The arrogance of the libertarians

A few days ago, libertarian economist Donald Boudreaux published a photo of a woman sitting in an airport with some kind of bubble over her head.  He claimed that it illustrated how insanely risk averse some people are about COVID.  When some of his readers objected to this absurd propaganda, he responded as follows (my bold):

You’re one of three people to object to my critical posting earlier today at my blog of a photo of a masked woman at the Charlotte airport wearing a space helmet. You write that “chances are the person suffers from an extreme phobia which makes her an outlier…. The photo is worthless as a piece of information.”

Of course it’s true that very few people go to such extremes as to wear space helmets. But I disagree that the photo, as a piece of information, is worthless. I believe that it reveals the dangerous degree of misinformation now afoot.

Before Covid, almost no such sights were seen. Yet now, it’s common to encounter persons who behave in ways that, while (typically) not as extreme as wearing space helmets, are nevertheless most straightforwardly interpreted as indicating a complete misapprehension of the risks of Covid.

I myself, in November 2020, was on a flight from Washington to Dallas with a young woman dressed in a hazmat suit. Every day, here in my home in northern Virginia, I see individuals driving alone in their automobiles wearing masks. Every day I see people walking outdoors – often alone – while fully masked, and sometimes even with face shields over their masked faces. On many trips to the supermarket I see men and women using sanitizing wipes to cleanse shopping carts of some invisible surface venom. It’s not unusual to see customers in supermarkets and retail stores wearing latex gloves.

About a week ago a mother and her teenage daughter – both masked and likely fully vaccinated and boosted – refused to get into an elevator with me, presumably because I was unmasked. When the door opened and they saw me as they started to enter, they jumped back as if I were Vlad the Impaler. And about a year ago I witnessed a 40-something man walk into a restaurant and, while waiting to fetch his take-out order, slather hand-sanitizer not only on his hands, but also all over his face and neck.

One or a few instances of such behavior would indeed be worthless as information about the state of society. But what is revealing is the frequency of such behavior.

And among the sad realities revealed is the fact that a distressingly large number of people vastly overestimate the actual dangers of Covid. (Before Covid, only vanishingly few people behaved in such ways to avoid the likes of the flu or pneumonia.) Also revealed is the failure to put risks in perspective, given that many of the people who I see driving alone while masked are at greater risk of being killed or injured while in their automobiles than of suffering serious harm from Covid. Revealed, too, is widespread ignorance of the fact that Covid is rarely transmitted in the open air or from surfaces.

The photo of the space-helmeted woman, therefore, is evidence not that a small number of human beings have extreme phobias or mental-health issues. It instead is evidence of the dismaying fact that a significant swathe of humanity – until two years ago normal – has been driven hysterical by the misinformation and panic porn that continue to pour forth from the mainstream media, from many politicians, and from the likes of Anthony Fauci and other so-called ‘public-health experts.’

I have no doubt Boudreaux believes what he says, but . . . 

The photo is not evidence that a significant number of people are hysterical about COVID.  There are well over 200 million adults in the United States.  Perhaps a large percent of them are hysterical, but one photo does nothing to validate this claim. 

Boudreaux tacitly acknowledges this by providing additional anecdotal reports that some people seem to be irrational about COVID.  But again, his “evidence” is hardly dispositive.  Of course some people overestimate the dangers of COVID, but I haven’t seen anyone wearing a face shield in months, nor do I see people in stores slathering themselves with hand-sanitizer or wearing gloves.  I’ve never seen anyone wearing a hazmat suit.  And it is also true that many people underestimate COVID’s dangers and the benefits of vaccines, and overestimate the risks of vaccination.  Boudreaux conveniently ignores them.  In fact, Boudreaux has been known to dissemble about the benefits of vaccines himself.

In short, there’s nothing informative or educational about the picture or in Boudreaux’s follow-up post.  Boudreaux is just trying to bolster his one-sided narrative about COVID.

But what is extraordinary is Boudreaux’s arrogant confidence that he knows what motivates people and his complete lack of charity or sympathy towards people who behave in ways that he thinks are foolish.  I do see people outside wearing masks.  What’s wrong with that?  Maybe they just find it easier to get in the habit of putting a mask on whenever they leave the house.  Maybe they know what they are doing is unnecessary but quite consciously wear a mask solely for emotional comfort.  Maybe they (mistakenly) believe that COVID is easily transmitted outdoors.  Maybe they are worried about fine particulate air pollution.  Boudreaux doesn’t know, but he’s happy to belittle them.

And what is wrong with a mother and child who want to avoid riding in an elevator with an unmasked stranger during the omicron surge?  Sure, maybe they are irrationally scared of COVID.  Or maybe they are vulnerable or live with or care for an elderly relative who really is at risk from omicron.  Boudreaux doesn’t know, but he’s happy to belittle them.

I’m old enough to remember when classical liberals believed in toleration and decentralized decisionmaking, especially when their behavior, like wearing a mask unnecessarily, harms no one.