Economic Lessons from COVID-19

One of the most important things economists can do in a pandemic is not forget what we know. We know that central planners don’t have enough information and insight about the lives and activities of 330 million people to plan those lives in a thoughtful way. We know the problems that emerge when you distribute something valuable by giving it away. We know that government officials face bad incentives. We know that externalities pose problems for the straightforward “leave it to the market” viewpoint, but that large government interventions create new problems. In the rush to make pandemic policy, too many of these lessons were cast aside.

This is the opening paragraph of David R. Henderson, “Economic Lessons from COVID-19,” Reason, June 2021.

Another excerpt:

By the end of the Cold War, most economists—even some socialists—were acknowledging that Mises and Hayek had won the debate: The Soviet planners had failed because they had embarked on a task that could not succeed.

But in the COVID-19 era, a lot of policy makers have let this lesson slip their minds. While few have advocated full-blown state socialism, many have forgotten the more general truth that officials don’t have enough information to make detailed plans about people’s lives.

Take Gavin Newsom, the first governor to impose a statewide lockdown. The California Democrat listed 16 infrastructure sectors deemed so essential that they would not have to lock down. Restaurants, hairdressers, gymnasiums, and schools, not being among them, were compelled to close. So were large swaths of the retail economy. But Newsom did not base these regulations on a sophisticated understanding of what is essential and what is not. He couldn’t. No one has that understanding, for the reasons Hayek laid out long ago. The list of essential industries came from an old script; it was not highly correlated with the relative value of various industries and was not closely based on risks of spread.

On the externality issue:

To the extent there is an externality, we should also remember a point made by Nobel-winning economist Ronald Coase: The person who suffers from pollution downwind from a factory would not suffer if he weren’t there. That observation has led economists in Coase’s tradition to the concept of “least-cost avoider.” Economists tend to focus on the efficient outcome, and the efficient outcome requires looking at who has the lower cost of reducing or eliminating the externality. When people live near an airport, for example, the cheaper solution might be to have airplanes produce less noise. But it might instead be for homeowners to install double-pane or triple-pane windows.

In this pandemic, governments have chosen to prevent a huge number of interactions among people who are at low risk of suffering from the disease. Given that the risk of death by COVID-19 for older people with comorbidities is orders of magnitude higher than the risk for the general population, the lower-cost solution would probably have been for the elderly to isolate themselves.

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