The libertarian crusade against lockdowns: the case of Australia

For months now, hard-core libertarians have been crusading against covid lockdowns in uncompromising terms.  This is a topic that merits careful study, but let’s take a brief look at some of their arguments, focusing on Australia.

The libertarian case against lockdowns can be summarized as follows:

Benefits:  The benefits of lockdowns are low, because 1) covid is not terribly dangerous to begin with (not much more dangerous than seasonal flu, we are frequently told), and 2) lockdowns do not substantially reduce the spread of covid.

Costs:  The costs of lockdowns are high – they harm sick people who need access to medical care, students who need in-person classes, people who need to earn a living, etc.

Conclusion:  The high costs of lockdowns outweigh the low benefits, and we should eliminate all lockdowns immediately.

Many libertarians also believe that lockdowns are inherently tyrannical and a totalitarian violation of freedom, and that lockdowns are putting us on the Road to Serfdom or something like that.  I will bracket these claims for now and focus on the arguments that non-libertarians are most likely to find persuasive.

The claim that lockdowns are harmful could conceivably be true.  However, there are also arguments to be made for at least some lockdowns, especially in places that have access to vaccines.  When vaccines are or soon will be available, delaying deaths by even a few weeks can save lives by giving people an opportunity to get vaccinated before they get infected. (See Acemoglu et al, here.)

To illustrate this, let’s consider the situation in Australia.  Australia is widely considered to be a covid success story.  The country closed its borders early, and used testing, contact tracing, and fairly intense lockdowns to suppress the virus.  This policy has worked to keep cases very low.  A few outbreaks were successfully controlled using these techniques, and for the most part Australians have been able to go about their lives.  The cumulative population adjusted death rate in Australia is lower than that in the United States by a factor of 50.  There have certainly been hardships, but many lives have undoubtedly been saved.

Unfortunately, Australia is now experiencing another round of hard lockdowns to contain an outbreak of the delta variant, and it is unclear if the current lockdowns make sense.  For example, it is possible that the delta variant is so contagious that there is little hope of containing it using lockdowns and contact tracing.  In this case, lockdowns are unlikely to save many lives and cannot be worth their costs, whether these are high or low.  However, this is simply a possibility; it is not self-evidently true.  Lockdowns may well slow the spread of the virus.  Given that vaccines are expected to become widely available over the next few months in Australia, lockdowns today may save hundreds or thousands of lives.

It should be possible to have a debate about the situation in Australia that acknowledges the tradeoffs and uncertainties involved.  But rather than engaging in this type of discussion, many anti-lockdowners have resorted to making misleading and tendentious arguments against lockdowns.

Consider this analysis:

Even though Australia has just a few thousand cases and remarkably few fatalities, its major cities have been subject to a series of shutdowns. Residents of Sydney have been told to stay at home other than for essential purposes since June. . . . How has it come to the point that Australia needs to call up the military to eradicate a virus that is now endemic in the world? In order to uphold its zero Covid approach Australia will need to keep its borders closed forever and lock down its cities every time a cluster of cases is detected.

Let’s pause here to note that Australia does not need to keep its borders closed and its lockdown in place “forever” to save a considerable number of lives.  It just needs to keep the lockdown in place until either 1) it gets the current outbreak under control or 2) Australians have an opportunity to get vaccinated.  Perhaps this makes sense.

By now there’s a wealth of studies establishing the ineffectiveness of lockdowns, many of which I have referenced in earlier articles in The Spectator Australia, and some that purport to show their effectiveness. Writing in our British parent publication, statistician Professor Simon Wood showed that new infections peaked and fell before lockdown on all three occasions in England.

It is true that the effect of lockdowns on the prevalence of covid is uncertain.  When the virus surges in an area, two things happen:  1) people take voluntary steps to avoid exposure to other people, for example they stop eating in restaurants, and 2) the government restricts some activities that bring people together, such as eating in restaurants.  Together, voluntary behavior changes and mandatory lockdowns slow the spread of the virus and reduce its prevalence (at least pre-delta), but it is difficult to know how much of the drop is due to voluntary self-protection and how much is due to lockdowns.  (It is also very difficult to know how much “lockdown fatigue” matters for both voluntary behavior change and government mandates, whether a short, final lockdown to control covid during a vaccination campaign could be effective, etc.)

Two points need to be kept in mind when considering the case for lockdowns.  First, it is plausible to believe that strong lockdowns coupled with contact tracing are at least somewhat effective at suppressing the virus.  In the case of Australia, a few covid surges have been contained over the course of the pandemic, and it is not obvious that voluntary self-protection alone would have been sufficient to suppress the virus given the low prevalence in Australia.  Second, at least some of the costs of social distancing are caused by voluntary efforts to reduce exposure to the virus, not by lockdowns.  If most people will not work in or eat at restaurants during a covid surge, then most of the economic losses in that sector will occur regardless of whether the government closes restaurants.  Thus, a serious effort to evaluate the current lockdowns in Australia would consider the possibility that lockdowns have an incremental effect on the spread of covid, on top of voluntary efforts to avoid infection, and it would acknowledge that much of the economic damage done by the virus is due to voluntary behavior changes, not lockdowns.  And (of course) it would consider the fact that vaccination rates are likely to increase sharply over the next few weeks. 

Another libertarian analysis:

As I am writing this in my adopted country of Australia, roughly half of its 25 million people are in lockdown. My State of Queensland ordered its more than five million people into a three-day lockdown a few days ago and the morning I wrote this, extended that lockdown. You might ask, what Covid disaster could warrant this response? In the last seven months, Australia has had one, yes one, Covid death (and even that was someone who had contracted the disease abroad). Indeed, as of last Friday, Australia has fewer than 339 active Covid cases (for comparison purposes the United Kingdom has over 370,000); it has 67 Covid hospitalizations nationwide (the UK almost 1,600); it has three ICU admissions (some 260 odd in the UK); and as I said there has been just one Covid death in the entire country halfway into 2021 (for the UK it’s just shy of 55,000). Since the start of the pandemic, Australia has seen just over 900 Covid deaths, most of those in just one of our six States, and most of those in turn in old age facilities.

To state the obvious, the low covid fatality rate could reflect the success of Australia’s lockdown policy.  It could be taken as evidence that the policy should be continued, rather than as showing there is no need for any government action.

One more:

Our politicians and experts know that public support for Zero Covid is wavering. Hence they are now trying to scare us into compliance by using apocalyptic terms to describe the threat Victoria is facing. For example, Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, justified this latest lockdown on the grounds that the particular strain we are dealing with is an ‘absolute beast’. People, he said, were being infected by ‘fleeting contact’ in ways the medical community had not seen before.

This is a fearmongering tactic the British people are already familiar with – the talk of ever-more dangerous variants and transmissible strains. It seems the authorities will do whatever it takes to make the public toe the line on the restrictions.

It took less than a week for the truth to come out about this ‘absolute beast’. Last Thursday evening the health department admitted that two cases previously held up as examples of how beastly this new strain is were actually false positives.

Again to state the obvious, the fact that two cases turned out to be false positives is evidence of nothing, except that two cases happened to be false positives.  Really, is this the kind of reasoning we should use to set public policy?

Finally, consider this:

So – over the past year in Australia the number of deaths from/with Covid-19 is approximately 18 percent of the annual number of deaths in Australia from accidental falls (assuming that the year 2017-18 is representative on this front).

I leave the reader to draw from these facts whatever conclusions he or she finds most plausible.

Hmmm, what conclusions can a reader draw from these facts?  Perhaps that Australia’s policy has been very effective at keeping covid deaths low, and that these policies should remain in place until people have a chance to get vaccinated?  Of course, while this is a perfectly plausible interpretation of these “facts”, that is not the conclusion the reader is encouraged to reach. 

There is much more to say about the libertarian response to the pandemic, but for now I will simply observe that libertarians do not seem interested in evaluating the costs and benefits of lockdowns in a careful, nuanced way.