Criticizing covid policy is fine, but you need to roll up your sleeves and do some policy analysis

Libertarians criticize covid policy in broad, uncompromising terms.  These arguments are unproductive at best; at worst they are divisive and potentially destructive.  Many are just propaganda.

This does not mean that criticism of the government response to covid is off limits.  The alternative to the libertarian approach is policy analysis:  evaluating specific policies on their own merits by marshalling evidence and estimating their likely effects, and then supporting policies that seem beneficial and fair, opposing policies that seem harmful and unfair, and suggesting alternative policy ideas that are not receiving due attention.  This is the approach taken by non-libertarian economists. 

To see why policy analysis is essential, consider the case of Australia.  Australia is one of a handful of countries that have followed an elimination strategy for covid.  It has used travel restrictions to keep the virus out and lockdowns to deal with occasional outbreaks.  This has kept cases at very low levels, but it is possible that pursing this policy was a mistake.  More plausibly, it is possible that the elimination strategy worked reasonably well for the first year of the epidemic but is no longer sustainable with the more contagious delta variant circulating.  Cases in Australia have been increasing rapidly for two months despite strict lockdowns.  Maybe it is time to throw in the towel. 

Maybe.  But if we believe that the current elimination strategy is no longer workable due to delta, we still need to decide what to do, policy-wise.  One possibility is to simply eliminate all restrictions on travel and to end lockdowns throughout the country.  But this is not the only alternative to the current policy regime.  Maybe we should keep at least some restrictions in place, while putting the pedal to the metal on vaccinations. 

Let me give an example to illustrate why keeping some restrictions in place might make sense.  Almost all current cases in Australia are in New South Wales and Victoria (Sydney and Melbourne).  One possibility would be to loosen the tight restrictions in those places, while keeping at least some internal travel restrictions in place to protect people in other parts of the country during the current vaccination campaign.  I am not claiming that this is the right policy.  I am not an expert on Australia or covid policy.  What I am claiming is that it is not self-evident that Australians should just abandon all restrictions and let the virus run its course. We need policy analysis.

It is not even self-evident that the hard elimination strategy should be abandoned in the face of delta.  The delta variant does seem to respond to social distancing.  In other countries cases have risen rapidly and then receded as people react to rising infection levels, the same pattern we saw with earlier less contagious variants.  Perhaps this could still happen in Australia (it may be happening in New Zealand, where it appears that new cases are declining, although it is too soon to be certain).  Even if elimination is no longer realistic, slowing the spread of delta over the next few weeks could save many lives and illnesses.

I am not arguing for the status quo or making excuses for the excesses or abuses of current policy.  The current policy mix and its implementation is absolutely fair game for criticism.  What is not acceptable is to criticize covid policy in Australia – or anywhere else –without making clear what alternative you are proposing and explaining why you think your proposed alternative will lead to better outcomes in some overall sense than the current policy regime.  Just railing against lockdowns or shifting the burden of proof to non-libertarians is not a substitute for policy analysis.

To be continued . . .