Lockdowns — Part 3

Crime and Punishment — Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Covid-19 pandemic resulting from the Wuhan virus has dramatically revealed state malfeasance amounting to criminality like nothing else has except for perhaps the world wars of the past century.

In the previous bits (Part 1 and Part 2), I made the moral argument against lockdowns and for freedom. In this final bit, I make the economics argument.

Governments across the world with some rare exceptions have imposed policies that are not only morally repugnant but have imposed enormous economic costs on billions of people. Especially for the extremely poor, those policies have had tragic consequences. They have probably killed (or will kill) millions more than the virus ever would have. Even in the rich populations, deaths of despair must have been devastating.

In a just world, those policymakers would be tried as mass-murdering war criminals, convicted and sentenced to public execution as a warning to future mass murderers. But it is not a just world. What’s worse is that the people are willing victims of these enormous crimes. They are complicit by not resisting the murderous dictators that rule over them.

Lockdowns are a form of imprisonment. Throwing convicted violent criminals (and only violent criminals) in jail is justified but imprisoning people for going about their lives on the presumption that they may engage in crime (generally too loosely defined) is immoral and must not be tolerated by any free society.

We live in society and therefore what we do in the normal course of living often affects uninvolved others directly or indirectly, and in ways both positive and negative. These are called ‘externalities.’ My enjoyment of loud music in my apartment has the negative externality of bothering my neighbors. Car drivers impose negative externalities such as exhaust pollution on the general public, and the risk of accidents on others on the road.

Negative externalities can cause significant harm which need to be addressed to achieve some desired socially optimal outcome. There are mechanisms and institutions that solve the problem of externalities. They come in two varieties: one is the voluntary cooperative type (private, market-based) and the other is non-voluntary, coercive type (public, political.) 

There is no necessary rigid mechanical link between the presence of externalities and coercive state action. Private voluntary cooperative behavior can and does solve many externality problems because it is rational to do so.

Consider driving, which leads to many traffic fatalities. These can be reduced nearly to zero by mandating a 3 mile per hour speed limit. But the cost of that would be prohibitive. We choose to not make that trade off. Everything we do involves trade-offs. There’s another very powerful mechanism which mitigates against traffic accidents — mutuality.

Mutuality means that if I cause an accident, I impose a cost on you as well as a cost on myself. Therefore it is not altruism that motivates me to avoid accidents but rational self-interest. It’s a powerful motive and must be recognized for its socially beneficial function.

Certainly, rules against excessive speeding on public roads are justified but imposing a rule that everyone must drive below 3 miles per hour is idiotic at best. That would be the equivalent of state-imposed lockdowns: the costs are prohibitive and disproportionately fall on the extremely poor in really poor countries.

What’s the alternative to lockdowns? Whatever people individually and collectively voluntarily choose to do to keep themselves as safe from becoming infected as they possibly can given that they have been informed of the risks and measures to minimize them.

That is, tell people what is known about the virus, how to protect themselves, who is most at risk from hospitalization and death from it, who is probably not at risk, and so on. And then let people do what they wish to do.

Businesses that can afford to have their employees work from home would rationally choose to do so without some uninformed bureaucrat forcing them to shut down. Remote learning is fine for some educational institutions but that’s not for people who don’t have the luxury of high speed internet access — which means most of the poor world.

Forcing businesses to close down is collectively more harmful than the small risk of death that the average person is exposed to due to the virus. Most people given the choice between certain death by starvation and a small risk of death would choose the latter over the former. Bureaucrats and politicians are willing to impose certain death by starvation on the poor because they themselves are shielded from bearing the cost of their insane policies.

Lockdowns are not a rational strategy ever. They should never be used. But they are used liberally because the costs never fall on the bureaucrats who impose lockdowns. In most cases, aside from the incorrigibly stupid, it’s just a naked power-grab.

I think it would be good if there were some feedback mechanism for bureaucrats. Something like the sort of feedback that private businesses have. The owners of a private firm have a wonderful disciplinary mechanism: profit and loss. If their decisions impose losses on people (meaning the customers don’t get bangs for their bucks), they suffer losses and go out of business.

Bureaucrats can impose billions of dollars of losses on a poor nation, and still continue to get their taxpayer funded salaries and retirement benefits. Bureaucracies never go out of business.[1]

In summary, here’s what I advocate. Let the people, individually and collectively decide their response to the pandemic. Let the people decide what to do, whom to associate with, and how to conduct themselves in public.

Let people decide to “social distance” if they wish to, to wear or not wear masks, to keep their businesses closed, or open and under what conditions. The people have knowledge of their local particulars more than any bureaucrat in his cozy office. People must have the freedom to go about their lives as they please without being herded like sheep.

Paternalism is OK for incompetent children but not for adult members of a free society. Top down government control has enormous costs that are entirely avoidable. It is way past the point where it becomes a categorical imperative for the people to push back and say, “This far and no further.”


[1] Imagine what it would be like if a few of the top loss-imposing bureaucrats were positively identified and made to suffer a very small bit of the costs they impose on people. That would discipline the whole lot and would be a significant deterrent against making policies that hurt innocent people.

The Gedankenexperiment goes like this. An anonymous group of extraordinary people decide to investigate the most egregious examples of bad public policies, and establish that one particular policy — let’s call it “Lockdown Policy A” — imposed a loss of $100 each on one billion people, for a total social loss of $100 billion, and led to the death by starvation of roughly 100,000 people.

Then the group figures out that the top bureaucrat Mr. Babu Billain is the one responsible for that disastrous Lockdown Policy A. So they go out and kidnap Mr Babu Billain, take him to a secret location, explain to him his crime, and then beat him severely for three days continuously taking care to not kill him, and then let him recover for two days, and beat him for three more days, again taking care not to kill him, and all the while video record the punishment administered, and then release Mr Babu Billain after 10 days, and then release the video to the public, with the warning that any high-ranking bureaucrat could face the same punishment for similar crimes.

I think the rush to make idiotic policies will suddenly disappear. The world could be a different place.

Author: Atanu Dey


4 thoughts on “Lockdowns — Part 3”

  1. Thank you for your essays on lockdowns. The whole Covid situation was a litmus test on if one truly believes in freedom (it has been test of many other things too) Thank you for advocating for ‘freedom’. Its a crying shame that the US – beacon of freedom – failed this test for a large part.

    Most people given the choice between certain death by starvation and a small risk of death would choose the latter over the former. Bureaucrats and politicians are willing to impose certain death by starvation on the poor because they themselves are shielded from bearing the cost of their insane policies.

    This is what happened in India. The poor people made a rational choice that it was better to take the risk of Covid and risk of injuries over starvation and depravation; and started walking to their homes – when the state had in the most callous fashion shut down all transportation.
    The blame of this suffering is on the western “experts” and politicians who professed doom and if its printed in the New York Times, the Indian elite take it like gospel.


  2. The “group of extraordinary people” is a little rarer than Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. The whole point of the market is that it must be self-managing without needed extraordinary people, saviors or heroes. And there are no such things as externalities. Everything is inside the market, pollution, bribes, blackmails, everything.

    Nice to know your thoughts and preferences about covid are shaped by being able to interact with adults much of your life. You cannot have interacted with too many Indians residing in India then.

    Your arguments prove that Indian politicians do not depend on popular support. Why, otherwise, would they ignore the economic plight of the masses to save a few middle class work-from-home types who don’t even vote? (The super rich will be fine no matter what the political decisions are.)

    Liked by 1 person

Comments sometimes end up in the spam folder. If you don't see your comment posted, please send me an email (atanudey at gmail.com) instead re-submitting the comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: