This post offers a simple representation of the argument against public non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to subdue the COVID-19 pandemic. The chart below features two lines, one representing the presumed life-saving benefits of lockdown measures or NPI stringency, and another representing the costs inflicted by those measures. The values on the axes here are not critical, though measures of stringency exist (e.g., the University of Oxford Stringency Index) and take values from zero to 100.
The benefits of lives saved due to NPI stringency are assigned a value on the vertical axis, as are the costs of lives lost due to deferred health care, isolation, and other stressors caused by stringency. In addition, there are the more straightforward losses caused by suspending economic activity, which should be included in costs.
One can think of the benefits curve as representing gains from forcing individuals, via lockdown measures, to internalize the external costs of risk inflicted on others. However, this curve captures only benefits incremental to those achieved through voluntary action. Thus, NPI benefits include only extra gains from coercing individuals to internalize risks, while losses from NPI stringency are captured by the cost curve.
My contention is that the benefits of stringency diminish and may in fact turn down at some point, and that costs always increase in the level of stringency. In the chart, for what it’s worth, the “optimal” level of stringency would be at a value of 2, where the difference between total benefits and total costs is maximized (and where the benefits of incremental stringency are equal to the marginal costs or losses). However, I am not convinced that the benefits of lockdown measures ever exceed costs, as they do in the chart above. That is, voluntary action may be sufficient. But if the benefits of NPIs do exceed costs, it’s likely to be only at low levels of stringency.
To the extent that people are aware of the pandemic and recognize risk, the external costs of possible infectiousness are already internalized to some degree. Moreover, there is mutual risk in most interactions, and all individuals face risks that are proportional to those to which they expose others: if your contacts are more varied and your interactions are more frequent and intimate, you face correspondingly higher risks yourself. After all, in a pandemic, an individual’s failure to exercise caution may lead to a very hard internalization of costs if an infection strikes them. This mutuality is an element absent from most situations involving externalities. And to the extent that you take voluntary precautions, you and your contacts both benefit. Nevertheless, I concede that there are individuals who face less risk themselves (the young or healthy) but who might behave recklessly, and they might not internalize all risk for which they are responsible. Yes, stringency may have benefits, but that does not mean it has net benefits.
Even if there is some meaningful point at which NPIs are “optimized”, government does not possess the knowledge required to find that point. It lacks detailed knowledge of both costs and benefits of NPIs. This is a manifestation of the “knowledge problem” articulated by Friedrich Hayek, which hampers all efforts at central planning. In contrast, individual actors know their own tolerance for risk, and they surely have some sense of the risks they create in their normal course of affairs. And again, there is a strong degree of proportionality and voluntary internalization of mutual risks.
While relying on voluntary action is economically inefficient relative to an ideal, full-information and perfectly altruistic solution, it is at least based on information that individuals possess: their own risk profile and risk preferences. In contrast, government does not possess information necessary to impose rules in an optimal way, and those rules are rife with unintended consequences and costs inflicted on individuals.
My next post will present empirical evidence of the weakness of lockdown measures in curbing the coronavirus as well as the high costs of those measures. The coronavirus is a serious infection, but it is not terribly deadly or damaging to the longer-term health of the vast majority of people. This, in and of itself, should be sufficient to demonstrate that the array of non-pharmaceutical interventions imposed in the U.S. and abroad were and are not worthwhile. People are capable of assessing risks for themselves. The externality argument, that NPIs are necessary because people do not adequately assess the risk they pose to others, relies on an authority’s ability to assess that risk, and they invariably go overboard on interventions for which they underestimate costs. COVID is not serious enough to justify a surrender of our constitutional rights, and like every concession to government authority, those rights will be difficult to recover.