06 June 2020

COVID lockdown

The government of Sweden, unlike that of every other European country, did not impose a major lockdown on its citizens in response to COVID-19. This policy has been criticised for generating a higher death rate, and for failing to prevent an economic slump. The architect of the policy, Anders Tegnell, has been forced to apologise. But several advantages of the Swedish approach have not received attention. The absence of a lockdown avoids, among other things:
1) driving people batty — whether from claustrophobia, the general artificiality of the new lifestyle, or the fact that it's imposed coercively from above (if this effect fails to show up in subsequent mental health statistics, it doesn't follow it's not real)
2) having permanent unhelpful effects on young children with relatively plastic brains, for whom the artificiality may soon become hardwired as normal
3) habituating citizens to the idea that the state has a right to direct, organise and scrutinise their lives, for the sake of health or other supposedly desirable social goals.
   The longer a lockdown continues, the worse these effects are likely to become. Three weeks? Most people can cope, and will deal with it as a one-off. Three months? There are likely to be long-term effects, but they can be reversed, given time. Six months or longer, and we are likely to be in the territory of permanent changes in human psychology, and in attitudes to the government-individual relationship.
   Our lives are being determined by an order of priorities chosen by members of the medical and allied professions. Saving lives is well and good, but it is not the only value, and not necessarily the most important one.

It is time to think about rowing back, not about ways of progressing the COVID intervention regime still further. Digital contact tracing is a disturbing development from this perspective. Criticism has focused on the possibility of data harvesting, but there are other concerns. The NHS Test and Trace website asks individuals who have tested positive to provide details of "people you have been in close contact with in the 48 hours before your symptoms started". According to a BBC article, the people whose details have been entered are then contacted and
told to stay at home for 14 days. You will be asked to self-isolate, even if you do not have symptoms, to stop the danger of the virus spreading. You should not leave your home for any reason.
There is no reference in the article — or elsewhere on the web, as far as I have been able to ascertain — to what happens if you are contacted in error. Error could come from the person entering your details online, or occur anywhere along the bureaucratic pipeline. The requirement to self-isolate is currently voluntary, but coercion is evidently on the cards:
the Department for Health has said that if people don't comply "we will not hesitate to introduce tougher measures, for example making visits to check they're home or issuing fines if they are found outside the house".
We seem to be facing a scenario where the police have the power to investigate a person, and fine them, purely on the basis that someone entered the person's name and address into a computer somewhere.

Rather than just being short-termist, we need to think about long-term effects, and in other areas than just health. In particular, we need to think about what UK economists Peacock and Wiseman* termed the displacement effect — later renamed the ratchet effect by American economist Robert Higgs — i.e. the tendency for expansions in government to be far easier to produce than to reverse.
Under modern ideological conditions, a national emergency produces a virtual free-for-all of policies, programs, and plans that expand the government’s power in new directions and strengthen it where it previously existed. The crisis-driven surge of government growth may be analyzed usefully in terms of a multi-phase ratchet effect.
   Opportunists, both inside and outside the formal state apparatus, play distinctive roles during each phase of this phenomenon. Indeed, their actions create the ratchet effect. These opportunists pursue their objectives by means of new government personnel, new government policies, new government agencies, new statutes, and new court decisions.
   When the crisis ends, some emergency agencies (perhaps renamed or relocated within the bureaucracy) remain in operation; some emergency laws remain in force; and some court decisions reached during the crisis stand as precedents for future decisions, including decisions to be handed down in normal times. Above all, the populace goes forward with altered political and ideological sensibilities.
[Robert Higgs, 'The political economy of crisis opportunism']
We know that the topic of public health, and in particular infectious diseases, provides fans of collective action with one of the most compelling justifications for intervention. One need not posit that love of intervention is the primary motive, to consider that there may be a pro-intervention bias at work. There are plenty of commentators and analysts of medicine — I suspect it is the majority — whose personal utopias are essentially collectivist, and who may see this crisis (consciously or unconsciously) as an opportunity to move things in a direction they regard as morally desirable.

* Alan T. Peacock and Jack Wiseman, The Growth of Public Expenditure in the United Kingdom, NBER Books, 1961.