Again, this should be obvious. It’s common sense; it is also, as it happens, basic economics. Econ 101 has lots of good things to say about free markets (probably too many good things, but that’s a discussion for another time), but no rational discussion of economics says that free markets, left to themselves, can solve the problem of “externalities” — costs that individuals or businesses impose on others who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example of an externality that requires government intervention, but spreading a dangerous virus poses exactly the same issues.
Yet many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point. And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point — that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.
Some readers may be aware that Senator Rand Paul — who proclaims himself a libertarian — has been doing a lot of sniping at Dr. Anthony Fauci. Back in May he denounced Fauci for warning that premature reopening might lead to a surge in new Covid-19 cases. More recently, apparently undaunted by the fact that Fauci was right, he demanded that Fauci show “humility” and display some “optimism.”
What struck me, however, was the way Paul justified his attacks on epidemiologists’ recommendations: by invoking the free-market doctrines of Friedrich Hayek. “Hayek had it right: Only decentralized power and decision-making, based on millions of individualized situations, can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”
Whatever you think of Hayek (as you might guess, I’m not a fan), this is bizarre. Decentralized decision-making can do lots of things, but establishing scientific truth isn’t one of those things. And even conservatives used to understand both that expertise matters and that promoting scientific research is a legitimate and necessary role of government.
But conservatives, and Republicans, have changed. The modern American right is all about denying that people have any responsibility for each other, and muzzling experts who try to tell people in power things they don’t want to hear.
And the fact that selfishness and willful ignorance are now guiding principles for much of our political establishment is a large part of the reason America is failing the Covid-19 test so spectacularly.
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