A month ago, when most US states adopted “stay at home” orders, they did so with the stated intention of “flattening the curve.” That is, the purpose wasn’t to reduce the total number of people who will become infected by coronavirus over the coming weeks and months, but to spread out those infections over time so as not to overwhelm hospital resources, leaving potentially savable victims to die.
Those policies, coupled with private efforts to combat infection (e.g., more handwashing, wearing masks and gloves), appear to have worked much better than was expected a month ago, when one prominent model predicted over a million US COVID-19 deaths long-term, even with mitigation measures. That has prompted some states to start rolling back their distancing policies.
The relaxing of those policies, and the rise of protests against the stay-at-home orders, are now being criticized as foolhardy and ‘ad-hominemed’ as being orchestrated by corporate groups, gun rights groups, far-right groups, etc. Those criticisms aren’t unfounded, but it’s unfair to dismiss the opposition to stay-at-home measures. The distancing policies have inflicted hardship on many US households, and—as EconLog readers know well—different people have different risk preferences, especially when they’re in difference circumstances. In an ideal libertarian world, people would be free to make their own risk choices so long as they don’t harm others. But is that possible in this far-from-ideal world with coronavirus? Well … hold that thought for now.
The United States isn’t the only place where distancing policies are being rolled back. New Zealand, for one, is easing its national lockdown. That country’s leaders aren’t merely claiming to have adequately flattened the curve, but to have practically stamped it out and that they can keep it that way.
That may be optimistic, but it’s within the realm of possibility. Incubation period for the disease from exposure to onset of symptoms seems to be no more than two weeks. Once symptoms appear, mild cases seem to last about two weeks, while more severe cases can last 3-6 weeks and often require hospitalization. After symptoms disappear, patients are encouraged to remain quarantined for two additional weeks. Thus, in six weeks of national quarantine, all cases should either resolve or result in hospitalization (where patients can then be individually quarantined), stamping out the disease and allowing for a national reopening.
New Zealand went under national lockdown on March 26 (comparable to many U.S. states). If the country successfully isolates its remaining cases, and if they can prevent new cases from entering the country, then it would seem New Zealand can go back to life as (nearly) normal.
That raises the question: instead of aiming to “flatten the curve,” should the United States follow New Zealand’s example? Instead of lifting stay-at-home orders now because we’ve “flattened” the curve, but still continuing with social distancing orders–masks, no large crowds, etc.–for weeks and months to come while the disease continues on, should we maintain strict stay-at-home orders for another 2–4 weeks and try to zero out the curve—and then go back to life as usual?
Circle back to the “held thought” above. It’s tempting to say the stay-at-home orders shouldn’t last any longer than absolutely necessary (and, perhaps, they weren’t necessary in the first place), and leave COVID risk-taking to individual choices and the marketplace. In this view, the novel coronavirus would be treated like many libertarians (me included) would treat secondhand smoke, with individual establishments free to be risk-taking (customers and staff close together, masks optional) or risk-averse (customers and staff far apart, masks required) and customers and workers free to choose which of those establishments to visit—or stay home altogether. Many firms would then compete on the safety dimension: developing “touchless” delivery of goods, enhancing distancing between workers and customers, etc. (Popeyes, Little Caesars, and Chick-fil-a are just a few of the firms in one business sector now competing hard in this dimension.) I confess, my libertarian sentiments like this world.
But it has a couple of problems. For one, many economic activities will be hard-pressed to operate in this world: e.g., amusement parks, sports arenas, concerts, playgrounds. Others can operate but will bear considerable cost, their goods will be much less pleasant than before the pandemic, and many prospective customers and workers will still stay away: e.g., restaurants, big-box stores, shopping centers. The economics of this world may not be that much better than the stay-at-home world we now inhabit.
But what if, instead, we follow New Zealand and, after 2–4 additional weeks of being cocooned, we emerge into a world much like the one we inhabited before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Would it be a good trade to give up an inordinate amount of freedom to government for a few more weeks, in exchange for reclaiming the freedom we would surrender to nature for months on end, until an effective coronavirus vaccine is widely available? And which strategy should we follow in the future, if and when another pandemic arises?
I admit, this is probably a hypothetical question. As U.S. media reports on New Zealand are quick to point out, that country is very different from the United States. It is much smaller (a population of just under 5 million compared to a U.S. population of over 328 million), and less population-dense (though, at 1.7 million people, Auckland is no rustic hamlet). And New Zealand is an island, whereas the United States is part of a hemispheric double-continent (though it’s worth noting there’s a greater risk that people crossing the Mexican border from the south will catch COVID-19 here than bring COVID-19 here). Heck, we don’t even know how this is going to work out for New Zealand.
Still, whether in New Zealand or the United States, it seems the coronavirus should burn itself out after six weeks of strict staying at home. So, would you be willing to trade 2–4 additional weeks of lockdown for subsequent freedom from coronavirus and its ongoing effects both physically and economically?
Some of my fellow libertarians like to quote (or perhaps more accurately, misquote) Ben Franklin’s line about trading liberty for safety. That’s appropriate given government’s frequent demands that people surrender some of their civil liberties to attain some sort of public benefit. But it’s worth remembering that Franklin was a framer of the Constitution, which itself sacrifices some freedoms for public benefits. Libertarians, as opposed to anarchists, are highly skeptical of that trade but not dead-set against it.
So, hypothetically speaking, would a trade of a few more weeks of lockdown for a subsequent world much like the old one be a good one to make? For that matter, would it be a good trade practically speaking?