Coercion has made the pandemic worse

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an “anti-vaxxer” as “a person who opposes the use of vaccines or mandatory vaccination regulations”. Where does that leave us? We are both very supportive of vaccination against Covid-19; one of us (Mr. Hooper) spent many years working and consulting for vaccine manufacturers. But we strongly oppose government vaccine regulations. If you’re crazy about Hondas but don’t think the government should force people to buy a Honda, are you “anti-Honda”?

The folks at Merriam-Webster are blurring the distinction between choice and compulsion, and it’s not just semantics. If we accept that the difference between choice and coercion is negligible, we will be easily led to policies that require large amounts of coercion. Coercive solutions take away the freedom and responsibility that come with it. Freedom has intrinsic value; it is also the central component of the best problem-solving system ever created.

Free choice relies on persuasion. It recognizes that you are an important participant with key credentials, problem-solving abilities, and rights. Therefore, any solution adopted must be designed to help you and others. Coercion is used when persuasion fails or is tipped in that direction — or when you are the raw material for someone else’s grand plans, however ill-advised.

Authoritarian government approaches hinder the ability to solve problems. These often involve one-size-fits-all solutions such as travel bans and mandatory mask wearing. Once governments adopt coercive policies, power-hungry officials often chart a formal party line and crack down on dissidents, regardless of evidence, and impose further sanctions. sanctions to punish those who do not follow the right lines. Once coercion has been established, it is very difficult to go back.

Consider Australia, which until recently was a relatively free country. Its Northern Territory has a Covid quarantine camp in Howard Springs where law-abiding citizens can be arrested if they come into contact with someone who is positive for SARS-CoV-2 or have traveled internationally. or interstate, even if there is no evidence of exposure. Hayley Hodgson, a 26-year-old Australian citizen, was detained at the camp after she came into contact with a person who later tested positive. Despite three negative tests and none of them being positive, she was kept in a small enclosed area for 14 days and fed once a day. Even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the quarantine could end in seven days with negative tests. Why didn’t the authorities let her quarantine at home? And why doesn’t it exempt or treat people who can demonstrate prior vaccination or natural infection?

Although US authorities have not gone that far, early in the pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration used its coercive power to prevent the development of diagnostic tests. predict Covid-19. The FDA requires private labs that want to develop tests to submit special paperwork for approval that it has never required for other diagnostic tests. That, combined with CDC’s claim that they have sufficient testing capacity, means that testing is required to use a CDC test that is later determined to be so faulty that they found the coronavirus in the country’s supply. laboratory.

With a voluntary approach, we benefit the millions of people around the world who are actively trying to solve problems and make our lives better. We get high quality vaccines from BioNTech /


Johnson & Johnson

and Moderna, instead of the suspected vaccines from the Cuban and Russian governments. We get good diagnostic tests from

Thermo Fisher Scientific

instead of the faulty CDC. We get promising therapies like Pfizer’s Paxlovid and Merck’s molnupiravir.

With an authoritarian approach, we get solutions that meet the needs of those in power, no matter how we benefit. Consider this contrived example:

Policy A ends with 1,000 Covid-19 cases, 5,000 total loss of freedom in two weeks, 1,000 job losses and 300 missed important family events, such as a loved one’s funeral. love.

Policy B ends with 1,020 Covid-19 cases, 4,000 people losing their freedom in a week, 1,000 people losing their total freedom in two weeks, 300 people losing their jobs, and 100 family events missed.

The government may prefer Policy A because it focuses on one aspect of the problem. You may prefer Policy B because many aspects of your life are important to you — not just coronavirus cases — and B is much better in other respects. But your preferences don’t count.

With coercive solutions, you will often deal with an official who will exonerate himself by stating rules for those who give orders. With voluntary solutions, if it doesn’t make sense, we usually don’t. And it’s one of the best defenses we have to make sure the solution isn’t worse than the problem.

The supposed trump card of compulsion-loving people is externality: One person’s behavior can put others at risk. But that’s only half the story. The other half is for us to choose the level of risk we accept. If some customers at the store engage in risky behavior, then we can get vaccinated, wear masks, keep our distance, shop at quieter times, or avoid the store.

Economists understand how one person can impose costs on another. But two tangos are needed and it is generally more effective if the person can change his behavior at a lower cost than changing the way he behaves. In other words, to make an appropriate assessment of policies dealing with externalities, we must consider the responses available to both parties. Many people, including economists, overlook this insight.

By what principle do we take the playbook of our more successful country, our own, and adopt the play from less successful, more authoritarian countries? Authoritarian playbooks have serious built-in weaknesses, while free-choice-based solutions have obvious and not so obvious strengths. Freedom is beneficial in good times; It’s even more important during challenging times.

Mr. Henderson is a research fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. He was a senior health economist on President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. Mr. Hooper is the author of “Should the FDA Reject itself?” and president of Objective Insights, whose clients include pharmaceutical companies.

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