, because Amash has criticized her (on his Facebook page, April 11) for her severely restrictive executive orders shutting down the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  "Sensible instructions to practice social distancing, wear masks, and stay at home already do most of the work to reduce the virus's spread," he observed.  "By pushing too far, the governor undermines her own authority and increases the likelihood people will not follow reasonable guidelines.  At the very least, government officials need to trust people with matters that are extremely low risk. . . . The governor needs to allow communities and businesses to establish safety procedures based on actual conditions.  Not every place has the same risks, and it's not good governance, good health science, or good economics to pretend they are."

Amash implies here that instead of a mandatory governmental lockdown of social and economic life, the governor should follow the example of South Dakota or Sweden, where public health officials have strongly recommended that people voluntarily restrict their social movement to minimize the spread of the virus, but without any coercively imposed lockdown.  This allows individuals to exercise personal responsibility and to spontaneously generate a reasonable response to the pandemic based on what they know about the local circumstances of their life.  Governors like Whitmer are foolish if they "think they know everything and want to run everything."

Amash roots his evolutionary libertarianism in the principles of the American founding--particularly as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  In doing this, he follows the example of the Libertarian Party Platform of 2018, which echoes the language of those two founding documents.

From the Declaration, Amash draws the fundamental principle that "the purpose of government is to secure our rights," as he tells Welch.  Amash sees the Constitution as securing the rights of the people by designing a government that is divided and limited in its powers--as he says to Welch, "that means allowing legislators to legislate, and keeping the executive branch in check, and having a court that does its job interpreting and deciding cases."

He laments the great departure from this constitutional design that comes from the failure of the Congress to act as the chief deliberative body, a failure that he attributes to the current system of partisan lawmaking in which most of the laws are written by the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader of the Senate consulting with the White House.  Most members of the Congress have no chance to deliberate about the laws because they are forced to vote as they are instructed by their party leaders.  Many times, they are not even given enough time to read what they're voting on.  Amash is famous for being one the few members of Congress who refuses to vote on legislation if he has not be given time to actually read it.

As one of Amash's constituents in the 3rd Congressional District in Michigan, I can testify to the fact that when he speaks to his constituents, he repeatedly tries to impress on them how they should be concerned about the constitutional process of congressional deliberation and how excessive partisanship has impeded this deliberative process.  But I can also report that in his public meetings, his audiences often seem uninterested in this.  The constitutional process of deliberating about laws is just not exciting for most voters.  (Matt Welch has made the same observation.)  If Amash tries to speak this way in his presidential campaign, we will have to see if he can overcome this problem.

There are now over 21 candidates running for the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party.  A half dozen or more of these have been in a series of debates sponsored by the Libertarian state party organizations.  Based on some straw polls, Jacob Hornberger appears to have the most support among party members, although the delegates to the national convention are not pledged to any candidates, and the nominee will be whoever wins the majority of the delegates at the convention.

Some of the candidates and other members of the party have criticized Amash's decision to enter the race for two reasons.  First, some say that his entry comes too late--less than a month before the national convention--and that he chose to delay so that he would not have to participate in any debates.  The debates are intense--with participants being vigorously questioned about their positions, which allows party members to judge the rhetorical skills of the candidates and to decide whether they are rightly defending libertarian principles.  By not participating in the debates, Amash escapes this scrutiny.

In his interview with Welch, Amash admits that he should have announced his presidential campaign earlier, perhaps even in July of last year when he left the Republican Party.  But he says that he needed a long time to make up his mind.  He thought that he could be reelected to his sixth term in Congress, and he was not sure he wanted to give that up.

The second criticism is the charge that Amash is not a real libertarian who has shown commitment to the principles of the Libertarian Party.  Hornberger has a series of blog posts/podcasts pointing to Amash's deviations from true libertarianism, which claim to show that Amash is not a pure libertarian but rather a libertarian conservative who blends some libertarian themes with conservative positions.  Hornberger argues that Amash will speak the libertarian mantra of "liberty, limited government, and fiscal responsibility," but then he often violates these principles.

The clearest recent example of this is Amash's support for at least part of the COVID-19 stimulus packages.  For the first stimulus legislation, Amash voted "present"--that is, he refused to vote either for or against it.  He justified this by saying that the party leadership did not distribute copies of the bill early enough for everyone to read it before the vote.  He also said that he opposed those parts of the bill that provided bailouts for business, because he regarded this as "crony capitalism" or "corporate welfare"--taxpayer money going to those businesses with the most political clout.  And yet he favored the stimulus money going out as checks to individual citizens.  Actually, he thought all the money--over $2 trillion dollars--should have been spent as checks for individuals who needed this to help them through the economic crisis.

How is this libertarian?  Don't libertarians--Amash included--regularly condemn the endless increases in the national debt as an immoral burden--theft really--on the future generation of taxpayers that will have to pay off that debt?  During the first three years of Trump's administration, the national debt has skyrocketed to $24 trillion.  Now, the coronavirus stimulus packages are predicted to add another $6 trillion.  So soon the national debt will be over $30 trillion.  Who's going to pay that debt?  It will be paid by future taxpayers or by inflationary printing of money, or there will be national debt crisis, and in any of these cases, ordinary citizens will be impoverished by this.

I have not seen that Amash has answered this criticism.  But the way he speaks about the need for the federal government to send stimulus checks to everyone suggests that he sees this as a pragmatic compromise of his libertarian principles.  When people are facing another Great Depression caused by economic lockdowns mandated by government, they will demand that the government give them some relief.  Does this mean that Amash believes in a libertarian welfare state?

After all, Amash might point to Hayek's defense of a classical liberal welfare state in Part 3 ("Freedom in the Welfare State") of Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, which argues that a liberal social order might have to provide the security of a minimum income for all citizens.  I have written about the Nordic Social Democracies as models of the capitalist welfare-state.  Is this what Amash has in mind?  And if so, can he defend it as compatible with the principles of the Libertarian Party?  We'll see.

In his interview with Welch, Amash says that one reason for his delay in announcing his presidential run is that he wanted time for researching things and thinking through the political situation to see if he would have a chance to win the race, because he doesn't want to run if he's only going to be a "spoiler."

"I believe there are enough votes out there to win this race," he says.  Because if there are some Republicans and Democrats who are dissatisfied with their parties, and if there are many independents looking for an alternative to Trump and Biden, these are the voters whom Amash might win.  The Republican electoral losses since the 2016 election--including many losing candidates enthusiastically endorsed by Trump--suggests that Trump's core of solid supporters is a minority of the voters.  And if there's a high turn-out of anti-Trump voters, Trump will surely lose.

Amash also has a chance to pull over to his side one of the crucial groups for Trump--the pro-life evangelical Christians.  Amash is a serious Christian (Eastern Orthodox).  And he is a pro-life libertarian who believes that those not yet born have a right to life.  He does not, however, argue for making abortion illegal, although he does argue that there should be no federal funding for abortion.  Libertarians are divided over abortion because some believe those not yet born are "persons" with the right to life, while others do not accept this.  The Libertarian Party Platform declares: "Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration."

But why isn't Biden the best candidate to defeat Trump?  And what does Amash say to those who are warning that his candidacy will split the anti-Trump vote and thus allow Trump to win?

Amash says that Biden "frankly doesn't seem to be up to it."  I assume that Amash is here alluding to Biden's increasingly frequent lapses into incoherence in his speaking, which suggests some cognitive decline with aging.  This could become ever more disturbing for voters.  And the larger point here is that the contrast between Trump and Biden as the two oldest men to ever run for the presidency and Amash as an energetic 40-year-old must increase Amash's attractiveness.

Another potential problem for Biden is that one of his former staffers--Tara Read--has accused him of sexual assault when she worked for him 30 years ago.  Amash has said: "I think anyone is disqualified if they've engaged in some kind of assault, especially a sexual assault."  He has also said, however, that while the charges of sexual assault against both Trump and Biden are serious, he would not make this an issue in his campaign.

But all of these factors are less important in deciding Amash's chances for a win than the debate over the COVID-19 lockdown and its consequences.  We can foresee that by the end of this summer it will be clear that the lockdown has caused a global Second Great Depression.  Since both Trump and Biden have supported the lockdown as the only possible response to the pandemic, they will be held responsible for the Depression.

This will create an opportunity for Amash to point to this social and economic catastrophe as deliberately created by the leaders of both political parties, and he will have to set himself apart as the one politician who saw that the harm from the lockdown--the loss of life, liberty, and property--would far exceed any likely health benefits.  He will have to argue that the United States and other countries have dealt with deadly pandemics previously--like those of 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009--without shutting down their social and economic life, and there was no good reason to order such a shutdown for this pandemic.  He might point to Sweden as pursuing the more reasonable strategy for achieving herd immunity through largely voluntary adjustments in social life in the face of a pandemic, and this would be the libertarian approach to a pandemic.

If Amash can make that argument, he might have a chance to win.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Why Do Michigan and New York Have COVID-19 Death Rates Higher Than Sweden? Is Liberty Better Than Lockdown?

Today (April 27), there were 41 new COVID-19 deaths reported in Michigan, which puts total deaths in Michigan at 3,315.  At the same time, there were 2 new COVID-19 deaths in Sweden, which puts total deaths in Sweden at 2,194.  Since Michigan and Sweden have the same population--about 10 million people--the COVID-19 death rate is much higher in Michigan than in Sweden.  The death rate per million population is about 331 in Michigan and about 219 in Sweden.  Sweden is also doing much better than New York State, where there have been 17,671 COVID-19 deaths, for a rate of 883 per million.

Although it's too soon in the history of this pandemic to draw final conclusions, it does seem that so far Sweden's strategy of voluntary self-isolation is working better than the American strategy of state-enforced lockdowns.  The Swedish government has not imposed a mandatory shutdown of social and economic life.  Primary schools remain open, although secondary schools and universities are closed.  Bars, restaurants, and other businesses are open.  Workplaces, gyms, libraries, and shopping centers are all open.  The public health officials in Sweden have strongly recommended that people over 70 remain home and that others remain home as much as possible.  Their borders are open.  But people are urged to restrict their travel.  All of this is voluntary.  Retail shops and restaurants have seen a drop in customers, but at least they remain in business.

Compared with other European countries, the COVID-19 death rates for Sweden appear to be somewhere in the middle.  Sweden's 219 per million is much lower than France's 350, the UK's 305, Italy's 440, Spain's 496, and Belgium's 621.  Sweden's number is higher, however, than Finland's 34 and Norway's 35.  But these low numbers for Norway and Finland could be the result of undercounting--Norway counts only those COVID-19 deaths that a doctor decides to report to the country's public health authority.  Many countries don't count COVID-19 deaths outside of hospitals.

Most of the COVID-19 deaths in Sweden are in nursing care facilities for the elderly.  The average age of the dead is 81, which is close to Sweden's average life expectancy of 83.  So most of the deaths are of people who have reached the end of their normal life span.

In my previous post, I pointed out that the political leaders who have ordered mandatory lockdowns have done so without anyone having engaged in any cost-benefit analysis based on scientific evidence that would prove that lockdowns are morally justified as being more beneficial than harmful.  The epidemiologist who is largely responsible for Sweden's public health strategy--Anders Tegnell--has made the same point:  "Closedown, lockdown, closing borders--nothing has a historical scientific basis, in my view.  We have looked at a number of European Union countries to see whether they have published any analysis of the effects of these measures before they were started, and we saw almost none."

In response to a pandemic, political rulers do have the "police power" to invoke emergency powers in doing whatever is required to secure the "public good."  But then they must persuade us that they have engaged in the kind of moral cost-benefit analysis that would justify their policies as for the "public good" in being more beneficial than harmful.  It is not clear that those who have ordered lockdowns have done that.  I have seen no evidence that they considered the possibility that the Swedish herd-immunity strategy would be best.

As I have argued in a previous post, every country going through a pandemic must reach herd immunity, and the political leaders in Sweden think herd immunity is best achieved through liberty rather than lockdown.  The ultimate test will come next fall and winter.  If the Swedish strategy has been successful, there will be enough immunity to forestall a severe second wave of coronavirus infections, while other countries will have to go through a bad second wave.

A short essay by Karlson, Stern, and Klein explains the social and intellectual history of Swedish classical liberalism that supports Sweden's relatively liberal COVID regime.

Thomas Friedman in the New York Times has summarized the case for the Swedish strategy.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

When and How Did the Experts Decide that the COVID-19 Pandemic Justified a Lockdown?

When and how did public health experts decide that the COVID-19 pandemic justified a lockdown of our social and economic life, for the first time in human history, even at the cost of a global great depression?

For the past six weeks, I have tried and failed to answer that question.  If anyone has the answer, I would be pleased to hear it.

The political leaders who have ordered lockdowns--Trump, most of the state governors in the U.S., and other political leaders around the world--have said that they are following the recommendations of epidemiologists and other public health experts.  This implies that the experts have weighed the social and economic costs of a lockdown that creates a global depression against the public health benefits of such a lockdown, and they have demonstrated that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs.  Strangely, however, at least as far as I can tell, no one has actually carried out such a cost-benefit analysis that would support the moral judgment that a lockdown is justified as serving the public good.

They invented the term "social distancing" and formulated the "6 feet rule."  They developed the public health policies for "flattening the curve" of infections in an infectious disease pandemic to minimize deaths until a vaccine could be developed.  In 2006, doctors and public health experts working for the U.S. federal government conceived these ideas as part of a strategy for using "Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions" (NFIs) to combat a deadly pandemic.  In 2007, their proposals were officially adopted by the U.S. government as guidelines for mitigating a future pandemic of infectious disease.  In 2017, in the first year of Trump's administration, a slightly revised version of these guidelines were renewed as official government policy.  Then, in the first three months of 2020, some of the original proponents of these guidelines recognized the novel coronavirus coming out of China as creating the pandemic they had been preparing for, so now was the time for the U.S. government to implement the guidelines they had designed in 2006.  Federal bureaucrats in the CDC, the NIH, and the Homeland Security Department were then able to persuade President Trump and most of the state governors to enforce these guidelines, which led to the lockdown orders.

Some of this story has been told in the New York Times (here and here), which includes a series of email exchanges from the beginning of this year (here).

At first, I thought I could find the answer to my question here.  But after studying the pertinent documents, I still cannot see when and how the public health experts demonstrated to themselves and others that a moral cost-benefit analysis showed that the costs of a global depression caused by a governmental lockdown of social and economic life were far less than the public health benefits of this policy.  This makes me wonder whether political leaders thoughtlessly stumbled into issuing lockdown orders without anyone having done the moral analysis that would rationally justify this.

It all begins with a speech by President George W. Bush at the National Institutes of Health on November 1, 2005.  Bush had read John Barry's newly published book on the flu pandemic of 1918--The Great Influenza.  From reading this book and talking with some public health professionals, he worried that the world was unprepared for another such deadly pandemic.  So he proposed that Congress should appropriate $7.1 billion in emergency funding to support a comprehensive national strategy to protect the American people from a future pandemic.

His strategy was to meet three goals--an international system for detecting pandemic outbreaks early, developing and stockpiling vaccines and antiviral drugs, and having plans at the federal, state, and local levels for responding to any pandemic that reaches America.

To develop the plans for responding to a pandemic, the Bush administration asked Richard Hatchett, a White House advisor, and Carter Mecher, a VA physician, to organize this.  They were joined by Howard Markel, director of the University of Michigan's Center for the History of Medicine, who had been working with a Pentagon research group studying the history of the governmental responses to the 1918 pandemic.

Their interpretation of what was done in the 1918 pandemic was crucial for what they proposed, because they saw the relative success of the city government in St. Louis in reducing deaths from the flu through quick interventions to slow the spread of the virus--in contrast to the slow response of the government in Philadelphia--as setting the standard for "non-pharmaceutical interventions" against pandemics in the future.

On October 8, 1918, in response to the growing number of flu cases, the city government of St. Louis announced the closing of theaters, movie houses, pool halls, schools, churches, and all large public gatherings.  Beginning on November 13, this closure order was gradually lifted.  But then, two weeks later, on November 27, there was a new closing of the schools and a ban on public gatherings, because there had been an increase in the flu infection rate.  This second closure was lifted at the end of December.

Notice that neither of these two closure orders required any general lockdown of the social and economic life of St. Louis.  Retail stores, businesses of various kinds, and factories remained in operation.

There was one order in St. Louis closing all "non-essential" stores, businesses, and factories; but it lasted for only four days (November 9-12).  And since November 10 was a Sunday, and November 11 was Armistice Day, this closure actually affected St. Louis's economy for less than two days.  No other American city or state in 1918 attempted even a brief lockdown of their economies.  In Los Angeles, some people argued for closing "all but essential businesses like grocery and drug stores," but after a prolonged debate over this, the City Council rejected the idea.

So there is no historical precedent in 1918, or at any other time in American history, or in world history for that matter, for what was done in March of this year--a government ordered shutdown of large sectors of economic and social life that has created the conditions for a global economic crisis, in which millions of people will be thrown into poverty, and millions will die from poor health and starvation.

As I have indicated in some previous posts, the one city with the lowest death rate in 1918 was not St. Louis but Grand Rapids, Michigan, which had two very limited closure orders lasting only 25 days. Retail stores, restaurants, and factories were never closed.  Churches were closed for only 18 days.

People in Grand Rapids believed that sick individuals should voluntarily isolate themselves at home, but there was no good reason to put healthy people out of work or to deprive people of their normal social and economic life, including public entertainment and church services.

In 2006, those planning a new strategy for responding to future pandemics--Mecher, Markel, and their colleagues--dismissed Grand Rapids as an "outlier" in the 1918 pandemic, and they looked instead to St. Louis as the model to be followed.  If there was ever another pandemic as deadly as the one in 1918, they argued, city and state governments should move quickly to order strict mitigation measures.  Sick or infected people should be quarantined. People should wash their hands frequently, wear masks, and keep some personal distance from others.  Travel should be restricted.  Social gatherings should be banned.  And all schools should be closed.

There were some critics of these proposals, who warned that the most severe mitigation measures could be "legally and ethically problematic," and they could be "devastating socially and economically" if they disrupted "the normal social functioning of the community."  Critics complained that there had been no moral cost-benefit analyses: "few analyses have been produced that weigh the hoped for efficacy of such measures against the potential impacts of large-scale or long-term implementation of these measures."

In answering these critics, the final official statement of the guidelines for mitigating a pandemic--first published in February of 2007--conceded that the likely health benefits of mitigation policies would have to be weighed against "the social, ethical, economic, and logistical costs" of such policies, so that the mitigation policies would not be justified if their likely costs exceeded their likely benefits.

The guidelines included a "Pandemic Severity Index" moving through five categories of severity.  The most severe mitigation measures would be justified only in response to a "Category 5" pandemic that would have a case fatality ratio and projected number of likely deaths comparable to the epidemic of 1918, which would mean projected deaths in the U.S. of over two million people.

For a "Category 5" pandemic, they recommended four levels of interventions:
"Home voluntary isolation of ill at home (adults and children) . . ."
"Voluntary quarantine of household members in homes with ill persons (adults and children) . . ."
"School child social distancing--dismissal of students from schools and school based activities, and closure of child care programs--reduce out-of-school social contacts and community mixing"
"Workplace/Community adult social distancing--decrease number of social contacts (e.g., encourage teleconferences, alternatives to face-to-face meetings)--increase distance between persons (e.g., reduce density in public transit, workplace)--modify, postpone, or cancel selected public gatherings to promote social distance (e.g., postpone indoor stadium events, theatre performances)--modify work place schedules and practices (e.g., telework, staggered shifts)" (p. 12).
It is said that the "hypothesis" that such interventions will really work to slow the transmission of a pandemic virus "remains unproven."  But it is also said that an "analysis of historical data for the use of various combinations of selected NPIs in U.S. cities during the 1918 pandemic demonstrates a significant association between early implementation of these measures by cities and reductions in peak death rate" (p. 29).  This report is silent, however, about Grand Rapids as the city with the lowest death rate, although it was not quick to impose such severe measures over long periods.

All of these recommended mitigation measures are familiar to us today as part of the guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic.  But notice what is not here: nothing is said about shutting down "non-essential businesses."  Indeed, the term "non-essential" appears only once in the 61 pages of this document--in a reference to "non-essential social contacts" (p. 28).

A slightly revised version of this 2007 report was published by the CDC on April 21, 2017.  Like the earlier report, this one stressed the importance of "balancing public health benefits and social costs," which would require "estimating economic and social costs of NPIs and their secondary (unintended or unwanted) consequences," for the "minimization of social and economic costs during a pandemic" (p. 27).

In this 2017 report, there is no recommendation for shutting down "non-essential business" even in the most severe pandemic.  The term "non-essential" does not even appear in the document.

Beginning late in January of this year, some of the people responsible for the original 2007 pandemic planning report--including Carter Mecher and Richard Hatchett--started an exchange of emails about the possibility of a COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the U.S. (see the link above).  By the middle of February, they agreed with one another that this was indeed the "Category 5" pandemic for which they were preparing in 2006, and therefore it was time to put their plans into action.

In justifying this conclusion, Mecher repeatedly points to the lessons from the success of St. Louis in the 1918 pandemic as compared with the failure of Philadelphia.  He says that in his public lectures, he regularly shows projected diagrams of the high death rates in Philadelphia and the lower death rates in St. Louis, and he then asks his audiences which city they would have preferred to be living in during the 1918 pandemic.  (See Mecher's emails for January 28, February 17, 28, March 4, 17.)  Apparently, he does not allow his audiences to see that Grand Rapids had the lowest death rates of any city.

Mecher insists that in response to this new pandemic, the benefits of NPIs far exceeds any costs.  He writes: "Back in 2007, there was modeling for estimating the economic impact of a pandemic (unmitigated with no NPIs) and a mitigated pandemic plus the costs of NPIs. . . . The bottom line is that when you add in the cost associated with lives lost in an unmitigated pandemic, additional healthcare costs due to greater numbers of those who are ill and hospitalized, economic costs due to lost productivity due to increased illness, the NPI costs pale in comparison" (March 10).

There is no indication here or anywhere in these emails that the calculation of "the NPI costs" includes the costs of a global depression caused by the massive shutdown of many sectors of social and economic life.  One might say, however, that those costs are not included because nothing is said in these emails about any need for such a massive shutdown.  After all, as we have seen, this was never part of the guidelines issued in 2007 and 2017.  Nowhere in these emails does anyone say anything about "non-essential business."

So who originated the distinction between "essential" social and economic activity that should be protected and "non-essential" activity that should be shut down during this pandemic?  And how did they show that the likely benefits of doing this would clearly exceed the likely costs?

On March 16, President Trump announced "The President's Coronavirus Guidelines for America."  The first line was "Listen to and follow the directions of your STATE AND LOCAL AUTHORITIES."  So Trump left it up to state and local governments to specify the legal orders implementing his guidelines.  The original plans in the 2007 federal statements anticipated that any legally coercive orders for responding to a pandemic would have to come from state governors and local governments.

The four levels of interventions recommended in the 2007 guidelines are included in Trump's guidelines--home voluntary isolation, voluntary quarantine of the sick, closing schools, and social distancing in workplaces and communities.

At two points, Trump's guidelines add something new to the 2007 guidelines.  First, in the last sentence, it is said that "in states with evidence of community transmission, bars, restaurants, food courts, gyms, and other indoor and outdoor venues where groups of people congregate should be closed."  Such legally mandatory closing of businesses was not part of the 2007 guidelines.

A second novel feature of Trump's guidelines is this sentence: "If you work in a critical infrastructure industry, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, such as healthcare services and pharmaceutical and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule."  On March 19, three days after Trump's announcement, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the Homeland Security Department published an "Advisory Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response."  This seems to be the first use of the word "essential" applied to activity that must be protected in the pandemic response.  But the term "non-essential" is never used here.  And there is no recommendation in this document for closing "non-essential business."

This Homeland Security document on "essential critical infrastructure" was cited prominently in the executive orders issued by the governors of California, New York, and Pennsylvania on March 19.  Although Governor Newsom of California did not use the term "non-essential business," the idea was implied in his ordering "all individuals living in the State of California to stay home or at their place of residence except as needed to maintain continuity of operations of the federal critical infrastructure sectors," as defined by the Homeland Security document.  Governor Cuomo of New York was more emphatic: "all non-essential businesses statewide will be closed."  Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania ordered the closure of all "non-life-sustaining" businesses.  These orders by the three governors on March 19 were the first statements about closing "non-essential" or "non-life-sustaining" businesses.  

This kind of language became standard for most of the subsequent shutdown orders in the United States by the state governors.  Similar language has been used in the shutdown orders issued by governments around the world.

The social and economic costs of these shutdown orders are massive--including a worldwide loss of human life and liberty.  And yet, I have been unable to find any evidence that the people who proposed these orders demonstrated that the likely human costs of these orders would be less than their likely human benefits.

Moreover, I see no evidence that anyone in the United States involved in formulating these orders considered the possibility that they were unconstitutional.

So, again, I ask: When and how did public health experts demonstrate--through a rigorous cost-benefit analysis--that the COVID-19 pandemic justified a lockdown of our social and economic life leading to a global depression?  Or is it possible that our political leaders have rushed into these lockdown orders without the support of any such moral reasoning?

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

If COVID-19 is no more deadly than the seasonal flu, then shouldn't we end the shutdown?

Every year people die from the seasonal flu.  In the United States, deaths from the yearly flu can be as high as 60,000 people.  And in the most severe flu seasons, it can be over 100,000 (as in the 1957 flu pandemic).  But we have never tried to shut down large sectors of our economy to reduce those deaths from the flu, because we have rightly concluded that the costs of an economic shutdown would far exceed the benefits of avoiding some of these deaths.  Even in the 1918 flu pandemic, in which 500,000 to 750,000 Americans died from the flu, no state or local governments ordered an economic shutdown.

But now American political leaders--President Trump and most of the state governors--have told us that we must shut down our economy--even at the cost of creating a new Great Depression--because COVID-19 is much deadlier than the seasonal flu, perhaps as deadly as the flu of 1918.

Now, we have clear evidence that this is not true.  We have seen fearful case fatality rates for COVID-19 as high as 4.5 percent--that is, of those reported as being infected with COVID-19, 4.5 percent will die.  But this number is actually meaningless, because most of the people who have been infected with the virus show no symptoms or mild symptoms, and most of them don't even know that they have been infected.  Only when we know how many people have been infected, can we then calculate the true mortality rate.

Yesterday, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported a study of a representative sample of 863 adults who were tested to see how many of them had antibody to the virus, which indicated that they had been infected, perhaps without knowing it.  It was found that the likely number of people in LA County who have been infected is 28 to 55 times higher than the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection.

This suggests that the true fatality rate for COVID-19--the proportion of those infected with the virus who are likely to die--is somewhere between 0.1 percent and 0.3 percent.  This means that the fatality rate for COVID-19 is about the same or a little higher than for the seasonal flu.  A study by Stanford University researchers looking at people in Santa Clara County, California, reached the same conclusion.

Even this fatality rate can be misleading for various reasons.  Many of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 are people who would have died within the next year even without the COVID-19 infection.  And many people who die with this infection are not necessarily dying because of this infection, but because of something else.

If these studies of the COVID-19 fatality rate are confirmed, they support three conclusions.  First, the economic shutdown in the United States--and in other countries--should be immediately lifted.  Second, all the political leaders who demanded the shutdown should be removed from office.

The third conclusion is that far fewer people will die from the COVID-19 virus than will die from the economic shutdown.  David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme, has recently said that as many as 130 million people could die around the world over the next few months from famine caused by the economic shutdown.  He has warned: "There is a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself."

Friday, April 17, 2020

20 Natural Desires Will Motivate People, Not Politicians, to End the Shutdown and Restore Liberty

American politicians have been debating amongst themselves as to which ones will decide when and how the COVID-19 shutdown will end.  They are wrong about this, because people, not politicians, will decide this.  And the 20 natural desires of our evolved human nature will motivate people to end the shutdown and restore liberty.  (A similar argument has been made by Ira Stoll.)

At first, Trump declared that he alone had the "total authority" to decide this.  But now he says the state governors will have to decide this for themselves.  If the governors refuse to lift their shutdown orders, they might provoke resistance from other public officials.  Two days ago, the sheriffs of four Michigan counties announced that they would not enforce those orders of Governor Gretchen Whitmer that were unjust and showed her "overstepping her executive authority."  They appealed to a higher law--constitutional law and natural law--as a standard for judging Whitmer's orders: "Each of us took an oath to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution, as well as the US Constitution, and to ensure that your God given rights are not violated.  We believe that we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties."

They are certainly right that sheriffs can be one line of defense for civil liberty against a governor who abuses her powers, and this shows the impotence of a governor who cannot persuade other public officials to obey her unjust orders.  And yet the last line of defense for the liberty of the people is not any politician but the people themselves, who have the natural right to resist governmental oppression.  All government is rendered impotent when the people disobey its orders, and it is this right to disobey unjust orders that confirms the principle that all government ultimately rests on the consent of the governed.

The social and economic life of a country is not centrally planned from the top down by government, because any social order evolves as an emergent order from the bottom up from the actions of individuals, families, businesses, clubs, schools, religious organizations, and other voluntary associations.  It is impossible for government to centrally plan a social order.  And therefore a government can neither shut down nor open up the social life of a country.

Even the recent governmental shutdown orders were not really complete shutdowns.  The state governments had to leave open all "essential business activity," which has continued to operate through the emergent order of market exchange and the voluntary cooperation of individuals and groups.  And while many state governments tried to shut down all "non-essential" social activity, they failed, because many people have disobeyed those orders.  The people themselves will always decide which activities are "essential" for their lives.  And as was said in one of the popular signs at the Lansing protest on Wednesday--"Liberty is Essential."

Now, those people who have voluntarily obeyed the shutdown orders will decide when and how to disobey those orders.  It will be easier for people to resume their normal lives if the governmental shutdown orders are lifted.  But even if those orders are not officially lifted, or if they are only partially lifted, people will choose to disobey those governmental orders that impede the satisfaction of the 20 natural desires of human nature, which I have written about here and here.

Human beings naturally desire to live healthy lives.  This will motivate them to minimize the risks of sickness and death from contagious infectious diseases.  Knowing what they now know about the COVID-19 pandemic, they will practice social distancing and the quarantining of those infected and those most vulnerable to the disease.  But they will not seek to completely shut down their social and economic lives in the effort to avoid infection, because this would frustrate many of their most important natural desires.

Human beings naturally desire familial bonding and friendship.  This will motivate them to seek out personal gatherings with their families and friends, and meeting people online or by telephone will not satisfy them, because they will want face-to-face interactions and physical contact.  They will want to shake hands, hug, and kiss one another.  So when Dr. Fauci says that Americans should never again shake hands--even after this pandemic is over--people will recognize how ridiculous this is.

For the same reason, they will recognize how ridiculous many of Governor Whitmer's orders are.  In her most recent order, she declares that, subject to some specified exceptions, "all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited," and when individuals do leave their homes, they must remain at least six feet "from people outside the individual's household."  Notice what this means.  When I meet with family members and friends who are not part of my household, I am engaging in criminal behavior.  Obviously, most citizens of Michigan, like me, have regularly violated this order and will continue to do so, because this order denies our nature as familial and social animals.

This order also frustrates our natural human desire for sexual bonding, because it makes romantic dating and sexual mating outside one's immediate household illegal.  Here again, I assume many Michigan citizens have regularly violated this order and thus engaged in civil disobedience.

Human beings also naturally desire property.  They engage in economic exchange to equip themselves and their family and friends with the wealth required for a good life.  It was predictable, therefore, that when Whitmer ordered all "non-essential business activity" shut down, many of the workers and business people in those "non-essential" sectors have ignored her order; and as time goes on, we will see many more people doing this, and thus most of the economy that Whitmer has tried to shut down will open up.

As businesses open up, employees and customers will demand reasonable health safety measures.  So, for example, bars and restaurants will have to arrange their drinking and dining areas so that customers are confident that there are no great risks to their health.  This will be enforced voluntarily without any need for governmental coercion.  In many cities, illegal "speakeasies" have already been operating, and I assume they probably are designed to avoid unnecessary risks to health.

Human beings also have a natural desire for religious understanding, and for many people this becomes a desire for religious ceremony and sacred gatherings of believers.  This can happen through online religious services, but most religious believers need to meet with others in a house of worship.  Governor Whitmer's order prohibits this.  Some Michigan churches have continued to meet in defiance of her order, and one can anticipate that over the next few weeks those churches that have voluntarily followed his closure order will begin to disobey, with the argument that this is an expression of their religious liberty.  One can also anticipate, however, that as long as the pandemic remains threatening, these churches will organize their services to minimize the risks to health.

Because of such natural desires, people have already begun to end the shutdown, and they will continue to do so.  Governors like Whitmer cannot stop this from happening.  Their only choice is whether they will legalize it or force people to do it illegally.  Whitmer's government by executive decree is being overturned by the natural right of the people to govern themselves.

We should also recognize the natural desire for intellectual understanding in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  When the plague swept through Athens in 430 BC, Thucydides was infected but he recovered, and then his immunity allowed him to safely study the disease--its epidemiology, its symptoms, and its moral impact on Athens--and to preserve his observations in his history of the Peloponnesian war.  Those of us who are not killed by the COVID-19 virus will have a similar opportunity to study this pandemic in all of its biological, political, and moral consequences.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A Successful Protest Against Whitmer's Shutdown and Her Mean Response

I have just returned from the mass protest in Lansing, Michigan, against Governor Gretchen Whitmer's severe lockdown of the state through her executive orders.

All of the streets around the Capitol building were gridlocked with thousands of cars, and probably over a hundred thousand people. Lots of honking horns, American flags, and protest placards.  What was most striking about the placards was how often the word "liberty" was used.  Often it was "liberty" put off against "security" or "safety," and affirming that liberty must not be sacrificed for security or safety.

This afternoon the Governor had a press conference.  When she was asked about the protest, she complained that the protesters were spreading the COVID-19 viruses and thus endangering people.  As a result of this, the lockdown might have to be prolonged because of these protesters.  The tone was mean-spirited.

The Governor spoke repeatedly about "public health" being her only concern.  In saying this, she never used the word "liberty," and so she never spoke to the claim of the protesters that there can be a trade-off between public health and liberty, and that it might be dangerous to say that public health must always justify setting aside liberty.  The protesters were arguing that when people have liberty, and they become aware of the danger from an epidemic, they will voluntarily take measures to protect those most vulnerable to the disease, but without giving up their liberty.  Whitmer never spoke about this issue, which suggests that she wasn't listening to what the protesters were saying.

Notice also that the protesters were openly defying the Governor's executive orders.  They were engaging in public assemblies of people who were not members of the same household.  Under the Governor's orders, this was a crime.  And yet, even though there were police all around the capitol building, none of them attempted to arrest anyone.  This shows the vulnerability of a ruler like Whitmer.  She depends on voluntary obedience.  If too many people disobey, there's nothing she can do.  She has a press conference in a private room shut off from the public.

This shows the Achilles heel of the COVID-19 shutdown: those in power have no response if people refuse to obey and simply begin to reopen society and economic life.  A Governor cannot order that all of these people be arrested.  That's the desperate fear of people like Whitmer--that the people refuse to obey.  That's why the protest in Lansing on Wednesday was so momentous.  It was a beginning of a national movement to reclaim the natural right to liberty.

If the Governor were an intelligent and courageous leader, wouldn't she have come to the steps of the Capitol building to speak with the protesters?  She could have arranged to meet with some of the leaders of the protest, so that she could respond to their questions.  She might not have persuaded them to take her side in this debate, but she might have at least persuaded them that she understood their position, and that they were indeed engaged in debating a profound question of political philosophy--the tradeoff between security and liberty.

A video of her press conference can be found here.  If you go to minute 14 of the video, you will see her arguing that her decision as to when to reopen the social and economic life of Michigan will be based on "facts."  As an illustration of her factual reasoning, she says that the experience of cities in the 1918 flu epidemic prove that the cities that lifted their quarantine and social distancing policies too soon allowed for the appearance of a second wave of the epidemic, forcing the cities to reimpose the restrictions that they have previously lifted.  She claimed that she was determined to avoid this mistake.

To support this argument, she projected a chart diagramming the fluctuations in death rates from flu and mitigation measures taken by the cities.  She showed diagrams for four cities: Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York.

Oddly, if you look at these diagrams, you will see that they don't all support her interpretation.  In Philadelphia and New York, there wasn't much of a second wave.  In San Francisco, there was a second wave, but there was no renewal of severe mitigation measures.  St. Louis is the only one of the four that conforms to the pattern she claims: St. Louis experienced two severe waves of the epidemic and two impositions of mitigation measures.

It is strange, however, that her chart has no Michigan city on it.  It's particularly revealing that she did not put Grand Rapids on her chart.  As I have indicated in a previous post, Grand Rapids had the lowest rate of deaths from the flu epidemic.  Almost 300 people died in a city of 138,000, which was an excess epidemic death rate of 210.5 per 100,000 population.  No other large city had a lower death rate.  And yet Grand Rapids had only a few weeks of closing schools and banning public assemblies.  Most businesses remained open, although people were warned to quarantine themselves if they were sick.

Moreover, the Governor was silent about the fact that there was no precedent in 1918 for what she has decreed in 2020.  In 1918, no city or state government ordered the shutdown of their economies.  (In St. Louis, there was a shutdown for a few days.)  I have written about this.

Her silence about this is dishonest, because it refuses to raise the crucial question: If a governmental lockdown of social and economic life is a reasonable way to respond to a deadly pandemic, why is it that no government in the history of the United States or the history of the world has ever done this?  Now maybe there is something about this pandemic that makes it so catastrophic that this unprecedented action is justified, but then one would have to make that argument.  And in making that argument, one would have to persuade us that the pandemic of 1918 was not as bad as this one.

As of now, it appears that this pandemic is going to be comparable to the flu pandemic of 1957, when there were over 2 million deaths around the world, and maybe 110,000 deaths in the U.S.  The 1957 pandemic was a serious disruption in American life, but there was no lockdown of the society.  Why is COVID-19 virus different?  Neither Governor Whitmer nor the other governors who have ordered shutdowns nor President Trump have explained why this pandemic is different from all previous pandemics in such as way as to sacrifice liberty for the sake of what our leaders say is necessary for security.

In mentioning Trump here alongside Whitmer as advocates of the COVID-19 shutdown, I stress the point that any protest against the shutdown must be a protest against Trump as well as the governors who have ordered shutdowns.  Strangely, this point has been missed by those Trump supporters who came to the protest in Lansing: they seemed to be unaware of the fact that most of Whitmer's orders follow the guidelines set by Trump and his administration.  If these Trump supporters had read Whitmer's executive orders for the shutdown, they would have seen that she relies on the guidelines set by Trump's CDC and Homeland Security Department executing the policies recommended by Trump on March 16.  For example, if you look at section 8 of Whitmer's executive orders 2020-21 (here) and 2020-42 (here), you will see that Whitmer's distinction between "essential" and "non-essential" activity comes from the memo issued on March 19 by Homeland Security for identifying "Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response."

Whitmer and all of the other governors who have ordered state-wide shutdowns in response to COVID-19 have been following the policy guidelines initiated by the Trump Administration.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Salus populi suprema lex: Does that justify the COVID-19 lockdown?

Yesterday, I walked outside my home to the edge of my yard to talk with my next-door neighbor.  Although we were at least six feet apart, our brief meeting was a criminal act, because we violated Governor Gretchen Whitmer's Executive Order No. 2020-42, which declares: "all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited."  So that short meeting with my neighbor was an act of civil disobedience.

Tomorrow, my family and I will engage in another act of civil disobedience.  Along with thousands of others around the state of Michigan, we will drive to Lansing and go to the governor's mansion and the state capitol building, where we hope to create a massive traffic gridlock as a demonstrative protest against the Governor's executive order.  Many of those in the cars have lost their jobs and their businesses.  All of them have lost their rights to live and work.  For our protest assembly, under the Governor's order, we can each be fined up to $1,000 and be subject to criminal prosecution.

Okay, so there's no great heroism here.  This Drive to Lansing is no March to Selma.  It is only a modest protest against the violation of our rights to life and liberty.  But it is one sign of what is beginning to happen all around the United States and around the world as people face the destructive consequences of the global shutdown that threaten their lives and their livelihoods.  Such acts of civil disobedience express the natural right to resist oppressive governmental coercion.

Against such resistance, Governor Whitmer has invoked her power as governor of Michigan to declare a state of emergency and to issue all reasonable orders necessary to secure public safety or public health.  As I have indicated in previous posts, she does indeed have such powers by constitutional law and the state laws of Michigan.

Yesterday, President Trump said that he, not the governors, has the ultimate authority to determine COVID-19 public health policies for all the states.  "When somebody's president of the United States, he explained, "the authority is total, and that's the way it's gotta be."  "The authority is total"?  This is not true.  The Constitution does not give the president, or any other federal agents, total authority over public health.  Public health is part of the "police power" that is reserved to state and local governments.

The Supreme Court of the U.S. has been clear about this.  In Gibbons v. Ogden (1824), Chief Justice John Marshall identified "that immense mass of legislation, which embraces every thing within the territory of a State, not surrendered to the general government: all which can be most advantageously exercised by the States themselves.  Inspection laws, quarantine laws, health laws of every description, as well as laws regulating the internal commerce of a State . . . are component parts of this mass."

The standard for this broad police power that is reserved to the states, and which includes health laws and quarantine laws, is sometimes conveyed by a Latin maxim first stated by Cicero (De Legibus, 3.3.8):  Salus populi suprema lex esto.  "Let the safety (alternatively, health, welfare, or good) of the people be the supreme law."  As the supreme law, this law can override all other laws when it is necessary in an emergency to have an executive ruler exercise discretionary power in doing whatever is required to secure the public good.

John Locke quotes this same Ciceronian maxim as the standard for the executive power of prerogative, which is the "power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it" (Second Treatise, secs. 158-160).  Locke makes it clear, however, that the people grant this power to the executive as a public "trust" that will truly be used for the public good.  And if there is any doubt as to whether this power is being abused to deprive the people of their natural rights contrary to the public good, the people must judge this for themselves, which includes the "appeal to Heaven"--violent resistance to government (secs. 164-168).

So when a state governor like Whitmer invokes this emergency police power to do whatever is necessary to promote the public good, it is the right of the people to judge for themselvcs whether the governor's actions really do serve the public good.  In the present case, the question is whether the end justifies the means, because the end is good, and the means are rationally proportioned to the ends, so that the benefits of the end outweigh the costs of the means.

Or, more specifically, do the likely benefits from shutting down the social and economic life of Michigan outweigh the likely costs in depriving the people of Michigan of their rights to life, liberty, and property without due process of law?  And, if they do, then at what point do the likely costs of continuing the shutdown outweigh the likely benefits?  Those are the moral questions now being considered as state governors and citizens consider whether or when the shutdown should be lifted to allow the reopening of social and economic life in the states.

This moral cost-benefit analysis requires first that we weigh the benefits of saving some human lives through a shutdown.  To do that we must put a value on human life.  That might seem crass, but in fact we do that all the time when we engage in risky activities.  American regulatory agencies--like the Environmental Protection Agency--have to assign a value to human life in deciding whether the benefit of some reduction in the risk to life is cost-effective.  In tort law, judges and juries sometimes have to give human life some value in deciding on monetary damages for loss of life.  Typically, the assigned monetary value of human life ranges somewhere between $5 million and $10 million.

There is a good moral argument, however, for saying that we need to value not just life but years of life.  Surely the death of a healthy 25-year-old person, who might have expected to live for another 60 years, is a greater loss than the death of a severely ill 85 year old, who could not have expected to live much longer.  In contrast to the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed children and young adults as well as old people, the COVID-19 pandemic is predominantly killing older people in bad health.  Neil Ferguson, the British epidemiologist advising the UK government on their shutdown, has said that around half to two-thirds of the people who will die from COVID-19 would not otherwise have lived to the end of this year because of their pre-existing illnesses.  The lost value of these older lives with few years left to live might not be as great as the lost value of younger lives with many years of expected life left.

We also need to know how many lives are likely to be saved by a shutdown of our social and economic life.  To know this, we need to know infection rates, fatality rates, the effectiveness of social distancing and other measures, and the capacity of the healthcare system to provide care for the ill.  Until we have quick and extensive testing for COVID-19, we will not know infection rates, and without that we will not know fatality rates.  The "case-fatality-rate" that is being widely reported is almost meaningless, because most of the people infected do not show symptoms, or they show only mild symptoms, and thus they are not identified.  The number of people actually infected could be up to 10 times the number of people who have been identified.  And if that is so, the real fatality rate for COVID-19 would be much lower than the case fatality rates being reported.  The number of lives likely to be saved by a severe shutdown would then be much lower than what the proponents of a shutdown assume.

We also have to weigh the costs of coercively shutting down our social and economic lives.  One way to measure this would be to estimate the likely reduction in the Gross Domestic Product over the next year caused by a severe depression brought on by the shutdown.  This is not the total cost, however, because it ignores the human cost from reducing human liberty--such as the cost to me of being forbidden by the governor to have personal face-to-fact contact with my family, friends, and neighbors, or all kinds of private and public gatherings forbidden by the governor.

So let's do the math.  Economists Martin Eichenbaum and his colleagues offer this model.  Assume that each human life is worth $9.3 million.  Assume that their "optimal containment policy" increases the severity of the recession by reducing GDP over the next year by $2 trillion dollars, while saving 500,000 lives that would have been lost without the containment policy.  That comes to roughly $2 million dollars for each life saved, which is a bargain in saving a life worth $9.3 million.

But notice all of their dubious assumptions.  We have to assume that they are right in estimating the mortality rate for COVID-19 to be extremely high, even though they do not know the infection rate, and therefore they can't be sure they are right.  They also have to assume that the only alternative to their shutdown is doing nothing to fight the pandemic.  That is obviously false, because people will change their behavior in response to a pandemic to reduce the risks of infection and death: they will engage in social distancing and self-quarantines even without governmental coercion.  They also have to assume that the economic cost of their shutdown will be only $1 trillion in reduced GDP.

Consider an alternative scenario suggested by David Bernstein.  He indicates that the value of human life assigned by various regulatory agencies is usually no higher than $9 million.  He assumes that COVID-19 could kill as many as 480,000 people if there is no severe containment policy, and that containment measures could reduce this by half--saving 240,000 lives.  That's the benefit.

In calculating the costs, he assumes that containment measures would reduce GDP by one-half for one quarter of the year.  Since the GDP of the U.S. is about $21.5 trillion for a year, the containment measures would cost about $2.7 trillion.  Dividing that by 240,000 lives saved, we get a cost of about $11.2 million for each life, which is greater than the estimated value of a human life--less than $9 million.

So in the model of Eichenbaum and his colleagues, a severe shutdown to reduce the deaths from COVID-19 is justified, because while the costs are high, the benefits are even higher.  In the model of Bernstein, the conclusion is just the opposite: the costs of a shutdown outweigh the benefits.

Sure, I know, it's ridiculous to try to reduce this moral judgment to a mathematical calculation that appears precise even though it's based on speculative assumptions for which there is very little data.  But still in the political debate over whether the shutdown is justified, we all have to make some intuitive judgment based on what we know about the data and about our experience in our society.

Governor Whitmer is confident in the moral superiority of her judgment that she has correctly calculated what the public good demands.  But the people driving to Lansing tomorrow--and the many other Michigan citizens who agree with them--are demonstrating their judgment that she is wrong, and that the costs to life and liberty from her executive orders exceed any likely benefits.

As Locke said, when the question is "Who shall judge?" the answer is "The people shall judge."

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Herd Immunity Strategy Is Better--for Life and Liberty--Than Trump's Lockdown

"The Herd.  They call it the Herd."

In his press conference Tuesday, President Trump said that in dismissing Sweden's "herd immunity" strategy for handling COVID-19 as inferior to his strategy for fighting the pandemic through an economic and social lockdown of the country.  He said that his strategy will save hundreds of thousands of lives that would be lost without a national lockdown.

In response to Trump, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde said that it was "factually wrong" for Trump to say that Sweden was pursuing a herd immunity strategy that would allow many people to die from COVID-19.  On the contrary, she said, Sweden has taken many precautions to minimize the deaths from the disease.  Sweden's chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has said, however, that their strategy is to have a gradual spread of infection to slowly build up herd immunity.

Sweden has not closed its primary schools, although it has closed its secondary schools and higher education.  It has advised its people on how to reduce the spread of the disease through social distancing.  There has been no legally enforceable "stay at home" order, although those over the age of 70 have been advised to stay home.  It has relied mostly on voluntary compliance.  And it has not shut down large sectors of its economy as has been done in the U.S., the U.K., and elsewhere.

As of this morning (April 9), the count of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. is 14,802 (in a population of 322 million), and in Sweden it is 8,647 (in a population of 10 million).  The rate of deaths per million is higher in Sweden (68.02) than in the U.S. (44.76).  Some of the critics of Sweden's strategy see this growing death rate as a sign of failure.

As I have argued in my previous post, developing herd immunity is the natural human defense against contagious diseases rooted in our evolved human immune system; and it does not require the sacrifice of life and liberty through an economic shutdown.

Two of the clearest statements of the herd immunity strategy come from David Katz and from Dr. Knut Wittkowski.  On the other side of this debate, Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz summarizes the arguments against this strategy.

Herd immunity is the idea that when a sufficiently large proportion of a population of people become immune to a contagious disease--either through previous infection or vaccination--the spread of the disease gradually slows, and eventually it disappears, because the chains of person-to-person transmission have been broken (Fine, Eames, and Heymann 2011).  The critical point at which a population has become immune is called the "herd immunity threshold" (HIT), which is calculated by estimating the "basic reproduction number"--the average number of new infections caused by each infected individual--and multiplying it by the proportion of the people in a population who are susceptible to infection.  So the higher the contagiousness of a disease the higher its HIT.  The estimated HIT for the COVID-19 disease is 70% to 80%, so that the disease will slow down or even disappear once 70% to 80% of the individuals in a population have been infected and thus have acquired immunity.

Herd immunity has evolved by natural selection as the natural defense of human life against the aggressive attack of disease-causing microorganisms that move through human groups by person-to-person transmission.  At the same time, however, these pathogenic microorganisms have evolved by natural selection to develop countermeasures to overcome our natural defenses.  Viruses mutate, and in rare cases, those mutations create new kinds of viruses that can pass easily through human populations in which most people do not yet have immunity to the virus.  The COVID-19 virus has done this.

Achieving herd immunity for this new virus will require that many if not most of us become infected.  Most of the infected people will feel no symptoms or only mild symptoms.  A few of us will become sick enough to require hospitalization.  And of those who become severely sick, a few will die.  Most of those who die will be older people who were already vulnerable become of previous health problems.

Now here comes the debate.  Over the past month, many political leaders have taken the advice of some epidemiologists that we have a moral obligation to reduce the deaths from the COVID-19 virus by shutting down large sectors of our societies to slow down the spread of the virus until we have a vaccine that can create herd immunity.  And since it might be over a year before such a vaccine is available, we have to be prepared for a lockdown over that entire time of a year or eighteen months.  Or we might try moving back and forth between periods of lockdown and periods of partial opening up of our lives.

This is what is meant by "lowering the curve"--we cannot prevent the COVID-19 virus from killing lots of people, but through locking down our societies, we can reduce the peak death rate by spreading out the deaths over time, while we wait for the vaccine.  As Meyerowitz-Katz says: "The time to discuss herd immunity is when we have a vaccine developed, and not one second earlier."

But notice what this means: we are choosing to prolong the COVID-19 epidemic, instead of allowing the infections to spread quickly enough to achieve herd immunity within two months, because too many people would die during that short time--hundreds of thousands and perhaps even over a million people would die in the U.S. alone.

Notice also that this ignores the fact that a global shutdown bringing a global great depression will destroy the lives of billions of people.  Killing the economy is killing people.

The alternative position is to say that we have a moral obligation to isolate the high-risk group--older people with health problems--and to give them special medical care if they become sick, but we also have a moral obligation to protect human life and liberty from a governmental shutdown of our economic and social life.  That's what we have always done.  Every year, many people die from contagious diseases, but we have never shut down our lives to reduce those deaths.  In 2017, over 60,000 Americans died from the flu epidemic.  In 1918, over 500,000 Americans died from a global flu epidemic.  But there has never been a national shutdown of American society to reduce such deaths in an epidemic.

The epidemiologists who have recommended the shutdown as the only moral response to the COVID-19 pandemic point to the American experience of the 1918 pandemic as proving the wisdom of their recommendation.  Those cities, like St. Louis, where the city government quickly imposed severe measures for social distancing succeeded in reducing the death rates from the flu, while in other cities, like Philadelphia, where the government was slow in imposing such restrictions, the death rates were much higher than they should have been.  Since the COVID-19 virus is as deadly and contagious as the 1918 H1N1 virus, they argue, we must follow policies for mitigating our pandemic similar to those adopted in St. Louis to avoid the mistakes made in Philadelphia.  (See Bootsma and Ferguson 2007; Markel et al. 2007).

I have already written a post on the 1918 flu pandemic in the United States.  Here I want to argue that the history of that pandemic does not support the claim that we must impose a lockdown of our economy as the only reasonable way to handle our present pandemic.

I will make three points.  First, in the 1918 pandemic, those with a high risk of dying from the flu were scattered across the human life span: mortality rates were high for children, for young adults (ages 20 to 40), and for the elderly (over 70).  By contrast, with COVID-19, it's mostly the elderly in poor health who have a high risk of death; and therefore it's possible to reduce the death rate by putting these people in isolation and giving them special medical care when necessary, while leaving children and young adults exposed to infection, so that when herd immunity is achieved, the older people can then be safely returned to their normal social life.

Meyerowitz-Katz contradicts himself on this point.  On the one hand, he says that when herd immunity is achieved, "enough people can't get the disease--either through vaccination or natural immunity--that the people who are vulnerable are protected." On the other hand, he says that with herd immunity achieved by having young people infected, "you'd have clusters of older people with no immunity at all, making it incredibly risky for anyone over a certain age to leave their house lest they get infected, forever."  So which is it--does herd immunity protect the most vulnerable or not?

My second point is that the most harmful policies of today's COVID-19 shutdown--the coercive "shelter in place" orders and the closing down of "nonessential business" for many months--were never adopted by any local or state government in 1918, because political leaders and citizens recognized that this would be too harmful.

On October 6, 1918, the Surgeon General of the United States--Rupert Blue--sent a circular to all the public health departments in the U.S.  He recommended the following five measures for handling the flu epidemic:
"First: That the public be advised of the danger of public assemblies, because of the fact that Spanish influenza is a 'crowd' disease."
"Second:  Impress upon the public that it is the duty of every person to cover his mouth and nose with a handkerchief when sneezing or coughing, because the secretions of the nose and mouth contain the germ of influenza."
"Third:  That upon the appearance of the disease in any town that all theatres, churches, schools, and other places where people assemble be closed until the epidemic has run its course."
"Fourth:  That the people be instructed to remain at home while suffering from a bad cold, as many so-called colds are influenza in a mild form and may develop some serious complications by unnecessary exposure."
"Fifth:  Isolate the patient and allow no visitors to enter the house where a case of influenza may be."
In the days after this message was sent out, many public health officials at both the state and local levels recommended that these policies should be adopted.  In many cities, large public assemblies were banned; theatres, churches, and schools were closed; and people were warned to stay in their homes if they were sick.  In some cities, public health workers went door to door, looking for sick people; and if they found someone sick with the flu, they would put a placard on the home identifying this as a quarantined home.  And yet, most businesses--including restaurants, retail stores, factories, and service and trade occupations--continued to operate.  There was no general lockdown like that imposed now in the U.S. and elsewhere.  (The history of how the 50 largest American cities handled the 1918 epidemic can be found here at a website maintained by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.)

In Los Angeles, movie houses and theatres were ordered to shut down on October 11, but other businesses that did not create crowded assemblies were open.  The closure order was not lifted until December 2.  On November 7, the Theatre Owners' Association of Los Angeles complained to the City Council that it was not fair to allow so many businesses to remain open.  They argued for closing "all but essential businesses like grocery and drug stores."  There was a prolonged debate over this, but the City Council decided against doing this.

As far as I can tell, St. Louis was the only city where there was a general closure of all "nonessential" stores, businesses, and factories.  In that case, however, this closure lasted for only four days--from November 9 to November 12.  And even so, November 10 was a Sunday, and November 11 was Armistice Day.  So, in reality, this ban shut down the city's economy for only one-and-a-half days.

The first prolonged closure of "nonessential businesses" along with ordering people to "stay home" began on March 19, 2020, with the executive orders issued by the governors of California, New York, and Pennsylvania, which were followed by similar orders from other governors.  In closing down all "nonessential" activity, they were following an advisory memorandum from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on the "identification of essential critical infrastructure workers during COVID-19 response."  Never before in American history (or in world history!) has anything like this been done, not even in 1918 when the country was faced with the deadliest infectious disease pandemic in human history and one of the bloodiest wars.

My third point against the claim that the experience of the 1918 pandemic shows the need for an economic shutdown to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic is that some of the American cities with the lowest mortality rates from the flu in 1918 were not severe in their coercive social distancing policies.  A clear example of this was Grand Rapids, Michigan, where out of a population of 138,000, 295 died of the flu in 1918.  Of course, having almost 300 people die of the flue in this one city is disturbing.  But in comparing the flu death rates for 50 large American cities, Grand Rapids had the lowest "excess pneumonia and influenza mortality deaths" per 100,000 population--210.5.  By comparison, Pittsburgh had a flu mortality rate per 100,000 of 806.8.  And St. Louis had a rate of 358.0 (Markel et al. 2007).

In Grand Rapids, there were two very limited closure orders for short periods--lasting a total of 25 days.  The first--lasting 18 days (October 20-November 7)--closed theaters, movie houses, churches, and pool halls; but retail businesses, factories, and schools were open.  The second closure--lasting 7 days (December 17-24)--closed schools, dance halls, skating rinks, lodge halls, and public meeting places; but churches, theaters, retail stores, restaurants, and factories remained open.

The general view in Grand Rapids was that sick individuals should voluntarily isolate themselves at home, but there was no good reason to put healthy people out of work or to deprive people of their public entertainment and church services.  (This looks like the situation in Sweden today.)

And, again, Grand Rapids had the lowest death rates from the flu in 1918.

We can and should end the shutdown.  If we do, we can hope that our death rate from the COVID-19 virus will not be as high as it was for the 1918 virus.  But even if hundreds of thousands of people die from the virus, we will achieve herd immunity--the natural defense against contagious disease--and we will secure our life and liberty.

It is unlikely that the shutdown orders will be lifted anytime soon.  But for as long as those orders are in effect we have the natural right to disobey those orders as tyrannical denials of our natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

So, for example, in my state of Michigan, Governor Whitmer by executive order has made it a crime for people to travel to meet with family and friends in their homes.  In effect, she has put the citizens of Michigan under house arrest without due process of law.

Many of us here in Michigan are choosing to violate that order.  On Easter Sunday, many Michigan families will gather in their homes for religious activity and Easter dinner.  Of course, families will be sure to isolate those who might be sick with an infectious illness.  And they will take special care to protect older people from infection.

By order of the Governor, a family gathering like this is criminal behavior.  But we have the natural right to do this.  I hope that there will be many such acts of civil disobedience in Michigan and around the country.


Bootsma, Martin, and Neil Ferguson. 2007. "The Effect of Public Health Measures on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in U.S. Cities." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (no. 18): 7588-7593.

Fine, Paul, Ken Eames, and David Heymann. 2007. "'Herd Immunity': A Rough Guide." Clinical Infectious Diseases 52 (April): 911-916.

Markel, Howard. 2007. "Nonpharmaceutical Interventions Implemented by U.S. Cities During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic." Journal of the American Medical Association 298: 644-654. Available online.

Friday, April 03, 2020

End the Coronavirus Shutdown to Protect Life and Liberty

Around the world, the governmental shutdown of the economy and society in the effort to contain the COVID-19 pandemic threatens human life and liberty; and if it is not ended soon, people will have the natural right to resist through civil disobedience or even revolution.

Moreover, I think we can conclude that President Trump has just committed a blunder that will necessarily lead to his defeat in November.  The shutdown that he has ordered will probably create the worst economic recession since the Great Depression.  In the history of American presidential elections since 1860, no incumbent administration has won reelection in any of the nine elections in which the economy was in recession during the fall campaign.  Trump might as well resign now.

At his March 23 briefing for reporters, Trump said that the country should reopen for business within a few weeks--perhaps by Easter Sunday April 12--because any longer shutdown of the economy would be more harmful than the pandemic: "We can't have the cure be worse than the problem."  He warned that with a long economic shutdown, there would be "probably more death than anything that we're talking about with respect to the virus."

But then a week later, under the influence of the CDC and other public health professionals, he reversed himself and said the shutdown would have to be prolonged.  Now, in the U.S., 10 million jobs have disappeared in two weeks, and this is only the beginning of what is likely to become a collapse of the global economy.  Trump hasn't explained what was wrong with his earlier objection to destroying the economy as a greater threat to public health than the pandemic.  Just when we most need him to fight against the Deep State, he surrenders!

In the United States, the shutdown violates the constitutional right of every person not to be "deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" (5th Amendment).

It is true that state and local governments do have broad "police powers" to use quarantines in emergencies to protect the public health.  But never in American history--or in the history of the world for that matter--have governments mandated lockdowns of entire populations of people.  Such measures are unjustified, because their likely harms in their threat to life and liberty from a global economic depression exceed their likely benefits for public health. 

Quarantines have been used throughout history to to slow the spread of infectious diseases by isolating those individuals who have been infected or others who have been exposed to the disease.  Locking down an entire population of people is not a quarantine.  There is no legal precedent for the mandated lockdowns that have been imposed by governments around the world.

Political leaders have assumed a false dichotomy: in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the choice is not between "doing nothing" and a governmental lockdown of economic and social life.  The best response is to give people accurate information about the disease and how it spreads, and then leave them free to change their behavior in ways that will mitigate the harm from the epidemic, while quickly restoring the conditions for a normal life.

Ultimately, it is the natural right of the people to decide whether this governmental lockdown is necessary to protect the public health, or whether this is so destructive of their life and liberty that they have the natural right to resist the governmental orders, and to institute a new government more likely to effect their safety and happiness.


In many respects, the flu pandemic of 1918 resembles the COVID-19 pandemic today.  One remarkable difference, however, is that in 1918 national governments did little to develop national or international policies for containing the pandemic.  In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson did not even speak publicly about the pandemic.  So it was left largely to state and local governments to devise their own policies.  One reason for this is that there was a wartime regime of censorship that enforced a public silence about the pandemic, because it was thought that public knowledge of this would weaken the morale of the citizens and the military.  Newspapers were prohibited from reporting what was really happening in the pandemic.

The spread of the disease around the U.S. and around the world (perhaps from its origin in Haskell County, Kansas) was due largely to the movement of American troops in World War I.  Thus, the quick spread and the high mortality of this pandemic of 1918 was mostly caused by governmental actions in the war--the censorship and the movement of troops in crowded conditions.

Public health professionals--like those in the U.S. CDC--have said that the lack of a nationally coordinated response to the pandemic from the federal government made the pandemic more destructive than it should have been.  That's why the CDC and other public health agencies have persuaded national leaders like Trump that we need a national policy announced by the President for managing the COVID-19 pandemic.  But then the question is whether the President has the constitutional power to impose such a policy that includes shutting down much of the economy and social life of the United States.  In fact, the Constitution does not give the President any emergency power to do this.

In Anglo-American law, it has been common to assert that the chief executive of any government has a broad discretionary power to act in times of emergency to do whatever is necessary for the public good.  In England, this was part of the monarch's "prerogative" power, which John Locke identified as the power "to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it."

But notice the critical standard here--"the public good."  Is it in the public good to shut down economic and social life so drastically as to cause a global economic depression, which will be much worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s?  Certainly the public health is part of the public good, but don't poverty and unemployment threaten the public health?  And aren't there obvious ways to slow down the spread of an infectious disease--by social distancing and isolating sick people--without shutting down the economy?

When governments claim to have the power to limit individual rights to serve the public good, the U.S. Supreme Court applies a "rational basis test"--the governmental interference in liberty must bear some rational relationship to some legitimate end of government, and the means must be rationally proportioned to the ends, so that the social harms do not exceed the social benefits.  If this standard is not satisfied, then it is arbitrary and capricious and cannot be justified.

Michael Dorf, a law professor at Cornell University, has argued that the best power in the Constitution for shutting down the economy to slow the COVID-19 pandemic is the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.  In Article I, section 9, of the Constitution, it is said that "The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion, the public Safety may require it."  In the British common law tradition, people who are arrested and detained by public officials can file a writ of habeas corpus that demands that if the officials have not filed legal charges for the trial of those being held in confinement, then the people must be released.  Therefore, suspending the writ of habeas corpus is in effect the suspension of individual liberty, because it means that anyone may be held in detention or in prison without being charged with any crime.  This would allow the government to put anyone under house arrest without any due process of law.

To invoke this power to enforce a national coronavirus shutdown would require claiming that the coronavirus is an "invasion" of the United States, and that in response to this viral invasion of the United States, a shutdown of the economy and society by the national government is the only way to protect "the public safety."

Obviously, the constitutional language of "rebellion or invasion" suggests military violence, and to say that a viral pandemic is an "invasion" is implausible.  Still, however, Dorf suggests that the Supreme Court might leave it up to the Congress or the President to decide what counts as an "invasion."

The national government has never suspended the writ of habeas corpus in response to an infectious disease.  Indeed, the formal suspension of the writ of habeas corpus has occurred only once in American history--in the Civil War.  Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ at the beginning of the war in April of 1861, claiming this as a presidential power to deal with the "rebellion" of the South.  His critics objected that since this power was found in Article I of the Constitution, which is the Article devoted mostly to legislative powers, then this must be a power of the Congress rather than the President.  Later, in 1862, the Congress passed legislation formally suspending the writ.

Even if the President or the Congress wanted to suspend the writ to allow for suspending individual liberty in shutting down the economy in response to the pandemic, we would still have to ask whether this would serve "the public safety."  A global economic collapse might be a greater threat to the public safety than this pandemic.

Although there is some doubt as to whether the national government has the constitutional power to shut down the economy and society as a policy for controlling the coronavirus pandemic, there might be a better argument for this power belonging to state and local governments.  That's why in "President Trump's Coronavirus Guidelines for America," which have been widely publicized and distributed by the White House, the first sentence is "Listen and follow the directions of your state and local authorities."


In Anglo-American law, the governmental power to protect public health and safety has been seen as part of the "police power."  Black's Law Dictionary defines "police power" as "The power of the State to place restraints on the personal freedom and property rights of persons for the protection of the public safety, health, and morals or the promotion of the public convenience and general prosperity.  The police power is subject to limitations of the federal and State constitutions, and especially to the requirements of due process."  Notice that this police power is constrained by constitutional restrictions and the standards of due process.

The Constitution does not delegate "police power" to the Congress or the President.  The 10th Amendment declares: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."  This has been generally assumed to mean that "police power" is reserved to the States.

In my home state of Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order on March 23 entitled "Temporary Requirement to Suspend Activities That Are Not Necessary to Sustain or Protect Life."  She declared: "This order must be construed broadly to prohibit in-person work that is not necessary to sustain or protect life."  Over a hundred thousand people have already filed for unemployment.  Is being employed to support oneself and one's family "necessary to sustain or protect life"?  If so, then the consequences of her order contradict her declared purpose.

Whitmer invokes the Michigan "Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945," which allows the Governor to declare an emergency as an exercise of the "police power" in declaring "reasonable orders, rules, and regulations" that are necessary "to protect life and property."  Disobeying these orders is "punishable as a misdemeanor."

But, once again, when people lose their jobs or have to close down their businesses because of this order, doesn't that threaten their "life and property"?

Of course, the governors who are issuing these executive orders destroying the economy will say that right now protecting our physical health from the coronavirus is more important than protecting our economic life and property.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has said: "If it's public health versus the economy, the only choice is public health."

If it's public health versus the economy!  Is there really a contradiction between public health and the economy?  Or is it rather true that an impoverished economy threatens public health?  Historical data show that the average longevity of life is correlated with economic prosperity.  The richer countries have longer life expectancy than the poorer countries.  For most of human history, life was short and unhealthy for most human beings because they lived in grinding poverty.  Only in the last century and a half has it become possible to sustain 7.6 billion people living on the Earth because of the productivity of the modern market economy.  But even today, any drop in market productivity brings a drop in human longevity and health.  I have written about this here.

"The only choice is public health"?  Well, but haven't we generally assumed that the best way to protect public health against infectious disease is to engage in largely voluntary countermeasures--such as social distancing and isolating sick people--without governments coercively shutting down the economy?

Over the past hundred years, the United States has faced four great flu pandemics in 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009.  In 1918, 50 million people around the world died from the "Spanish flu" (caused by the H1N1 virus) including 675,000 deaths in the U.S. (0.65% of the population).  In 1957, 1.1 million people around the world died from the "Asian flu" (the H2N2 virus), including 116,000 in the U.S. (0.067% of the population).  In 1968, 1 million people around the world died from the influenza A (H3N2) virus, including 100,000 in the U.S. (0.05% of the population).  In 2009, the "swine flu" (a new strain of the H1N1 virus) killed 12,000 or more people in the U.S.

If the same fatality rates in proportion to population were to occur in 2020 for a U.S. population of 330 million, the deaths would be 2,145,000 (1918), 221,770 (1957), and 165,500 (1968).

Keep in mind also that in the seasonal flu epidemic of 2017-2018, 45 million Americans were ill, 810,000 were hospitalized, and 61,000 died.

The crucial point here is that in none of these past flu pandemics and seasonal flu epidemics, was there a governmental shutdown of economic and social life, because people believed that the likely harm from such a shutdown would be greater than any likely benefits from reducing deaths.  So why should it be any different this year?

Apparently, the argument is that the coronavirus pandemic is as deadly today as the H1N1 flu pandemic in 1918, and if we've learned the lesson from not having a national economic shutdown in 1918, then we should have such a shutdown this year to avoid 2,145,000 American deaths.  But there are four good objections to this reasoning.

First, there is no good evidence that the coronavirus is as deadly as the H1N1 virus of 1918.

Second, the high fatality rate in 1918 came largely from the lack of information about the disease--due to wartime censorship--and today better information allows us to take countermeasures against the coronavirus that will drastically reduce deaths without shutting down the economy.

Third, the 1918 virus killed people at all age levels--children, young adults, and the old--but the 2019 coronavirus mostly kills only older people with health problems.  This allows us today to focus our attention on protecting and isolating this older more vulnerable group, while allowing the others to develop the herd immunity that will stop the spread of the virus.  This is the argument of David Katz in an article in the New York Times.

The fourth objection, as I have already argued, is that a global economic depression is likely to be a greater threat to human life than the coronavirus.


I think John Locke and the Declaration of Independence are right about the natural right of people to resist unjust government in defense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  If that is true, we can predict that the attempted governmental shutdown of our economic and social life will eventually provoke popular resistance through civil disobedience, and perhaps even revolution.

The first signs of this are already evident.  In Michigan and in other states, people are working in occupations deemed "nonessential" by the governmental shutdown orders.  For example, people with small construction businesses are secretly continuing some of their small home construction jobs.  These and many other people are joining an illegal black market economy.  As the months of shutdown go by, we can expect to see closed businesses reopened by business people who refuse to see their lives destroyed.

There is already a massive illegal economy all around the world where people engage in economic activity that is prohibited by law.  This new global suppression of economic life in the effort to contain the coronavirus will surely excite more civil unrest as people decide that they must violate the law to protect themselves and their families from economic ruin.  In many countries--such as India--poor people will be driven to such rebellion to avoid starvation.

The only question now is whether any prominent political leader will have the wisdom and courage to condemn the madness of this shutdown.  For a few days, it seemed that Trump might be the one to do this, but now it seems that his moral and mental instability prevent him from engaging in such an act of statesmanship.

I hope that eventually we will hear some American political leaders and judges declare these shutdowns to be unconstitutional and contrary to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.