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 lossmental health issuesobesity, 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”.