Back in April as the #lockdown began to bite I wrote about measuring:
… What’s the baseline test in such cases for measuring what categories exist and how our language and practice and laws deal with them? What claims make sense?
And so to #COVID19. Might the current lockdown and generalised confusion/panic across the globe be a case of ‘the cure is worse than the disease itself’? How to tell? What is the test for distinguishing success from failure or even from disaster?
When some smirky TV journalist asks a politician “Are you sure you’re getting the policy right?“, what’s the test for ‘right’? Is it wise to obliterate whole areas of the economy and ruin countless people’s lives if there’s no clear answer to that?
BUT BUT BUT HUMAN LIVES ARE AT STAKE DON’T YOU CARE???
Fine. Now, what’s the test for measuring ‘caring’?
Some eight weeks later the country remains besieged by (literally) senseless government regulations as there is and (crucially) can’t be any ‘objective’ baseline for measuring policy success or failure.
But SCIENCE gives us a baseline! We can measure what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to saving lives!
No it doesn’t, and we can’t.
‘Science’ at best gives us more or less credible correlations in specific areas. It’s then up to all sorts of other supposedly smart people to weigh those correlations against lots of other factors, and try to identify sane policies that balance risks and outcomes over time.
Note that this very process itself is weighted in favour of supposedly ‘measurable’ phenomena (eg deaths reasonably attributable to COVID19) as opposed to things that can’t be measured (namely human rights and human responsibilities) but are no less important in the wide scheme of things. Junk-utilitarianism running amok:
Back in the mists of time (1985 or so) British Airways was still state-owned. An issue came up about opening Manchester Airport to international trans-Atlantic traffic.
I as a young FCO official sat in on the meeting at the then Department of Transport tasked with preparing a recommendation. A BA representative argued strongly against the idea, as BA’s competitiveness would be affected adversely. Result? No opening up of that airport at that stage.
I remember being amazed at the time that in the oh-so judicious weighing of the pros and cons of rival options, no-one spoke out for the thousands of people and small businesses in and around Manchester who might have benefited from the airport being opened up.
There was simply no way of ‘balancing’ the immediate and more or less measurable risks to BA against the less than immediate and unmeasurable hopes of the wider community.
This is what Industrial Policy means in practice.
It is necessarily inefficient, sluggish and in a deep sense corrupt.
It gives people who are unable even in theory to do the job the power to take decisions. These can be implemented only by sucking resources away from the healthy parts of the system and steering them to less healthy.
The ultimate corruption lies in the lack of ultimate accountability. The state sector uniquely proclaims itself unable to go bust, since it confiscates whatever resources it needs from people living or as yet unborn to keep itself afloat.
A huge problem now in all this, most strikingly exemplified in mass media coverage, is racing confirmation bias. If (say) three thousand people die of COVID19 that of course ‘shows’ that MORE MEASURES ARE NEEDED. OMG a famous footballer’s elderly uncle has died! Disinfect all goalposts before allowing footballers to play again.
Plus of course we see those dying of COVID19 – we don’t and won’t see those deaths from depression or suicide or from injuries caused by lack of investment that government policies make far more likely. We also won’t want to see the huge numbers of deaths from poverty in developing countries caused by the global economic slow-down resulting from bungling state COVID19 policies.
Above all, whatever broad policy option is chosen (ie more or less restrictions) the data can be presented to show that it was either a success or a failure. This recalls the joke about the futile rearrangements of the communist self-management system by Tito Yugoslavia’s nutty uber-ideologue Edvard Kardelj.
Kardelj was asked how to cure a sick cow. He advised cooling it right down with ice-packs. The cow got worse.
He recommended heating it right up with blankets and electric fires. The cow got worse.
He recommended feeding it masses of extra food. The cow got worse.
He recommended starving it. The cow died.
“Bože bože, what a tragedy! I’m a skilled vet and I had so many more cures to propose!”
The hapless public who are broadly motivated to ‘do the right thing’ are open to mass manipulation by an official caste who are enjoying their new-found unlimited powers to suspend all human rights and micro-manage society. It’s no surprise that those arguing for ‘caution’ in ending the lockdown are more towards the Leftist end of the political spectrum: they can’t believe their luck and want this vast increase in explicit state power to become normalised, to the point that massed Left/’woke’ demonstrators can march in London for the latest faux cause de jour while the rest of us can’t go to a football match.
Among the many worst things about this situation is the sheer stupidity of the one-size-fits-all approach that the British government have tried to impose. The USA as a far bigger country is far better off in this respect. There’s opportunity for (say) Florida to do things differently than (say) New York or California, and for different approaches to be trialled. Back here it’s almost heartbreaking to see people in rural Oxfordshire still loyally queuing in the hot sun to enter a supermarket when the local health risks of COVID19 are close to zero.
Then there’s useless boilerplating. We UK taxpayers pay the World Health Organisation quite a lot of money in both ‘assessed contributions’ and additional voluntary funds. The WHO’s record in this COVID19 drama has perhaps been ‘mixed’. But nonetheless we are all exhorted to respect WHO guidelines: YouTube even bans those who advocate against them.
WHO has duly issued formal advice on ‘social distancing’, namely that where possible try to stay one metre away from others. Yet having paid generously for this advice, the British government ignore it and double the distance, making everything more unnerving and unpleasant.
That’s the deep civilisational issue here. What to do about fear and pessimism when the state is throwing its full weight behind spreading fear and pessimism?
There’s no answer in principle or logic or even reason to collectivist virtue-signallers who intone “It’s better to be safe than sorry” on almost any subject. Once ‘safety’ becomes the paramount policy-driver if not a supreme moral virtue (“If it saves even one life, it’s worth it!”), those who clamour for ‘more safety’ can never shut up or out-reasoned. This amounts to a totalitarian nationalisation of risk: citizens no longer are responsible for themselves and free to take their own risks – the state does that on all fronts.
This neurotic psychological dry-rot spreads fast. Every organisation now feels the need to set up mad restrictions for fear of looking ‘uncaring’ or (God forbid) acting DANGEROUSLY. So the local tennis club allows only singles matches. No doubles! Dentists have vanished. Football matches must take place behind closed doors.
All in all, we have no way of knowing whether we could have reached broadly similar (or even better) ‘death-results’ by much more targeted/flexible policies:
Lock down HARD all nursing homes and hospital COVID19 wards
Urge people over (say) 75 to stay at home for a few weeks, with state subsidy of home deliveries for such households
Have far looser arrangements for rural communities than for (say) central London
Encourage the population in urban areas to wear masks – make them freely available
Encourage pubs and restaurants to operate at half-capacity
Otherwise, just carry on as usual.