The libertarian information filter, vaccine hesitancy, and the “focused protection” con
On February 11, 2022, Faye Flam published an opinion piece in Bloomberg titled “Mask Mandates Didn’t Make Much of a Difference Anyway.” The subhead was “The policies clearly didn’t stop omicron. Let’s focus on tactics that have worked better.”
The headline is somewhat misleading. Flam acknowledges that masks may be beneficial, especially high-quality masks, and she quotes an expert who supports masking when cases are high and vaccination rates are low. More important, she emphasizes the importance of getting more people vaccinated, which is surely right, and something we should all be able to agree on.
The libertarian information filter
Flam’s piece was cited in an essay in the libertarian publication Reason by Smelkinson and Bienen. This Reason essay was then excerpted by libertarian economist Donald Boudreaux. Here is the entirety of his excerpt, with the sentence citing Flam in bold:
The list of errors made by the CDC is so lengthy that a one-month process—an entirely arbitrary time period—will all but guarantee that the review is superficial and toothless. CDC guidance is responsible for some of the longest school closures in the world due to myopic policies that were overly focused on cases and transmission. School closures, where students of all ages were instructed to stay home and even avoid the outdoors, led predictably to significant rises in learning loss, mental health issues, obesity, and substance use disorders. The CDC’s shockingly unethical and underreported alliance with the American Federation for Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers union, also cast doubt on who exactly was steering the CDC ship as they crafted school guidelines.
The CDC also ignored natural immunity when drafting federal-level vaccine mandates and allowing exemptions to testing, policies that were then duplicated on the state level, resulting in the firing of thousands of healthcare workers and public employees. They oversold the benefits of masking post-vaccination, with no randomized controlled trials (RCTs) conducted to show efficacy, and failed to run any RCTs that might have addressed the weakness of data guiding many of their interventions.
See what happened? A somewhat balanced opinion piece that acknowledged that masking may be beneficial and justified and emphasized the importance of getting people vaccinated has been reduced to blame-the-government libertarian clickbait.
The Flam piece did not say that CDC oversold the benefits of masking, nor did it blame CDC for the absence of RCTs on masking. However, what is omitted from the original article – the importance of getting people vaccinated – is much more important than what is said.
Why can’t we agree on the importance of promoting vaccination?
There are concrete steps the government can take to get vaccination rates up and save lives. A recent NBER paper reported:
We report a large-scale randomized controlled trial designed to assess whether the partisan cue of a provaccine message from Donald Trump would induce Americans to get COVID-19 vaccines. Our study involved presenting a 27-second advertisement to millions of U.S. YouTube users in October 2021. Results indicate that the campaign increased the number of vaccines in the average treated county by 103. Spread across 1,014 treated counties, the total effect of the campaign was an estimated increase of 104,036 vaccines. The campaign was cost-effective: with an overall budget of about $100,000, the cost to obtain an additional vaccine was about $1 or less.
Ross Douthat discussed this paper in his NYT column (my bold):
Like all studies, these results should be handled with care, but they speak to a key question as the United States emerges — hopefully — from the worst of the Covid era but also nears one million deaths: How much more could have been done to combat vaccine hesitancy, and how much more could Republican vaccine hesitancy, especially, have been overcome?
Douthat offers some measured criticism of Democrats, but saves his strongest rebuke for Republicans (my bold):
But in the end, it’s Republicans themselves — officeholders, media personalities, Trump — who had the best opportunity to do outreach to their own vaccine-hesitant supporters, to cut the ads and hold the events and otherwise break down the more understandable and sincerely motivated forms of skepticism. And so it’s within conservatism that the failure of the past year was the clearest.
. . .
But even the conservatives who didn’t go all the way to vaccine opposition often seemed to take vaccine uptake somewhat for granted, treating it as a purely individual decision and training most of their fire on the perils of the next round of public health overreach. Those perils existed, in blue America especially — but the vaccines were so much more effective at preventing deaths than the most common nonpharmaceutical interventions, the stakes of their uptake so much higher, that a lot of conservative leaders ended up imbalanced, saving their enthusiasm for opposition to whatever the liberals were up to next, when what was needed first was just some over-the-top Republican enthusiasm for the vaccines.
Of course this is right.
But, but, but . . . blame the progressives!
Boudreaux responds by engaging in misdirection. He just can’t bring himself to say that people should get vaccinated and that Republicans should encourage them to do so. Instead, in a piece titled “Progressives Should Look in the Mirror” he resorts to his old trick of encouraging vaccine hesitancy by explaining it:
Although Ross Douthat’s criticism of conservatives for being insufficiently enthusiastic about Covid vaccines features some welcome nuance, it still misses several elephants in the room (“How Republicans Failed the Unvaccinated,” April 6). Here are three.
The first such beast is the decades-long history of Americans being warned, chiefly by Progressives, that no new pharmaceutical product is to be trusted until the FDA approves it as being both safe and effective – an approval process that has come to take, on average, ten years. However unwise, the hesitancy of many Americans to trust the rapidly developed and approved Covid vaccines surely is rooted in this history.
Another elephant is the dismissal by most government leaders, along with prominent advisors and pundits, of the relevance of a key Covid fact (one reported in your pages as early as March 2020) – namely, the risk of suffering severely from Covid rises steeply with age, with the risks to children and young adults being minuscule. Given that officials ignored this key scientific fact when crafting Covid policy, it’s unsurprising that many Americans worried that some other key scientific fact was ignored by officials who issued assurances of the vaccines’ safety.
A third Dumbo is the disgraceful effort by Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci to shut down debate over the Great Barrington Declaration, and to smear the reputations of its three accomplished co-authors. When prominent public-health scientists behave, as did Collins and Fauci, in a manner so obviously at odds with the tradition and values of science, public distrust of official public-health pronouncements and assurances is to be expected.
Naturally, Boudreaux offers exactly zero evidence supporting his speculative explanations for vaccine hesitancy. And instead of assuring his readers that vaccines are safe and effective, he repeats uncritically the reasoning he thinks leads them to reject vaccines. Good thinking.
As far as I can tell, the NBER study has not been mentioned at the Brownstone Institute or at the American Institute for Economic Research.
Focused protection was always a con
There is no more effective way to protect the vulnerable from COVID-19 than vaccination. But all we get from advocates of “focused protection” is crickets. As I have said before:
As I have said before, there’s not much evidence that the advocates of “focused protection” actually care about “protecting the vulnerable”.
Telia Company European communications company
There is nothing progressive about wondering if the drugs you take are really safe. I remember Thalidomide. Statements were being made before the vaccines got emergency authorization by politicians that could be interpreted as safety wasn’t their highest priority. Not progressive politicians, by and large.
Having one of the first persons vaccinated have an anaphylactic reaction didn’t help matters.
As a member of the general public, I don’t ever recall hearing that only FDA approved pharmaceuticals were safe and effective. What I heard was that the safety and efficacy of non-FDA approved supplements and such could not be guaranteed. Perhaps I missed the actual statements rather than the implications.
Misdirection is a kind interpretation of those statements.
Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were trialed over a period of time. They were trialed again for each additional booster. Joel Eissenberg was a participant for the initial Moderna vaccine. There are people who have reactions to drugs (penicillin, etc.) although it may be rare. People allergic to eggs can have a reaction to flu vaccine. Untrialed drugs can be a dart throw.
I’m still in the phase III Moderna trial, until September.
Vaccines are not drugs.
I don’t want to present myself as an expert. I do suggest reading “The Premonition” by Michael Lewis, and “Uncontrolled Spread” by Scott Gottlieb for some insight into what happened. I do not know if that applies directly to what is happening now.
Quick takeaway: there was a pandemic prevention plan developed in 2005, largely ignored or ignorantly implemented by the political bureaucracy. But more important was the lies by the Trumpists to tell people to ignore all precautions on the grounds of personal freedom. The non pharmaceutical interventions would have worked, and only worked, if implemented very early in the spread. Not implementing them left us with nothing but waiting for the vaccine. I personally think “forced vaccination” is a step too far both for narrow political consideration and for more fundamental human rights consideration. But that is not the same as telling people that vaccines are part of a criminal government plot to destroy their freedom. Nor does it give non-vaccinated the right to force themselves into the airspace of people who don’t want them. [for that matter it now appears that even the vaccinated can spread a version of Covid, so it would seem that even the vaccinated should observe good manners at least about who they breathe on.]
But the noises from the Trumpists and self-called Libertarians are dishonest and so defective in reasoning that their only contribution is to worsen the pandemic and to warn us of how easy it is to whip up enough people into a mob dangerous to democracy itself, as well as to your personal freedoms.
The most obvious failure of “reason” is to use a word like “natural immunity” as if it is a one size fits all panacea. “Natural (herd) immunity” for Covid would have required about 70% (roughly) of the population to get the disease…or rougly 200 milion people. This would have meant (about) 2 million deaths. As for children not “getting” the disease, or life threatening illness, this leaves open the possibility of transmission without symptoms, possible future illness, and enough dead kids that would at least make their parents sad….more than, say, the number in the average school shooting.
again, don’t take my “facts” as gospel. just consider them as first steps in actually thinking…and then look at the books i suggested as a second step. and try to learn to recognize garbage thinking when you see it. teaching other people to tell the difference is another story.
i should add that Lewis and Gottlieb do not agree on all points. I kept getting the feeling that Gottlieb suffers from the problems that make it so hard for a bureaucracy to respond optimally to any problem much less a crisis.
but that doesn’t mean that we can do without bureaucracies.
Of course everyone doing his own thing would solve the population problem fairly quickly.
JaneE wrote: “There is nothing progressive about wondering if the drugs you take are really safe. I remember Thalidomide.”
I am sorry Jane but the key to determining safety and efficiency is sample size, not time. COVID-19 is so prevalent, scientists were able to generate massive sample sizes extremely quickly. These vaccines were subject to some of the largest medical studies in history. The evidence presented on these drugs is so comprehensive and compelling that it is simply willful ignorance to ignore it.
and it is criminal arrogance to ignore or condemn a person’s fears of harm.
it’s one thing to condemn deliberate propagation of false claims of harm or probable harm; quite another to condemn those who believe the –even false– claims, or have their own personal reasons to either not trust “the science” or suspect their own case might be different from “the great majority.”
Thalidomide was never approved for use in the US, but the company selling it distributed it to thousands of doctors as samples along with having their sales reps push the drug to doctors for use as a tranquilizer. Supposedly, there were only 17 thalidomide babies born in the US, half of them to pregnant women who had taken the drug overseas. The number was most likely higher. Naturally, the company illegally distributing the drug was never prosecuted since the criminal was a corporation, but the FDA cracked down on distributing unapproved drugs as pre-sales samples and tightened the rules for running trials. I remember that the attitude at the time was that the FDA might be strict, unlike the less cautious Europeans, but thalidomide showed that there was a good reason for this.
Well done. Thx.
US will no longer enforce mask mandate on airplanes, trains after court ruling
Reuters – April 19
(After a decision from a Trump-appointed Federal Judge in Florida, a lifetime-appointment of course, at age 33 Mrs Fred advises.)
Most major US airlines drop mask mandates after court ruling
Bloomberg via Boston Globe – April 18
Most major U.S. airlines are no longer requiring travelers or employees to wear face coverings on domestic and some international flights.
The decisions came hours after a U.S. judge on Monday overturned a federal mandate for passengers to cover their faces. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration said after the court ruling that it would stop requiring passengers on planes, trains and other public transportation to wear masks “at this time.”
The five largest U.S. carriers — American Airlines Group Inc., Alaska Air Group Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Southwest Airlines Co. and United Airlines Holdings Inc. — said they were dropping their mandates effective immediately. Use of masks will be optional for both passengers and staff, they said.
Delta said customer communications and signs in airports will be updated to reflect the change, and cautioned that local mask mandates may remain in effect.
“We are relieved to see the U.S. mask mandate lift to facilitate global travel as Covid-19 has transitioned to an ordinary seasonal virus,” the Atlanta-based carrier said in a statement.
United, which among was the first of the U.S. airlines to drop its mask mandate, told employees they’ll be spared the task of forcing passengers to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
“This means that you are no longer required to wear a mask — and no longer have to enforce a mask requirement for most of the flying public,” the Chicago-based carrier said in a memo to staff. …
Medical experts advise public to keep masking on public transit after federal judge lifts national mandate
Boston Globe – April 19
Nervous about flying? Here’s why a mask will still help protect you even if others aren’t wearing one.
NY Times – April 19
thank you for this. since it was a financial/political decision and not a medical one, i would suggest people who are worried, and they should be, boycotting planes, trains, and busses as much as they can.
i don’t expect many takers. Even I, who know better, yield to the convenience, and laziness, and low perception of risk, not to mention “social pressure.” on the other hand i do stay away from crowds. or crowding.