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The New York Times Finally Discovers Unintended Consequences

Jon Miltimore
February 15th, 2021
The Foundation for Economic Education
Comments (5)

This article was originally published by John Miltmore at The Foundation for Economic Education. 

The fact that even the New York Times is finally beginning to discuss unintended consequences of COVID-19 ‘hygiene theater’ is a sign we may be moving in the right direction.

The New York Times published an article on Friday under a simple headline: “Covid Absolutism.”

The article opens by noting that during public health emergencies, absolutism—the idea that people should cease any and all behavior that creates additional risk—is a tempting response. Times writer David Leonhardt gives various examples of this “absolutism” on display in America today.

“People continue to scream at joggers, walkers, and cyclists who are not wearing masks. The University of California, Berkeley, this week banned outdoor exercise, masked or not, saying, ‘The risk is real,’” he writes. “The University of Massachusetts Amherst has banned outdoor walks. It encouraged students to get exercise by ‘accessing food and participating in twice-weekly Covid testing.'”

Examples like these are virtually endless. They invite two key questions, Leonhardt notes: How effective are these behaviors in reducing the spread of the virus? And is there a downside?

As Leonhardt notes, many of these actions are essentially a kind of “hygiene theater,” the subject of a recent article in the Atlantic written by Derek Thompson.

The phrase basically speaks for itself. According to Leonhardt, these actions are not rooted in science and are primarily a form of theatrical presentation that will have little or no actual impact.

Taking every possible precaution is unrealistic. Human beings are social creatures who crave connection and pleasure and who cannot minimize danger at all times.

“Prohibiting outdoor activity is unlikely to reduce the spread of the virus, nor is urging people always to wear a mask outdoors,” he writes. “Worldwide, scientists have not documented any instances of outdoor transmission unless people were in close conversation, Dr. Muge Cevik, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me.”

So the answer to Leonhardt’s first question—How effective are they at reducing the spread of the virus?— is not difficult to answer: they’re not effective.

The second question, and its answer, is more interesting.

One might be tempted to argue that these theatrics still produce positive outcomes since they are likely to make people more conscious of the pandemic and slow the spread of the virus.

Taking extreme precautions is simply “playing it safe.” What’s the harm in that?

The answer is, “plenty.” First, Leonhardt argues it’s not part of human nature to live in a perpetual state of extreme caution.

“Taking every possible precaution is unrealistic,” he writes. “Human beings are social creatures who crave connection and pleasure and who cannot minimize danger at all times.”

Perhaps more importantly, he argues that extreme caution can backfire and produce outcomes that have the opposite of their desired effect. He uses the AIDS crisis as an example, pointing out that demonizing sexual intercourse and trying to frighten people away from it had the unintended consequence of increasing unsafe sex.

A similar phenomenon appears to be at work today.

“Telling Americans to wear masks when they’re unnecessary undermines efforts to persuade more people to wear masks where they are vital,” Leonhardt writes.

For many, this statement probably doesn’t sound particularly noteworthy. It basically has the ring of common sense, a variation of The Boy Who Cried Wolfone of Aesop’s famous parables, which taught that false alarms can harm humans by inhibiting their ability to detect actual danger.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a case study in “unintended consequences,” a term popularized by American sociologist Robert K. Merton in the twentieth century. Basically, it’s the idea that virtually every action comes with outcomes that are not foreseen or intended.

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat alluded to this concept in his famous essay, “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.”

“In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect but to a series of effects,” Bastiat wrote.

The problem, he noted, is that humans rarely pay attention to the unseen or unintended effects of a given action or policy. Ignoring these outcomes is one of the great mistakes in public policy, the Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman once observed.

Unfortunately, ignoring unintended consequences and focusing on intentions is precisely what we saw in 2020, and nobody has been more guilty of this than the Times.

No one is served by ignoring unintended consequences. And the adverse unintended consequences of lockdowns are legion.

If you search for articles discussing the unintended consequences of COVID-19 policies, which are boundless, you’ll find virtually nothing on their site. I was able to find two articles using the phrase “unintended consequences” of COVID lockdowns.

One article, published in September, is a profile of Dr. Bonnie Henry, a Canadian physician and British Columbia’s top doctor who spoke of minimizing the unintended consequences of government interventions. The other is an article in May that discussed how lockdowns could result in a surge of mental illness.

This dearth of coverage is unfortunate. The Times is one of the most influential papers in the world. It has an immense reach and a news staff of 1,300 people. And yet—our tiny writing team at FEE has produced more articles on the unintended consequences of lockdowns than the Grey Lady.

No one is served by ignoring unintended consequences. (Well, maybe politicians.) If we’re to understand the damage wrought in 2020 and prevent it in the future, lockdowns must be judged by their actual consequences, not what they were designed to achieve.

And the adverse unintended consequences of lockdowns are legion.

The fact that even the New York Times is finally beginning to discuss the unintended consequences of COVID-19-inspired actions is a sign that we may be, however belatedly, moving in the right direction.

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    Author: Jon Miltimore
    Date: February 15th, 2021

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    1. Andrea.Iravani. says:

      The elitists are believers of Hegal, but there is a lacking for the common sense of Sorren Keirkegaard, Revolt of the Single One, departing from the madness of crowds, social control, democratically socially decided norms that deviate from logic and God. Truth is eternal and is a gift from God for faith and choosing to reject evil and deception. On Techdirt, they are virulently anti-religious, and I was attacked. They fear the faithful because they cannot control them. They want people to feel that they must place their trust and faith in them, and if people place their trust and faith in God, they view it as a personal threat to themselves. Those that believe in determinism are of the same nature, based on my interactions with such individuals. They get squeamishly uncomfortable if it is suggested that individuals have a moral obligation to intervene when the ruling class has committed crimes against humanity, which would inconvenience them and disrupt their social networks. The eltists have sold out not only to societies detriment, but to their own and their families as well, who will be left to live in the horror that they have created for reasons unknown to me. How can anyone ever enjoy anyone or anything with knowing that they have chosen by deliberation to unleash unprecedented horror on the world and have committed to secrecy over it? It would be a meaningless and empty existence. These elitists have confounded me. Why would anyone want to be famous for being a pathological liar that has engaged in barbaric crimes against humanity that pretends to be a wealthy but mentally incompetent ass at best? If that is the “reward”, the elitists can shove it up their asses!  Where do I not sign up for that? It may help them, but it sure as hell won’t help me! How can they enjoy life?

      Andrea Iravani

      • Andrea.Iravani. says:

        It is my theory that the surveillance state is filled with so many atheists because they lead a double life, which is guaranteed spiritual death. There are also some in the surveillance state that are the equivalent of televangelists, that really should not be trusted. They have been spying on me too. My notice to the MICIMATT InfraTards is as follows:

        I already know everything that I need to know about you, that you cannot be trusted because you have not only violated my rights, stolen intellectual property, and obsessively parroted me, but you are fully aware that I am a victim of torture and terrorism and just decided to exploit the situation to your advantage.
        I do not know if this is some kind of sick, creepy, disgusting spy game that is commonly played in the low IQ losers club of
        MICIMATT InfraTards to try to get someone to contact them and ask them why or not, and I refuse to give any of you worthless trashy losers, some of whom require a PhD title just in order to try to convince people that they are not the unsophisticated,retarded, losers with a Jerry Springer audience lifestyle and mentality!

        I refuse to give you the satisfaction! You are wasting your time!
        Your lifestyles are rebellions against God! You are absolute frauds! You are predators that violate people’s rights as a way of life! You would be better off dead! You are sick, disgusting, creepy, retarded monsters! Everything is just a game and an act to you! You stand for nothing at all! Your existences are hollow, pathetic, meaningless, crimes against humanity!

        You are guaranteed to lose! Give Up!

        Truth is etenernal!

        Andrea Iravani

    2. Darth Skippy says:

      Natural peons get the opportunity to correct their social betters.

      In far-overpopulated, blue states, you can hear rustling and chittering, around every corner, like munchkins on the Wizard of Oz.

    3. the dile says:

      Great thing to point out. However, one technicality. They’re only “unintended consequences” if they actually didn’t intend to bankrupt the middle class, permanently shut small businesses, polarise society, make everyone terrified, and normalise tyranny. Which is exactly what they meant to do.

    4. Darth Skippy says:

      People, who continue to scream at joggers, walkers, and cyclists who are not wearing masks, just want to be hugged.