'The Pretense of Knowledge' has Cost America Dearly
Recently, Brit Hume, the sober and understated Fox News commentator, voiced the thoughts of millions when he said,
“I think its time to consider the possibility… that this lockdown, as opposed to the more moderate mitigation efforts… is a colossal public policy calamity.”
The financial extent of the calamity was quantified by economist Scott Grannis when he observed that “almost overnight, we have wiped out all the net job gains of the past 14 years.” He made that comment on April 12 and the losses aren’t over yet. Grannis bluntly concluded that, “The shutdown of the U.S. economy will prove to be the most expensive self-inflicted injury in the history of mankind.”
The loss of liberty incurred as a result of shutdown is not as easily quantifiable, but is no less significant.
Epidemiological “models” have provided the scientific basis for this large-scale abrogation of personal and economic liberty. Now that the models have been shown to be grossly inaccurate, some are demanding accountability.
In a recent op-ed, Georgia congressman Jody Hice wrote:
“Public health experts, scientists, and government officials all warned that millions would die unless strict measures were put in place… So, we willingly took unprecedented steps to save the most vulnerable among us, even at the cost of wreaking unparalleled economic damage. The experts said it was necessary, that the coronavirus was especially deadly, and our medical systems were in danger of being overwhelmed… Now, weeks into the pandemic, the dire outcomes foretold by experts have failed to come to pass. The models used to justify the closure of society have been shown to be wildly inaccurate… We need to examine why the models failed us, why their creators have been so far off the mark, and why these projections were used to justify policies that have resulted in unparalleled economic disruption.”
It is worth having that discussion. In retrospect, and despite their air of authority, the experts never had enough knowledge about this virus to make reliable calculations about the future.
But the real problem with the models weren’t that they proved to be false, but rather that they were promoted with false certitude.
“I confess that I prefer true but imperfect knowledge,” economist Friedrich Hayek once said, “to a pretense of exact knowledge that is likely to be false.”
Hayek’s remark, given as he was accepting the Nobel Prize in 1974, was that thinking of economics as a “science” might lead to “a pretense of knowledge,” the idea that any one person might know enough to engineer society successfully, unmindful of unintended consequences.
But Hayek went on to note that his reasoning applied to the physical sciences as well:
“There is danger in the exuberant feeling of ever growing power which the advance of the physical sciences has engendered and which tempts man to try, ‘dizzy with success’… to subject not only our natural but also our human environment to the control of a human will. The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society--a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.”
These observations, made over 40 years ago, look prescient today.
How might we have acted if the models didn’t exist? Most likely, we would have chosen a more traditional approach to fighting the pandemic: quarantine and protect the sick and vulnerable, institute some sensible mitigation policies, and otherwise get on with life.
This is essentially the approach Sweden has chosen, and for which it has been pilloried in the American media. Yet, Sweden’s policies are based on thinking that is quintessentially American.
In an article in the UK Spectator, Fredrik Erixon, the director of the European Centre for International Political Economy in Brussels, explained that,
“We worry about Covid-19 a lot. Many people work from home. Restaurants are open, but not bustling. Keeping two metres apart at bus stops is something Swedes were pretty good at before the crisis: we don’t need much encouragement now. We’re careful. But our approach to fighting the pandemic starts from something more fundamental: in a liberal democracy you have to convince and not command people into action. If you lose that principle, you will lose your soul.”
So far, the Swedish strategy of allowing some exposure to the virus in order to build immunity among the general population while protecting high-risk groups like the elderly appears to be paying off. The country’s chief epidemiologist reported that “herd immunity” could be reached in the capital of Stockholm in a matter of weeks. Moreover, Sweden has achieved this while taking less of an economic hit than other countries in Europe.
Sweden’s approach was a mixture of epidemiology and principle. Erixon noted that the concept of a national lockdown is “deeply illiberal -- and, until now, untested.”
He allowed that Sweden may change if facts warrant. “But,” he wrote, “the vast majority, for now, want Sweden to keep its cool. We don’t want to remember 2020 as the time when we caused irreparable harm to our liberties -- or lost them entirely.”
Sweden instructing the U.S. on liberty. Who would have thought?
Graphic credit: Picpedia
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