Prudence Over Expertise

By W. David Montgomery

The big news on May 12, 2020 was the apparent dissonance between President Trump and his expert on the COVID-19 epidemic, Dr. Fauci. President Trump has been encouraging the states to let economic activity resume, stating “We did the right thing…but now we have to get it back open.” Dr Fauci warned Congress about “the danger of trying to open the country prematurely” that would “risk needless suffering and death.” They are both right.  

A recent essay asked why it is that economists and public health experts cannot understand each other. Its very valid point was that “(u)nlike epidemiologists, who identify a biological enemy and try to defeat it without thinking much about the costs, economists live on trade-offs (and) embrace the hardheaded reality that helping one person often leaves another less well-off”

Both disciplines train practitioners to think systematically, to develop mathematical models to explore how policy interventions might change the future, to rely on data when possible, and to use their expertise to recommend interventions with the potential to improve outcomes.

The mission accepted by most public health experts is to defeat a disease and save as many lives as humanly possible. This is a grand ambition and a very effective motivator for research and caregiving. But by its nature, the goal is always out of reach – a little more precaution, a little more time to develop a cure, less sleep and more effort – may always save more lives.

Consequently, the ambition to defeat disease cannot be the single voice that guides policy. It misses something.

That is where the training and experience of economists comes in, but not because economists have different values and advocate for dollars and profits rather than health. Economists contribute perspective and data on the broader harm that could be done, which includes not only illness and death caused by COVID19 but also damage done by policies intended to combat the disease.

Hard economic data, personal observation and unending news reports reveal the hardship that families are suffering when the breadwinner is laid off, when learning is slowed, when necessities become scarce, and when treatment for painful conditions and even testing for potentially life-threatening illnesses is denied to preserve supplies for treating potential COVID-19 victims. These stresses also create threats to life and health.

When a tradeoff like this exists, experts can help inform, but it takes a broader view and prudence to draw the line in a reasonable place.

President Trump does not exactly qualify as an economist, but at times political concerns can motivate politicians to look at tradeoffs in a balanced way. They cannot afford to let some moral absolute or professional principle blind them to the fact that their job is to figure out how to reduce the harm and distribute the burden justly.

This recognition of the central role of politics in dealing with critical tradeoffs is little more than common sense, but it runs counter to a strong political demand for deference to the absolute pronouncements of health and other scientific professionals.

That technical expertise can provide answers to all matters of national importance has been part of the progressive faith since the New Deal. FDR exulted that “The day of enlightened administration has come,” meaning that technicians could determine objectively what was best for the country – and that the new political order would free them to get it done.

This point of view implies that there is a single right answer to each question of public policy, and the usual criterion for getting the right answer is that it makes some (or all) better off and no one worse off.

Since common sense suggest that is a practical impossibility, another principle has been advanced to put decisions that affect life and health into the hands of technicians. It is called the precautionary principle, and in the relevant form for COVID19 today, it says that when the risks of a particular action are unclear or unknown, assume the worst and avoid the activity. Thus, the decision of when to act can be placed entirely in the hands of those who assess the risks.

This principle gives philosophical justification to the demand for continued or even strengthened policies to maintain the status quo in social distancing and economic lockdown until a cure is found. As the new research article referenced in the Worth Reading sidebar points out, there is a great deal we do not know about the transmission of viruses like COVID19. The risks of reopening the economy too early are clearly unknown, therefore do not do it.

Unfortunately for the precautionary principle, it requires knowing with certainty what the consequences of not acting will be. And that is not the case today. Depending on the source, predictions of the consequences of continued lockdown range from a quickly reparable loss of sales and jobs to the catastrophic breakdown of the global economic system. It is fair to say that we are in uncharted economic territory in guessing about the consequences of a continued lockdown.

This is especially true when we take into account not only the loss of a 20 – 30% share of economic output for several months, but the consequences of adding something like $1 trillion to national debt each month. There is no getting around the need for political decisions about how much to risk the future wellbeing of workers and families in order to reduce the risk of infection by some amount. We have no idea how bad things could become if we were to stand down until a cure is found, and if the experts know what they are talking about at all there is certainly a risk of more cases of COVID19 if everyone goes back to their previous ways of life and business.

The availability of emergency powers to combat a public health emergency has confronted every state governor with this decision. The resulting Federalist experiment in independent decision-making by each state will provide a rich database for seeing the consequences of different weighing of the two types of risk.

Current statistics suggest that many are failing and some, perhaps just the lucky ones, are succeeding. The universal consensus is that Governor Cuomo botched the job, and the governor of South Dakota looks great. It will take a retrospective review to identify the effects of different decisions by controlling for the real hazard that each state faced.

As he gives guidance to these governors, President Trump must also steer between the rocks of reopening too soon and the sandbars of opening too late. We must hope that he is pinning his hopes of winning in November on taking the advice of Dr. Fauci as well as his economic advisors to plot a safe – even if not optimal – course. Democrats should try the same, if they could get over their hatred of the President and forego their wish to make hay in the crisis by piling on more debt and funding programs with little or no prospect of mitigating the harm of slowed economic activity. Their one-sided political concentration on COVID19 as a public health disaster is not helping to reach a sensible balance.

As the writer who addressed the issue of excessive deference to technical expertise put it,

“What is required is neither partisan opportunists nor technical experts but rather prudence that mediates between politics and science. Prudence—that ability to see, however dimly, through the fog that necessarily envelops political life—combines the humility that accepts our limitations with the decisiveness that statesmanship cannot elude.”

The other three cardinal virtues would be very useful as well:

Fortitude – an attitude of taking one’s lumps for being wrong, avoiding panic, and refusing to hide behind experts

Justice – an ability to balance the needs of the old, the young, the sick, the well, the unemployed, the bankrupt

Temperance – a willingness to forego using a crisis as an excuse to spend greedily and wastefully

If only Plato were in charge of the Republic.

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