How to spot libertarian Covid-19 propaganda: one week of bad faith at the Brownstone Institute

Almost everything wrong with the libertarian approach to covid policy has been on display at the Brownstone Institute recently:  misrepresentation of facts, misdirection, revisionist history.  The bad faith is almost beyond belief, except, well, it’s exactly what we have come to expect from the fine libertarians at Brownstone.  The 6 essays I discuss here were published by the Brownstone Institute from December 4 to December 12, 2021.  This post is on the long side, but the first two points are the most important.

1:  Protecting the vulnerable?  Look, it’s Haley’s Comet!

According to its mission statement, the Brownstone Institute is “in many ways, the spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration”.  The Great Barrington Declaration, published in October 2020, argued for an approach to covid policy called “focused protection”.  Under focused protection we would take steps to protect the most vulnerable people from covid, but all restrictions intended to reduce the spread of the virus would be lifted to accelerate the arrival of herd immunity.  Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, two of the three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, are senior scholars at the Brownstone Institute.

Protecting the vulnerable is important, and he New York Times recently ran a smart and humane piece by Zeynep Tufecki arguing for an urgent program to provide booster doses to nursing home residents (and people in assisted living and retirement communities) to protect them from the Omicron variant.  She also argues for increased testing, and for boosters for staff and visitors.

You might think that the Brownstone Institute would agree – protecting people in nursing homes is a familiar talking point of those who favor focused protection. 

Yet instead of an urgent call for a program to get third shots into the arms of nursing home residents, the Brownstone Institute published an article by Bhattacharya, “What Does Focused Protection Mean for Nursing Homes?”, that makes it sound as if the need for protecting the vulnerable has passed and states that “even the focused protection approach has its costs.”  He goes on to relate an anecdote about a friend who died in a nursing home, the point of which, as far as I can see, is to cast doubt on the justification of focused protection in nursing homes.  Omicron?  Fading immunity in the elderly?  Nothing but crickets.

Focused protection, the central pillar of the Great Barrington Declaration, was a con.  If you or a loved one are vulnerable to Covid-19, the fine libertarians at the Brownstone Institute want to wish you the best of luck.

2:  Delaying deaths, savings lives:  misdirection by Tucker and Bhattacharya

A recent editorial in the New York Times begins:

Nearly two years into the pandemic, it is clear that the coronavirus is not going to disappear anytime soon. Surges will happen, variants of concern will pop up and mitigation strategies will need to evolve. Yet too many Americans are still paralyzed with doubt and fear over each new uncertainty, as trust in government and other institutions to manage the virus ranges from shaky to nonexistent.

It is past time to ask ourselves, as another Covid winter begins, if we have to keep living like this: Anxious over the unknown, worried about large indoor gatherings, tense at every bit of virus news and frustrated and at times contemptuous of fellow Americans who have a dramatically different sense of acceptable risk.

I largely agree with this (see links below), and I think the Times has done a mixed job covering the pandemic – they have offered valuable information carefully presented, coupled with the kind of fearmongering that much of the press engaged in. 

Brownstone Institute founder Jeffrey Tucker reacts to this Times editorial with a piece called “Am I Detecting a Shift at the New York Times?”  Tucker’s take is basically that this vindicates the Great Barrington Declaration. 

But it doesn’t.  The point of the Times piece is that we can scale back our precautions now because we have vaccines and treatments.  The Great Barrington Declaration argued that lockdowns merely delayed deaths, at a high cost.  It advocated eliminating all precautions immediately, without vaccines, even though clinical trials of several vaccines were actively under way.

It was clear in the fall of 2020 that delaying infections would save lives if the vaccine trials were successful.  It was still possible to argue that lockdowns were unjustified, even with vaccines in the offing, but to my knowledge the proponents of the Great Barrington Declaration never offered a serious estimate of lives that might be saved and the costs that would be incurred by continuing lockdowns for a few months to see if the vaccines were effective and to allow a vaccination campaign to begin.  You can see Bhattacharya evading and dissembling on this critical point in this debate transcript.

3:  Doing economics without paying attention to incentives

Next up, a post by Vinay Prasad titled “Has the Cleveland Clinic Made the Right Call?”  Prasad asks if firing unvaccinated health care workers is justified on consequentialist grounds.  His main point is that firing an unvaccinated worker reduces the risk of covid infections among patients and staff, which is good, but it also can lead to staffing shortages, which is bad.  Prasad speculates that the bad effect is bigger.

Maybe so, but he entirely overlooks the fact that most health care workers comply with mandates.  A mandate might lead several workers to get vaccinated for every one that gets fired.  This does not end the discussion about costs and benefits, but it certainly changes the arithmetic.  And it’s not a complicated point.

4:  Dissembling about infection and transmission

In a piece titled “A Letter to Send to Venues that Exclude the Unvaccinated”, Donald Boudreaux shares a form letter he intends to send to theaters, museums and other places that require proof of vaccination and masking.  Boudreaux misleadingly suggests (not for the first time) that being vaccinated does not reduce the risk of infection and transmission.  He asserts that forcing all patrons to show proof of vaccination is excessive, since some people have post-infection immunity.  This ignores both the fact that vaccination is valuable even for people who have recovered from covid and the administrative burdens that an exemption for post-infection immunity would put on venue owners.  Finally, Boudreaux argues against masking requirements because “vaccination is effective”, which ignores the fact that vaccination is not completely effective at preventing infection and some people are still at serious risk from covid. 

To be clear, I am sympathetic to arguments that we need to begin the process of reducing fear and getting back to normalCall me old-fashioned, but I do not think that dissembling about the evidence is helpful.  It breeds polarization and distrust.  And venue operators also need to deal with the fears of their patrons, real and imagined.  Why is Boudreaux, a self-proclaimed classical liberal who passionately believes in the informational advantages of decentralized decision-making, arrogantly telling venue owners how to run their operations? 

5:  When reason is not on your side, use emotion

Next, a post by Serena Johnson titled “I’m Fighting for My Right to Learn”.  Johnson is a college student in Canada who is blind and has cerebral palsy.  She believes that getting vaccinated poses an unacceptable risk to her health and has refused to get vaccinated.  Her university has required her to take courses on-line, which she says doesn’t work for her, and so she has been forced to take a leave. 

Johnson is clearly a brave and sympathetic person, and her essay does illuminate the hardships that various covid restrictions can create for people whose lives and needs are unusual.  But at the same time, her essay is confused.  At the beginning of her essay she claims that “whether people choose to obtain the shot or not should be considered private medical information.”  This is clearly wrong; if vaccination status is private information, then mandatory childhood vaccination programs would be impossible (vaccination could only be advisory).  We know where this leads.  Thousands of children would die pointlessly.

It is possible that Johnson is being wrongly denied a medical exemption.  She claims that the “experimental” mRNA vaccines pose an unacceptable risk to her.  It is impossible for us to evaluate this claim.  Her talk about “experimental” therapies suggests she has been taken in by anti-vaccine propaganda, but perhaps the university administration is being unreasonable in evaluating her case or inflexible in working out an accommodation.  What is clear is that being opposed to mandatory vaccination without thinking about consequences is unreasonable, and it is wrong for the Brownstone Institute to use her sympathetic case – and her confused essay – in its campaign against mandatory vaccination. 

6:  Of course, some things embarrass even the Brownstone Institute

I have noted previously that the Brownstone Institute changed a misleading post without acknowledging error.  It recently published an article “The Paucity of Evidence for Mandated Covid-19 Vaccine Boosters”, by Andrew Bostom.  This article has now vanished down the internet memory hole.  It does not appear to be in the internet archive.  As of today, Bostom is listed as an author at Brownstone, with no articles to his credit.  Whoops!

If the Brownstone Institute is embarrassed by the nonsense and disinformation it publishes, there’s a fix for that . . .