By Alan W. Dowd
The COVID19 crisis is a case study of what can go wrong when policymakers defer governing to topic experts. Under the system the Founders crafted, it’s not supposed to be this way.
COVID and the Constitution
Our starting point in this thorny discussion should be charity toward motives. There are Americans who view COVID19 as similar to influenza outbreaks, criticize government responses as draconian, and believe life must go on to preserve individual liberty. And there are Americans who view COVID19 as more dangerous than any influenza strain, applaud government responses as prudent, and believe life must change to preserve public health. Both sides of this divide are populated by people of good will and good intentions.
The well-intentioned government responses to COVID19 were largely shaped by models produced by the Imperial College in London, which warned that COVID19 would claim 2.2 million Americans if we went on with life as usual—what the experts call an “unmitigated” environment. Those same models predicted that even under “the most effective mitigation strategy examined…surge limits for both general ward and ICU beds would be exceeded by at least eight-fold”—and 1.1 million to 1.2 million Americans would die.
Those models understandably terrified American policymakers. They also proved wildly incorrect. In fact, federal, state and local governments adopted sweeping mitigation measures. Yet the vast majority of hospitals were not overwhelmed, and America didn’t lose 1.1 million to COVID19. Instead, COVID19 will claim a projected 130,000 Americans. (And that’s employing the very expansive accounting methods used by New York, Colorado, Washington and federal officials—methods some states do not employ.) That sounds like a high death toll, until we compare it to the toll from the 2017-18 influenza season (which claimed 95,000 Americans, out of a population of 328 million), 1968 H3N2 flupandemic (which claimed 100,000 Americans, out of a population of 200 million) or 1957-58 Asian flu pandemic (which claimed 116,000 Americans, out of a population of 171 million). Add it all up, and “the overall clinical consequences of COVID19” were “akin to those of a severe seasonal influenza…or a pandemic influenza.” Those aren’t my words; they’re Dr. Anthony Fauci’s.
The numbers and Fauci’s assessment force us to ponder the policy reactions triggered by COVID19. It pays to recall there weren’t any nationwide shelter-in-place orders, business shutdowns or school closures in 2017, 1968 or 1957. But there were in 2020. This effort to “flatten the curve” flattened our economy; triggered a range of unintended consequences; and constrained the freedom of religion, movement and association. It may be necessary for government to limit these freedoms under extraordinary circumstances, but the bar for such action is high, which explains why the Justice Department has warned several states, “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
At its core, the purpose of the economic-commercial-cultural shutdown was to hold down the human costs of COVID19. That is a worthy and admirable goal. But there are high costs to the shutdown itself.
A staggering 40 million Americans lost their jobs due to the shutdown—the largest spike in unemployment claims in U.S. history. The shutdown will reduce economic output by $7.9 trillion over the coming decade, according to CBO projections.
Millions of surgeries were postponed due to government orders aimed at conserving hospital resources for coronavirus cases. Studies show that a significant percentage of delayed surgeries were cancer treatments. Indeed, a team of research professors notes that half of cancer patients have missed chemotherapy treatments; living-donor transplants are down almost 85 percent; emergency stroke evaluations are down 40 percent; more than half of childhood vaccinations have not been performed.
The isolation, job loss and depression triggered by the COVID19 shutdown could lead to as many as 75,000 deaths from drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide. Indeed, physicians in California report seeing a “year’s worth of suicides” in a month’s time.
The shutdown’s costs don’t end there. Domestic violence and childhood malnutrition have increased in the wake of the COVID19 shutdown. And we may never be able to quantify the costs of a semester or perhaps a year without classroom instruction. While we should be thankful for technologies that allow us to work from home, we must remember that many millions of college and K-12 students cannot learn from home—and that many millions of Americans cannot work from home. In fact, 70 percent of us cannot work from home.
Then there are the spiritual-emotional costs of the shutdown. It is during times of crisis that people most need the peace of visiting a house of worship, the social supports of work, the comfort of being with parents, grandparents and grandchildren. The shutdown stripped that away from us. Again, digital technologies provided some of us a sense of connection. Yet a sense of connection is not the same as real connection. What was true in the beginning is true today: “It is not good for man to be alone.”
Fauci and Football
Public-health experts are not to blame for these second-order effects. They made their recommendations and offered their best advice. Rather, our rush to listen solely to public-health experts is what warrants blame and deep reflection. Taxpayers and elected officials, religious groups and charities, laborers and entrepreneurs, physicians and farmers, parents and teachers, CEOs and nonprofit leaders must learn from this mistake and never allow it to be repeated. Shutdowns cannot become the new-normal response to viruses.
Fr. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, reminds us there are “questions that a scientist, speaking strictly as a scientist, cannot answer for us. For questions about moral value—how we ought to decide and act—science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer.”
Indeed, counting on experts in just one field—and entrusting the ship of state to that set of experts—is neither wise nor effective. John Tamny of the American Institute for Economic Research explains why. Tamny invites us to imagine Fauci attending a Washington Redskins game. Fauci leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease; serves on the White House Coronavirus Task Force; pioneered the field of immunoregulation (the science of immune system responses); has been awarded the National Medal of Science, Kober Medal of the Association of American Physicians, and Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research; and holds degrees from Holy Cross and Cornell, along with 45 honorary doctoral degrees. Fauci is undeniably an expert in infectious disease.
“It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Fauci will be the smartest individual at the stadium,” Tamny writes. Yet “Fauci’s mental capacity will be very small relative to the combined intelligence of every fan…One brilliant mind is no match for the collective wisdom of the masses.”
The imbalance between “one brilliant mind”—or even a task force of a dozen brilliant minds—and the collective wisdom of 330 million Americans is even more pronounced. Yet from the White House to the statehouse, elected officials allowed experts like Fauci to, in effect, run the country for the better part of three months. The results were tragic—not because the experts were incompetent or malevolent, but because their expertise was limited.
The results would be equally tragic if we were to allow other topic experts to re-order economic, commercial, cultural, occupational and public-health activities in ways that suit their areas of expertise.
If presidents and governors deferred policymaking to, say, environmental-management agencies, there would be less pollution. Environmental experts might be able to make every ounce of water and every breath of air perfectly pure—but at what cost? No industrial activity? No carbon-based energy?
If presidents deferred policymaking to the Department of Homeland Security, there would be less risk from terrorism and cyberattack. DHS experts might be able to make America’s ports, borders and computer networks impenetrable—but at what cost? The end of immigration and imports? Government control over technology? Magnetometers at every public gathering? Checkpoints at every intersection?
If presidents deferred policymaking to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there would be fewer accidents. NHTSA experts might even be able to eliminate deaths caused by car accidents—but at what cost? Cars built like tanks? The elimination of highways? Speed limits lowered to 15 mph?
Each of the outcomes ensured by deferring to these topic experts is desirable. But none is reasonable when weighed against the costs.
Make no mistake: Presidents and governors should consider the advice of topic experts. What they shouldn’t do is listen solely to experts from one field. The consequences of doing that during the COVID19 pandemic remind us why we elect politicians—not topic experts—to craft and carry out public policy. Experts base policy recommendations on their limited area of expertise. Politicians base policies on a vast array of political, constitutional, economic, legal, cultural, health and security factors. That’s the way our system of our government is supposed to work.
Tocqueville and Truman
It’s telling that America’s constitutional order begins with Article I’s description of the House of Representatives. The makeup of the House is determined “by the people”—not by experts. Tocqueville wrote of the House of Representatives, “Often there is not a distinguished man in the whole number.” Yet the Founders determined that the House would take the lead in all the central activities of governing—raising revenue, building a military, declaring war, validating and settling presidential elections. The Founders understood, as Tocqueville would later observe, that “The intelligence and power of the people are disseminated through all the parts of this vast country…Instead of radiating from a common point, they cross each other in every direction.”
That observation calls to mind the life and leadership of Harry Truman. Born and raised far from power or prestige, Truman never completed college. He was the very definition of a common man. Yet despite his lack of credentials, despite the absence of letters next to his name, Truman didn’t defer to the experts.
When Stalin blockaded West Berlin, Truman’s circle of military experts—Defense Secretary James Forestall, Army Secretary Kenneth Royall and Secretary of State George Marshall, the towering five-star commander of the Army during World War II—“dismissed the idea of an airlift” to rescue Berlin, as historian Richard Reeves writes. The Joint Chiefs suggested a face-saving withdrawal. Truman’s response: “We stay in Berlin. Period.” Weeks later, as the airlift struggled to meet the demands of supplying and feeding a city by air, the experts pressed Truman again. Truman’s decision: “We’ll stay in Berlin—come what may.” Truman was right, and his military experts were wrong. Unlike the generals and commanders, Truman was thinking beyond a specific area of expertise, beyond the military dimensions of the crisis, beyond the moment. The Berlin Airlift was a hinge point in the Cold War—rescuing 2 million people from tyranny, forging an enduring alliance with West Germany, drawing the line against communist expansion. Things would have turned out much different had Truman deferred to the experts.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose and authors the Project Fortress blog. Follow him on Twitter @alanwdowd.