As public consciousness of the COVID-19 pandemic’s death toll gives way to the economic impact of shut-downs, border closings, and other mitigation measures, the matter of when and how to reopen the economy and lift restrictions on people’s movements and behaviors looms large. As I recently blogged, the hard part of the politicians’ job is the easing, not the restricting, for it is a given that there will be more COVID deaths upon easing of restrictions than there would be under continued lockdown.

And, as the situation evolves and information emerges and proliferates, the inevitable Monday-morning quarterbacking and finger-pointing become more common. Already, we are hearing from scientists, medical professionals, and other experts that they, not politicians, should have been given final word on what to do and when to do it.

This sounds great. After all, as WSJ Editor James Taranto often put it, what would we do without experts?

But, Taranto was usually (invariably?) sarcastic or ironic in his declaration. Fact is, different experts have told us different things, and their knowledge has been increasing over these weeks just as ours has. There’s little to assure us that they’d have gotten it right where politicians got it wrong. Moreso, the definition of “right” itself is contentious.

If your goal is to minimize Coronavirus deaths, regardless of everything else, a certain set of actions and impositions emerge. But, if we are honest, that neither is nor should be the goal. It is a reality that societies tolerate a certain number of preventable deaths in exchange for functionality. If we were to mechanically limit all vehicles to a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour, we’d save tens of thousands of lives each year. If we were to prohibit bars from having parking lots (or ban booze entirely with a zealousness that exceeds even today’s War on Drugs), we’d reduce the number of drunk driving fatalities markedly. Bad oysters sicken 80,000 and kill 100 each hear. Swimming pools, power tools, ladders, multistory houses, and countless other examples present themselves.

Thus, the question isn’t about minimizing Coronavirus deaths no matter the consequences. Nor is it about minimizing all forms of death by performing a multivariate probability calculation (we are witnessing people either being denied or eschewing medical treatment for other maladies, for one thing. Mental and economic stress cause their own health issues, as well as shortening life expectancy, for another. And on and on). It’s about figuring out the balance between Coronavirus deaths and the normal functioning of society. This is a political question, and it relegates experts to advisory roles, not final authority.

It’s also a question that’ll have different answers in different parts of the country, based not only on local parameters, but local predilections. This moves it even further into the realm of politics.

Since people crave power and control, either for themselves or their proxies, we witness countless conflicting demands that “X” be put in charge. People in high-infection rates like New York have vastly different opinions than people in locales that have seen little or no impact, and who are bristling under what they consider excessive and continued lock-downs. Everyone’s trotting out “Science!” that supports their views, but what they’re actually doing is telling their politicians to act the way they want, with “science!” simply as a validator. There are indeed objective truths and best-knowledge, and these should inform all our decisions, many (excepting some doctors and scientists) don’t actually want the doctors and scientists in charge . They want to put the words of doctors and scientists who say what fits their preferences behind the politicians who fit their preferences.

But, even if we set all that aside, the reality is that politics and policy involve weighing many factors that don’t necessarily fit with what a medical expert would be expected to advise. We tolerate certain risks in exchange for a functioning economy and the ability to lead relatively free lives. Can a scientist determine the level of that tolerance? Or do we, collectively, specify it through our behaviors and our elected representatives? The science should inform, not make, these political decisions.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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