Lockdowns, weaponized emotions, and political grammar. Or how the COVID road to hell was paved with our good intentions.
The lockdowns never got a cost/benefit analysis!
The COVID lockdowns brought the world economy to a screeching halt.
And they abolished important rights and liberties.
Yet they never got a cost-benefit analysis!
Why did so many Western citizens (at first) tamely welcome them?
Because their best emotions were weaponized.
Were the COVID lockdowns a good idea? That depends on the costs and benefits. But the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) pointed out in mid-November 2020, as the first year of COVID lockdowns was ending, that
“In the debate over coronavirus policy, there has been far too little focus on the costs of lockdowns. It’s very common for the proponents of these interventions to write articles and large studies without even mentioning the downsides.”1 (my emphasis)
Amazing. It is one thing to get a cost/benefit analysis wrong, and quite another not to attempt it. How is it possible that nobody even tried to estimate the costs of this?
It was known, of course, that the lockdowns would bring the world economy to a screeching halt. And this entirely unprecedented experiment was guaranteed to impose tremendous disruptions on hundreds of millions of people. Many would be pushed into poverty. One cost—though hardly the only one—was that the lockdowns would kill many people in many indirect ways. This, too, was obvious to any policymaker. So we have two interesting questions for social science:
Why did the bureaucrats not conduct a cost/benefit analysis on lockdowns?
Why did people around the world tamely acquiesce (at least at first) to the lockdowns given that no cost/benefit analysis had been done, and given that the lockdowns would abolish important rights and liberties of the citizenry?
In my view, the two questions are tangled.
People tamely agreed to lockdowns because they were scared. And they were scared because the bureaucrats pushing lockdowns—the ones not doing a cost/benefit analysis—announced astronomical numbers of expected deaths if draconian lockdowns were not immediately imposed.
Those estimates of COVID deaths turned out to be absurdly inflated, and they came from a scientist already infamous for making absurdly inflated predictions. So one line of inquiry must ask: Why did the bureaucrats take this scientist seriously? I’ll examine that question elsewhere. Here, I am interested in the public response to the bureaucratic arguments: Why didn’t the Western citizenries revolt?
What happened, in my view, is that our best emotions were weaponized. This is a very serious issue with all sorts of ramifications in many different domains and central to our modern politics. I believe it deserves close attention.
Weaponizing emotions by leveraging the political grammar
The COVID lockdowns, like any policy, were justified within our dominant political grammar. What is that—‘political grammar’?
Anthropologists are interested in social grammars because they organize the everyday lives of humans. Language grammars (say, English) are a famous case, but every domain of social behavior has a grammar: rules—implicit, for the most part—that tell us which actions (including statements), and in what order, must be performed together for a behavioral expression to have proper meaning.
Stray too far from English grammar and you’ll be unintelligible; stray too far from politeness grammar (etiquette) and you’ll be unacceptable; stray too far from the local political grammar and you’ll be unfit to govern.
In modern Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies, politics have a liberal grammar based on the ethic of autonomy, an inheritance from the Judeo-Christian tradition, according to which we are all equal in the eyes of God because we are all equally His children. In recent times, this ethic became institutionally established, at long last, thanks to the influence of the Enlightenment.
In the ethic of autonomy, every individual, high or low, is sacred, and the State is legitimate only if it convinces the citizens that it is defending and protecting the individual’s rights and liberties. The institutionalization of this grammar dates from the revolutions of 1848, which established Western societies on the path of modern democracy.
Because the ethic of autonomy is the reigning grammar, WEIRD bureaucrats and politicians must always work hard to look like they are acting morally for the general good. That’s required. If, for example, the bosses were to say, ‘We are imposing lockdowns because we want to abolish individual rights and freedoms,’ they would get an uprising.
Hence, to impose COVID lockdowns—regardless of the real reasons—bureaucrats and politicians must bring this policy within the political grammar. They need to say: ‘We are in a catastrophic emergency, so, against our wishes, we find ourselves forced to impose COVID lockdowns and restrict your rights and liberties, because every life is sacred and the lockdowns will save lives.’ And that is what they did say.
Did they mean it?
Perhaps. But you cannot logically reach that conclusion simply because they said it. In WEIRD societies, evil and saintly policymakers, and everything in between, must all obey the WEIRD political grammar, for only thus can they stay in office. The announced intention of a policy—regardless of what the true intention is—will therefore always be the same: to protect the public. Since the announced intention is always the same, the diagnostic value of the announcement is exactly zero.
But suppose we could assume that our policymakers always do mean well. What then? We should still be very, very careful, because, as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions—meaning that, if one has bad information, or poor logic, or both, good intentions can produce disastrous results.
That’s what I mean by a weaponized emotion. When we have poor knowledge, our best emotions can become weapons and do tremendous damage. I’ll give you a brief illustrative example, from a different domain, and then I’ll come back to COVID.
Banning child labor in India
India banned child labor in 1986. Why? Because people naturally consider it awful that a child goes to work instead of to school. I agree: in a perfect world, no child would work. But did banning child labor make those Indian children better off? That’s the question that matters, because the entire point of the ban, as announced, was to do right by children by reducing child labor.
So what happened?
As you can probably understand, parents send their children to work not because they want to hurt their own flesh and blood, but because the family needs to eat. Approving prohibitions on child labor does not change that basic biological fact—families in extreme poverty still need to eat. So, despite the ban, lots of Indian children continued to work.
But now, some researchers found, they worked for less: “the child labor ban caused a decline in child workers’ wages, relative to adults.” Employers reduced the wages of children “to compensate for the fact that children became riskier to employ.”
Should that have been anticipated? Yes.
Every businessman tries to keep production costs down. Unless the child-labor ban is very strictly enforced, many will continue to employ cheap children. But now they are not quite so cheap: the production costs rise by an amount equal to the probability of getting caught, times the size of the applicable fine. To compensate for that, employers reduced children’s wages. After the ban, therefore, children were earning less.
Okay, you may think, so that was bad for children who continued working, but at least child labor was reduced, so the overall effect was positive. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. Why not?
First, because “many poor families rely on their children to provide a considerable portion of their incomes, and they simply could not afford to have their children not work.” They have to eat. The reduction in wages for child labor meant that “the poorest households were the hardest hit,” and that is a gigantic number of households (this is India). Thus, “children belonging to those households had to work more to compensate for their lower wages.” A poor household that had only two of its children working, for example, might need three or more to work after the ban. Overall, then, “child labor increased following the ban.”2
This, of course, is the opposite of what was desired. Good intentions made Indian children worse off. As I like to say, just because a situation is bad is no excuse to make it a million times worse.
Good intentions are never enough. To honor the principle that ‘every life is sacred’ we must do critical thinking and find out whether a policy really does improve those lives. This is often difficult because many people wish to be redeemed as ‘good persons’ by their good intentions alone, because signaling their good intentions to others—establishing in public that one is a ‘good person’—is often what they care most about.
This is how our best emotions are weaponized, causing them to achieve ends contrary to our good intentions.
Benjamin Powell, who studies some of these issues, writes the following:
“Halima is an 11‐year‐old girl who clips loose threads off of Hanes underwear in a Bangladeshi factory. She works about eight hours a day, six days per week. She has to process 150 pairs of underwear an hour. At work she feels ‘very tired and exhausted,’ and sometimes falls asleep standing up. She makes 53 cents a day for her efforts. Make no mistake, it is a rough life.
Any decent person’s heart would go out to Halima and other child employees like her. Unfortunately, all too often, people’s emotional reaction lead them to advocate policies that will harm the very children they intend to help. Provisions against child labor are part of the International Labor Organization’s core labor standards. Anti-sweatshop groups almost universally condemn child labor and call for laws prohibiting child employment or boycotting products made with child labor.
In my recent book, Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy, I argue that much of what the anti-sweatshop movement agitates for would harm workers and that the process of economic development, in which sweatshops play an important role, is the best way to raise wages and improve working conditions. Child labor, although the most emotionally charged aspect of sweatshops, is not an exception to this analysis.”3
The emotional reactions of people who would like to erase the world’s problems with the stroke of a legislator’s pen is the very force that creates openings for political manipulators.
For example, union leaders in the West who wish to avoid competing with cheap labor in poor countries may agitate—ostensibly ‘in favor’ of children—in order to pressure their own governments to impose tariffs or outright prohibitions on products made with child labor overseas. Since the public claim is ‘on behalf of the children,’ lots of well-meaning Westerners—people who want to redeem themselves as ‘allies of the children’—get recruited to support this pressure on Western governments. But the effect of this is to harm children already suffering extreme poverty in the developing world.
Should we do nothing, then? If doing something is worse, then yes, do nothing! Don’t make a bad situation worse. But if you must do something, then do something smart. Don’t criminalize child labor; instead, give poor parents who send their children to school a food subsidy to make up for the lost income. These interventions are known as conditional cash transfer programs (CCT’s), and they seem to work. They have been used in my native Mexico, for example, with some success.4
Weaponized emotions in the COVID crisis
At the very beginning of the pandemic, when the lockdowns were first imposed, I published an article (in Spanish) where I complained about the bureaucratic argument for lockdowns. Bureaucrats were simply saying that people were going to die, so we needed lockdowns. The emphasis was on their presumed good intentions: we mean to save lives.
This, I wrote, was dangerously simpleminded, because hitting the brakes on the world economy was creating all kinds of problems:
“The quarantine is already raising stress and anxiety, and therefore suicides (which were already rising). Imposed poverty will worsen desperation, and with that, recruitment to criminal groups, and therefore also homicide rates. Others will die because, without jobs, they will not feed themselves properly or get their needed medicines. Many will turn to alcoholism, which kills people in a variety of ways. Etc. If stopping the world economy kills more people than COVID-19, should we still do it?”
Interestingly, this question was considered in a pandemic simulation that, by amazing coincidence, was conducted immediately before the COVID pandemic began: October 2019. It was called ‘Event 201,’ and it was organized by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, with support from the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
‘Event 201’ brought experts from various fields to consider what government should do to respond to a pandemic caused—again by amazing coincidence—by a coronavirus with lethality and contagion characteristics quite similar to those alleged for SARS2, the virus that causes COVID-19. These experts considered the issue of lockdowns in their second session and predicted lockdowns would have devastating consequences.
The chain-reaction effects of lockdown, they said, would produce a severe global recession with widespread unemployment and uncontrolled inflation, creating the conditions for national instability and changes in the global political panorama. Yes, all of that was obvious. So they put on the table the following question for discussion: How should the benefits of limiting the spread of the disease, assuming lockdowns could do that, be weighed against the profound costs of stopping the world economy?
A cost-benefit analysis!
These experts didn’t think lockdowns were such a great idea. Aside from the tremendous costs, which might easily surpass the benefits of limiting the spread of the disease, some believed the inevitable humanitarian crisis, and the ensuing panic, might even worsen the spread of the disease and its consequences. They wondered aloud whether lockdowns might not be a net cost overall—even just in terms of containing the disease!
Such reasoning was perhaps not what the WEF and Bill Gates had been hoping for, because a couple of months later, when the COVID pandemic began, neither called for a cost-benefit analysis. To the contrary, they put all their weight behind immediate lockdowns. Bill Gates even wanted the West to emulate China’s lockdowns, the most draconian in the world,5 and the WEF put out a tweet claiming that lockdowns were improving cities around the world. The WEF later embarrassedly retracted that absurd claim following a backlash, yet it doubled down on the view that lockdowns “are an important part of the public health response to COVID-19.”
But the WEF and Bill Gates were both wrong.
Lockdowns imposed a gigantic—historically unprecedented—net cost on people everywhere
In late 2020, as mentioned in the aforementioned AIER article, the World Bank was estimating that lockdowns would push 150 million people into “extreme poverty” by the end of 2021.
What benefit justifies sinking 150 million people (grok that number!) into extreme poverty? Saving lives? But people in extreme poverty are way more vulnerable to all sorts of threats to life. And 150 million is a lot of people.
The lockdowns also bloated the statistics for all sorts of non-COVID health problems, such as widespread increases in obesity (because people shuttered in their homes don’t get exercise), anxiety (because people shuttered in their homes are prone to cabin fever and panic), depression (because having little to do drives people crazy), domestic violence (because people were interacting way too much in a small space with their family members), drug abuse (because many people needed an escape from desperation), etc.
This all led to more deaths from suicide, domestic abuse, drug overdose, logistical problems in health care, people afraid to get treatment for all sorts of non-COVID health issues, etc.
Here you might say: Okay, the lockdowns caused non-COVID deaths; but didn’t they save even more lives from COVID?
To answer that question, researchers use a statistic called ‘excess deaths,’ which tells you how many people are dying in any given year compared to the average yearly deaths from the immediately preceding years. By looking at ‘excess deaths’ you can learn whether lockdowns are producing an overall, net effect on mortality that is positive. Did they?
The answer appears to be ‘no.’
As early as March 2021, one study was reporting “no clear association between lockdown policies and mortality development.” In June, a study sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) reported:
“We do not find that countries or U.S. states that implemented SIP [shelter-in-place] policies earlier had lower excess deaths. We do not observe differences in excess deaths before and after the implementation of SIP policies, even when accounting for pre-SIP COVID-19 death rates.”
Now, let’s pretend for a minute that only COVID deaths matter. Did the lockdowns at least do the one thing they were intended for: lower COVID deaths?
Already by early 2021 some top researchers were reporting that, with extreme lockdowns, “we do not find significant benefits on [COVID] case growth.”
In September a critical assessment of the literature on costs/benefits of lockdowns concluded that they had “at best, a marginal effect on the number of Covid-19 deaths.”
In January 2022, a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded: “We find no evidence that lockdowns, school closures, border closures, and limiting gatherings have had a noticeable effect on COVID-19 mortality.” Since the lockdowns “have imposed enormous economic and social costs where they have been adopted,” these researchers concluded, “lockdown policies are ill-founded and should be rejected as a pandemic policy instrument.”
And famous statistician John P. Ioannidis said:
“In fact, most of the estimates suggest that draconian lockdown [sic], if anything, increased the problem. It made things worse. It was pro-contagion.” (my emphasis)
You read correctly: Ioannidis was saying that the lockdowns increased COVID cases and therefore also COVID deaths.
Your immune system needs vitamin D, but we make it with sunlight; when you are locked inside, you ain’t getting much of that. And since the virus spreads indoors, inside was the right place to get infected, because a great many COVID sufferers were initially denied hospital care until they were gravely ill and were meanwhile sent to be huddled with their families.
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The official argument for denying early treatment was to relieve pressure on hospitals, but early treatment was precisely what the COVID-infected needed, so sending them home made many of them worse and also contributed to infecting more people. This increased the pressure on hospitals.
There is a deep similarity here to the Indian child-labor case: it seems the lockdown policies achieved the exact opposite of their purportedly intended effect.
But what was the alternative? To do nothing?
Many who opposed lockdowns, such as myself, were routinely accosted with this reaction: But how can you recommend that we do nothing?!
Again, if doing nothing and locking people down are the only two options, and lockdowns make things worse, then yes, do nothing. Doing something just because you need to feel like a good person is not ethical—being ethical means making people better off.
But opposition to lockdowns never meant ‘do nothing.’ Governments can do all sorts of things to mitigate the effects of the COVID pandemic without locking people down. Modern governments are extremely powerful. In wartime, for example, governments requisition industries to produce all sorts of goods (munitions, etc.). And they do it in the blink of an eye. Saving lives in the COVID crisis could have benefited from the same kind of attention and purpose that goes into destroying lives during wartime. Governments could have requisitioned factories to produce needed supplies of whatever, and they could have turned hangars or other facilities into makeshift hospitals. Etc. This is a response, but it doesn’t abolish anybody’s rights and liberties.
The lesson is that we must always demand a cost/benefit analysis, no matter what the policy being sold to us by our bureaucrats. We cannot do without critical thinking. Why? Because every life is sacred.
One further question
The COVID lockdowns amounted to a ‘state of emergency’ (sometimes formally declared, sometimes not). In light of the gigantic costs imposed on us, and given that a state of emergency must perforce abolish our rights and liberties, we, the free citizens of the West, should have a serious, open discussion on this question: Does it make sense for us to have a legal provision in our constitutions that allows bureaucrats to declare a state of emergency?
I will consider that question soon. It is another cost/benefit analysis: this time, on the historical costs and benefits of having the state-of-emergency provision on our constitutional books.
For now, take a look at this:
‘Cost of Lockdowns: A Preliminary Report’; American Institute for Economic Research; 18 November 2020.
‘3 Policies with Good Intentions and Tragic Consequences’; Foundation for Economic Freedom; 21 January 2016; by Corey Iacono
‘A Case against Child Labor Prohibitions’; CATO Institute; 29 July 2014; by Benjamin Powell
The following is from an article titled ‘Paying Parents to Keep Kids in School’ published in philanthropyaction.com:
“CCTs [conditional cash transfer programs] are becoming increasingly popular not only because the theory is quite attractive but also because programs in Brazil and Mexico seem to be working. Several studies have indicated that CCT participants are more likely to take the positive actions the programs encourage than those receiving traditional welfare payments. Many questions still remain, though, about how best to design a CCT for maximum positive impact with the lowest cost.
One of the most common types of CCT encourages school attendance. For families living in poverty, the cost of sending a child to school can involve more than just educational fees. The “opportunity cost” of attending class—generally measured in potential wages lost as a consequence of having a child who’s in school rather than taking care of younger siblings so parents can work, or working himself—can be too great to justify the expense and delayed benefit of a formal education. “People don’t have an incentive to be as educated as would be socially optimal,” argues Dr. Leigh Linden, a Columbia University economist who spoke with Philanthropy Action about his research on a conditional cash transfer (CCT) program in Bogota, Colombia. In the long-run, education is an invaluable asset and an important component of sustained economic development; but the short-run calculus of survival can easily overwhelm the long-run benefits. Ideally, a CCT program allows families to avoid viewing education as a trade-off.”
‘Bill Gates says US lockdowns should have come sooner to slow the coronavirus' spread, and that social distancing ‘can get the cases down to low levels’’; Business Insider; 19 March 2020; by Holly Secon