“Fauci says that all states should have stay-at-home orders” blared The Hills’ headline today.[i]
A Washington Post article offers a Dr. Fauci quote, “I don’t understand why that’s not happening. If you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that. We really should be.”
One should not expect an epidemiologist to understand why some states have not issued stay-at-home-orders. Neither should one rely an expert’s recommendations on matters (1) outside the field of the expert’s expertise, or (2) about which he admits he doesn’t understand why it is happening. Let’s sort out some details about this.
Dr. Fauci has exceptional expertise in a particular field. Relying on experts concerning matters within their competence can be helpful, but even then, only with caution. A reason for caution is that human nature produces something called “The Law of the Instrument.” Abraham Kaplan illustrated this law thus: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Another illustration is that when a person goes to a surgeon about knee pain, the likelihood that the doctor will recommend surgery will be higher than had she gone to a physical therapist.
Another aspect of human nature is in play with Dr. Fauci’s befuddlement. As an epidemiologist, Dr. Fauci should focus on the means to mitigate the havoc the virus is wreaking on people and the healthcare system. His expertise, credibility, and focus are both his raison d’etre and why the President enlisted him. It should come as no surprise that his hammer is quarantine (or as close to quarantine as can be achieved). As he has admitted, however, his focus has blinded him to enough of the negative consequences of the stay-at-home orders that he “doesn’t understand.”
Moreover, wielding the quarantine hammer pounds things about which he has no expertise and for which he will not be held accountable. Consequently, he is swinging the hammer with reckless abandon. Dr. Fauci can safely ignore the tears of the lady who runs the local dry cleaners whose clientele and hours have fallen by 75%—and she is one of the lucky ones who still have a job (but surely not for long if the country keeps it stay-at-home orders in place too long.) Dr. Fauci will not be held accountable for the heart attacks, increased obesity, and other ailments due to stress, or suicides from the financial insecurity and collapse the stay-at-home orders are inflicting on people. No one will blame him in the future for all the miracle drugs that were not invented because the country wasn’t wealthy enough to fund the extra research needed to find the essential component. Worse, epidemiologists have incentives to exaggerate both the severity of the pandemic and the scope of his recommendations.
I am not claiming Dr. Fauci has succumbed to his human nature or overdoing his advice. The extent to which he has is unknowable by anyone, including himself. I’m suggesting it is likely that he has to some unknowable degree and it is best to assume such when deciding when and how to impose or lift stay-at-home orders.
Saving lives, which Dr. Fauci is undoubtedly helping to do, is tremendously valuable and laudable. Saving lives, however, is not infinitely valuable or laudable. Causing more harm than good by saving too many lives is blameworthy.
We all know this. The EPA could set benzene and arsenic standards for drinking water so stringently that no one would die from those chemicals being in drinking water. The EPA doesn’t do that. EPA knows that some people will die due to permitted levels of those chemicals being in drinking water. The same is true of most, if not all, EPA standards. The reason the regulations are not more stringent is that the cost per life saved would be ungodly high (instead of the exceedingly high cost of complying with the current rules). Almost all of the mayhem of auto accidents (including the loss of 35-40 thousand lives in the U.S. annually) could be avoided by banning left-hand turns and lowering the speed limit to 20 mph everywhere. No state, much less country, has adopted those simple, sure-fired measures to save many lives—nor should they. In addition to the inconvenience and inefficiencies of driving that slowly and the money that would be required to facilitate banning left turns, the tremendously higher cost of food and other goods and services would significantly lower everyone’s standard of living. This is because the multiple billions of dollars it would take to eliminate those deaths would generate more significant benefits if spent in other ways.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere,[ii] sapping the vigor from our economy will have massive adverse effects on the mental and physical health of most Americans and will kill many. The more stay-at-home orders hammer the economy, the more negative the consequences will be. At some level of economic slowdown, the weakening of the economy will kill more people than the pandemic ever could. Mostly everything Dr. Fauci says takes the country closer to, if not farther beyond that point. Even this, however, does not mean that Dr. Fauci should hold his punches in advising the President. The President and governors need the best input from epidemiologists they can get.
So, what’s the problem? The left, particularly the MSM, are misleading Americans to believe that Dr. Fauci’s advice should trump any counsel that differs from Dr. Fauci’s. Regardless of their motivations,[iii] adopting the “In Fauci We Trust” motto will result in an unbalanced, ill-considered, and net-negative approach to addressing the pandemic. Health concerns will play a disproportionate role in setting the balance between saving life and health in the short run and avoiding a collapse of the economy, which will save lives, health, and a better standard of living for everyone in America and the world in the long run.
[ii] “The health of the country’s population is directly connected to the health of the country’s economy. A poor economy leads to greater joblessness, despair, homelessness, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction and abuse, drug crimes, including gang wars, child and spousal abuse, etc., all of which cause collateral physical and mental illnesses. In short, contrary to the impression left by the reporters’ question/indictments, healthcare and the economy are not diametrically oppositional issues.”
[iii] Much of this lunacy is motivated by combinations of politics, pursuing power, envy, hate of Trump, putting America in its place (bringing it to its knees), and revenge. The bad ideas underlying each of these motivations prevent the country from reaching consensus on a good policy.