This article was originally published by Ryan McMaken at The Mises Institute.
“Lockdowns” for purposes of controlling the spread of covid have always been morally reprehensible. During 2020, police in American communities were actively assisting politicians in essentially confiscating the private property of business owners who refused to close down their businesses. Police in Idaho arrested a mother for daring to let her children play on a playground.
And then, of course, there were countless cases of threatened arrest and other threatened sanctions which gained compliance because many of the victims—i.e., the taxpayers—lacked the resources or fortitude to resist.
All such acts by governments should be condemned as repugnant acts of runaway regimes.
Ignoring True Costs
Yet such acts continue to be supported by lockdown enthusiasts because these people insist that lockdowns “worked.” That is, they assure us that lockdowns substantially reduced the amount of death and disease caused by covid-19. Always ignored are the costs imposed by the lockdowns themselves—costs in terms of mental health, child development, and the psychic costs of state-imposed financial ruin. We just pretend those things don’t exist.
So, any calculation of whether or not a lockdown “worked” tends to take into account only deaths attributed to covid. Non-physical side effects of the lockdowns themselves are simply swept aside. Yet, even when this very limited framework is used to measure lockdowns—that is, if we accept the terms of the debate pushed by lockdown advocates—the actual supporting evidence has never been anything more than spotty, at best. A myriad of conflicting studies and reports have examined the effects of coercive business closures and “stay-at-home orders.” The lack of “success” brought by lockdowns is evident even if we eyeball the basic data. Although lockdown advocates repeatedly insisted “opening up” would bring incalculable amounts of death to any place lacking lockdowns, the fact is there is no significant difference between many states with long, extended lockdowns, and the states that abandoned lockdowns early. For example: Which state has experienced more covid-19 death? Lockdown-light Florida or long-locked-down New Jersey? One certainly can’t guess based on the stringency of lockdowns. Lockdown advocates insisted these differences would be obvious and huge. Yet many states with large differences in lockdown policies now have total deaths that differ by a few percentage points.
Only Big Benefits Could Possibly Justify the Costs
So, even if we look at everything through the lens of those who want lockdowns, we still can’t find clear benefits. For example, in a new report from Steve Hanke, Jonas Herby, and Lars Jonung at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Applied Economics, a meta-analysis of thirty-four studies from the past two years shows that “lockdowns in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% on average.”
The authors conclude:
Overall, our meta-analysis fails to confirm that lockdowns have had a large, significant effect on mortality rates. Studies examining the relationship between lockdown strictness (based on the OxCGRT stringency index) find that the average lockdown in Europe and the United States only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 0.2% compared to a COVID-19 policy based solely on recommendations. Shelter-in-place orders (SIPOs) were also ineffective. They only reduced COVID-19 mortality by 2.9%.
Studies looking at specific NPIs (lockdown vs. no lockdown, facemasks, closing non-essential businesses, border closures, school closures, and limiting gatherings) also find no broad-based evidence of noticeable effects on COVID-19 mortality. However, closing non-essential businesses seems to have had some effect (reducing COVID-19 mortality by 10.6%), which is likely to be related to the closure of bars. Also, masks may reduce COVID-19 mortality, but there is only one study that examines universal mask mandates. The effect of border closures, school closures and limiting gatherings on COVID-19 mortality yields precision-weighted estimates of –0.1%, –4.4%, and 1.6%, respectively. Lockdowns (compared to no lockdowns) also do not reduce COVID-19 mortality.
It’s important to keep in mind that this is a study of lockdown mandates, so the comparison hinges on the use of forced lockdowns rather than recommended social distancing. In other words, the authors accept the notion that it is entirely possible that the transmission of disease can be slowed when sick people stay home and avoid interaction with others. This likely works with covid as with countless other diseases.
Moreover, when people fear a disease—and when they witness serious illness in others—they are likely to engage in less social interaction as a means of avoiding transmission.
But unlike mere health recommendations, coerced lockdowns amount to centrally planning societal interaction overall, regardless of the actual needs of individuals and these individuals’ personal risk assessments.
Moreover, Hanke and his coauthors note that mandatory lockdowns may have actually increased covid transmission in some cases:
Unintended consequences may play a larger role than recognized. We already pointed to the possible unintended consequence of SIPOs [shelter-in-place orders], which may isolate an infected person at home with his/her family where he/she risks infecting family members with a higher viral load, causing more severe illness. But often, lockdowns have limited peoples’ access to safe (outdoor) places such as beaches, parks, and zoos, or included outdoor mask mandates or strict outdoor gathering restrictions, pushing people to meet at less safe (indoor) places. Indeed, we do find some evidence that limiting gatherings was counterproductive and increased COVID-19 mortality.
But what factors are likely to have really made the difference in covid mortality across jurisdictions? The authors write:
[W]hat explains the differences between countries, if not differences in lockdown policies? Differences in population age and health, quality of the health sector, and the like are obvious factors. But several studies point at less obvious factors, such as culture, communication, and coincidences. For example … for the same policy stringency, countries with more obedient and collectivist cultural traits experienced larger declines in geographic mobility relative to their more individualistic counterpart. Data from Germany … shows that the spread of COVID-19 and the resulting deaths in predominantly Catholic regions with stronger social and family ties were much higher compared to non-Catholic ones.
This lack of any clear connection comes in stark contrast to earlier attempts to credit lockdowns with reducing covid deaths by literally millions of people. As early as June 2020, the lockdown promoters at Imperial College London claimed that lockdowns had prevented 3.1 million deaths in eleven European countries alone. The authors of the Imperial study claimed lockdowns reduced transmission by a whopping 81 percent.
These conclusions weren’t derived from any real-world comparisons, however. Rather, the conclusion was based on assuming that the huge covid death toll predicted in the Imperial College London model had been correct. The authors then concluded that if there were fewer deaths in real life than predicted under the model, this must be due to the success of lockdowns. This approach is a long way from anything we might call scientific. But these computer-generated “findings” were repeated dutifully by the media as “proof” that lockdowns worked.
Ultimately, however, actual data continues to be collected, and it remains far from clear that lockdowns make a sizable difference. The data simply doesn’t support the convenient claims that “more lockdown means less covid.” Indeed, lockdown advocates still can’t explain why in Africa—where lockdowns are essentially unworkable and where vaccination rates are low—total covid deaths remain relatively low.
(And let’s note again: negative effects of lockdowns that don’t show up on death certificates are simply ignored.)
How Much Evidence Is Required to Abolish Your Rights?
The all also reflects a monomaniacal technocratic obsession with justifying anything and everything so long as it can be shown to “work.” But, even if lockdowns worked, this wouldn’t excuse the fact that lockdowns are premised on imposing widespread human rights violations on the population at large. Lockdowns deny the right to seek employment, the right to travel, and the basic right to contract for services. That something “works” isn’t a license for a regime to do whatever it wants. After all, many Asian regimes no doubt believe that the widespread use of the death penalty for drug offenses “works.” Similarly, it may be that torture “works” to extract information from suspected terrorists—although data shows it doesn’t. The “success” of torture would not be sufficient to justify its use, and a healthy respect for human rights suggests such practices are unacceptable.
Advocates of lockdowns will argue that having one’s livelihood confiscated by health officials is not on the same level as execution or torture. Even if that’s true we must ask exactly how much evidence lockdown advocates require before they are willing to violate your rights in the name of “doing what works.” The answer apparently is “not much.” In a sane society, the burden of proof always falls on those who want to increase state power. Predictably, however, the lockdowners insisted there was no time to worry about evidence for their radical new scheme. And once they had the power, they refused to accept any expiration dates or other limits to their power. This is why they’re constantly moving the goalposts, changing time horizons, and generally insisting that any opposition is tantamount to “killing grandma.” But it is only becoming increasingly clear that they’ve never been pursuing what works. They’ve only managed to increase their own power at great cost to many.