In his seminal work, The Conscience of a Conservative, Barry Goldwater remarks upon the importance of choice -- the ability to make tradeoffs -- in preserving the freedom and unique spirit of the individual. Every American has their own priorities and notions of risk that drive the decisions that they make. This freedom of choice is fundamental to the American experiment, and surrendering it to the government is dangerous in a nation that has embraced democratic principles since its founding. Equally importantly, American economic dominance on the global stage is the decades-long result of contrarian entrepreneurs that followed unorthodox paths at great personal risk. The individualist spirit is a fundamentally American value.
However, over the past year, conformist groupthink has led politicians across the country to de-emphasize America’s founding principles in their responses to the pandemic. Political leaders from California to New York, elected and unelected, responded to the pandemic with lockdowns designed to control the daily lives of American citizens. These measures led to severe socioeconomic consequences. America’s annual GDP declined 3.5%, accompanied by the permanent loss of nearly 100,000 small businesses. Approximately 50% of non-retired US adults, especially those from low-income backgrounds, believe that the pandemic will have long-term consequences for their financial goals. Mental health has fared equally poorly. In the early days of the pandemic, the CDC reported a dramatic increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety, mostly among young people.
These life-changing tradeoffs make lockdowns a uniquely dangerous restriction of individual freedom. Unlike increased security at airports after 9/11, for instance, the decision to shut down the economy will have severe long-term impacts on most Americans. Moreover, the decision to implement lockdowns, made on behalf of the American electorate, has not been entirely justified.
From the earliest days of the pandemic, the public health benefits of widespread economic shutdowns have been overstated. Popular narratives suggested that only the most severe restrictions could effectively contain an unchecked increase in cases, and anybody that disagreed was ridiculed. However, recent data suggests that independent of official lockdowns, individuals adjust their behavior to mitigate risk. Even without lockdowns, cases numbers would go through waves instead of continually increasing until herd immunity is reached.
For example, Sweden, where most restrictions were essentially non-existent until late 2020, followed a similar pattern to its other European counterparts and performed significantly better than some anticipated. Although still performing worse than its neighbors, Sweden’s deaths per capita are lower than some other EU nations and complete saturation of the virus was never observed. Swedes took the recommendations of their government into consideration when making independent choices and case counts were partially mitigated without forced lockdowns. Moreover, Sweden’s strategy has effectively reduced economic damage, particularly to small businesses, in comparison to many of its peers. Closer to home, Florida has roughly equal case rates as California, despite generally weaker restrictions and correspondingly lower economic damage. At minimum, this indicates that increased restrictions do not produce universally better outcomes.
The type of restrictions matter as well. Political leaders could have placed increased focus on implementing policies such as universal masking, increased testing, and heightened protections for the elderly, which would have minimized economic costs. The corresponding Harvard model of these proposed policies demonstrates the efficacy of non-economic interventions and provides a framework for better policy. Even without large scale economic shutdowns, this model projects the ability to save lives and largely avert disastrous fiscal consequences. These and other creative policies would have generated a wide array of viable outcomes. Placed alongside more conventional solutions, such as lockdowns, different strategies would have mitigated different costs -- social, economic, or public health -- of the pandemic. Picking between these strategies requires normative judgements and context.
Omnibus lockdowns and restrictions have been given far too much credit, even without considering the crucial value attached to individual freedom. Policymakers failed to place adequate emphasis on individualism and made rash and monumental tradeoffs on behalf of their citizenry. Even worse, leaders like Gavin Newsom failed to recognize the importance of the freedoms that they callously decided to undermine. After consistently banning indoor and outdoor dining, Governor Newsom felt safe enough to attend a dinner party at the French Laundry with powerful lobbyists. Ironically, this happened while Newsom’s statewide restrictions were still in effect, preventing his constituents from exercising their individual freedom like Newsom did. Shockingly, similarly hypocritical behavior was seen from other members of California’s political elite, casting doubt on the true intentions behind the restrictions that they espoused.
While the legal victories against unilaterally-imposed lockdowns are relatively limited, the moral victory has not been. As my fellow Californians sign the petition to recall Gavin Newsom and push back against a large and unyielding government, I urge all of America to take notice. The dangers that drove great leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan to action are upon us once more, but, through bold action and perseverance, we will prevail.