A Response to Will Wilkinson’s “The Useful Libertarian Idiocy of The Great Barrington Declaration”

Some of you may have seen Will Wilkinson wrote this unhinged article that’s been circulating on Twitter and Reddit. I thought about either making a long Twitter thread or responding to it in a comment on another post on this sub, but this is just so egregious I felt it deserved its own post.

First paragraph he says:

“The dominant expert take on the Great Barrington proposal is that it blithely disregards the atrocious death toll that “herd immunity” strategies, such as the Declaration’s “focused protection” approach, are likely to produce. At the same time, the statement egregiously misrepresents the long-term damage the virus might inflict upon those it infects but doesn’t kill. And it seriously understates the danger of the virus to working-age adults.”

So right off the bat he ignores even the possibility that focused protection can lower the death toll. Of course he doesn’t feel this even needs addressing, because he believes himself to be a high priest merely pointing out blasphemy. But then he links to a study that supposedly shows the GBD “seriously understates the danger of the virus to working-age adults.” Sounds scary. Here’s the study: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.10.21.20217174v1

There are two immediate problems with this. The study acknowledges that the 25-44 age group in the U.S. has experienced the highest rates of excess mortality, but they fail to point out that, according to the latest CDC members, over 70% of those excess deaths are from causes other than COVID. Possibly this could change due to reporting delays, but the difference in the proportion of excess deaths attributable to COVID is stark between younger and older populations.

Two, the study itself is simply comparing opioid overdoses to COVID deaths in three regions (11 states). It found “Combined, 2,450 COVID-19 deaths were recorded in these three regions during the pandemic period, compared to 2,445 opioid deaths during the same period of 2018.” But it gets worse. New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Arizona are included in the numbers, states with disproportionately high numbers of COVID deaths. In fact, the average death toll per 100k from COVID for the states used was ~80.2, whereas the national per capita death toll is ~69.2. This means the states used had a per capita death toll from COVID 15.8% higher than the national average. On the other hand, from the best available information I was able to find, the states used had an average death toll per 100k from opioid overdoses of ~11.7, compared to the national rate of 14.6, meaning their opioid death toll was 19.8% lower than the national average.

Another way of framing this study, then, would be to say that opioid overdoses among 25-44 year-olds are keeping pace with COVID deaths even in regions with higher than average COVID deaths and lower than average opioid deaths. And in fact New York and New Jersey have experienced COVID death tolls higher than just about anywhere in the entire world. This is a totally bizarre study to cite to “prove” the GBD understates the harms to working-age young people.

The idea that we can protect the vulnerable through a strategy that cheers on soaring rates of infection is dumbfounding. It seems that the only way to protect the elderly, immunocompromised, and otherwise at-risk while simultaneously encouraging the spread of infection through the community would be to seal them off from the rest of the population, which simply isn’t possible, practically or politically.

Of course, what is practical is sealing off the entire population indefinitely from a virus, no pragmatic or political concerns there.

Consider a single mom, Maria, with an autoimmune problem (rheumatoid arthritis, say) who needs to take an immunosuppressant to function as a breadwinner and a parent. Surely it’s better for the whole family if the kids are attending school in the flesh. That means that Maria can support her family by continuing to clean hotel rooms. But now suppose everything simply returns to normal with the conscious aim of getting the bulk of the population infected. How do we protect Maria? She certainly won’t be able to go to work at the hotel to support her kids. And it becomes very likely that her kids will get infected at school, which may not harm them, but could pose a mortal risk to her. In that case, who will take care of them? How will they afford groceries?

We’ve all heard this before. “Uhh, but have you considered this hypothetical scenario I just made up 30 seconds ago? Yeah, checkmate Stanford, Harvard, and Oxford.” For one, there is no “conscious aim” of getting the bulk of the population infected. Herd immunity is a happy byproduct of infections, but even if it weren’t, it would still make more sense to seal off only some of the population until a vaccine. But this scenario doesn’t even make sense. This person wants to take a general suppression approach, but still wants schools and hotels open? And not only open, but generating sufficient revenue to guarantee the employment of hotel maids? Wouldn’t a general suppression approach require fairly extensive travel restrictions? Otherwise I don’t even know what we’re talking about in terms of an alternative policy, unless the plan is to contact trace the virus out of existence.

But of course the response is that, should “Maria” be working in a high-risk setting, we could simply extend her unemployment benefits, which would be far cheaper than shutting down the economy indefinitely. As for her children, they could either be allowed to learn virtually (less than ideal), or have some sort of pod for in-person learning in a separate area of the school along with other children who are at-risk or have family members at risk. Also, Lockdown proponents seem to be under this illusion that we can take a general suppression approach and also keep schools open. Well I’m in Massachusetts (which he praises later in the article) where infection rates are extremely low, and they just shut down our town’s high school for five cases out of 1,500 students. So if even places he thinks are “doing it right” are panicking and closing schools, I have no idea why he thinks at-risk children would be able to attend school in-person all year with Team Apocalypse in charge.

Reflecting on cases like these, which could be multiplied indefinitely, the proposal comes to seem pointless. Nobody is going to do this. What’s even the idea here? That a governor or mayor or city council will one day announce that it is now officially a Great Barrington “focused protection” jurisdiction and everyone will just shout “Hurrah!” and sprint to the nearest massage parlor or high step it to the hoe down whilst Maria and the old folks across the street and the neighbor kid with a rare lymphatic disorder …. What?

Not run to the nearest massage parlor. And you don’t “announce” you’re a “Great Barrington” jurisdiction, you simply implement policies consistent with a focused protection approach. I’m continuously amazed by this guy’s inability to imagine even the most basic and straight-forward scenarios. You just don’t send in the police to shut down massage parlors, and people go get massages.

They’re issued impermeable bubbles? We all know that nobody’s getting a taxpayer-funded bubble. And very few of us are willing to simply allow the virus to cull the weak. Which is why next to nobody’s going to try the Great Barrington strategy. And if somebody does try it, it obviously can’t work.

Oh well since you put it that way. And no they’re not issued impermeable bubbles.

There are these things called houses. They have walls the virus cannot get through.

Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home,” the Declaration’s authors argue. “Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume.” This is all very easy to say! But you can’t believe most people are actually going to go along with this amid soaring infection rates unless you think people are generally a bunch of amoral idiots.

So then what’s the problem with opening them?

I’m no angel, but it’s nevertheless important to me, as a matter of elementary moral duty, to avoid becoming a link in a chain of viral transmission that could kill somebody.

Yeah that’s the whole point of the declaration, to break the chain between vulnerable and non-vulnerable.

Lots of folks who get sick from the coronavirus take months to recover. There are widespread reports of lingering neurological effects. The virus seems to cause lasting damage to the hearts and lungs of many who get infected, including in those who showed no symptoms. John Barry notes that “One recent study of 100 recovered adults found that 78 of them showed signs of heart damage. We have no idea whether this damage will cut years from their lives or affect their quality of life.

Always beware of anyone who uses language like “there are widespread reports of” or “lots of folks.” They’re saying this because they’re cherrypicking outliers, which there always will seem to be “a lot of” in a population of over 300 million people. As far as the “showing signs of heart damage,” there’s a reason he presented it without any other context. He’s trying to make it sound as if the number went from 0 to 78. Professor and cardiologist Darrel Francis did a whole thread on the glaring statistical errors in the initial study. And, as it turns out, after corrections were made there was not a statistically significant difference in COVID patients and controls of a similar health status. Whoops.

Also there are several problems with this type of fear-mongering. For one, these numbers are often presented by journalists with no medical training. People hear “heart, brain, lungs, liver, kidney” and freak out. But there is never any discussion of actual severity or permanency of these issues, the latter of which we can’t even know at this point. Team Apocalypse treat this uncertainty as if it’s evidence in favor of lockdowns, but there’s no reason for that to be the case when we do have strong evidence of the negative health effects of those policies. And additionally we don’t obsessively scan the lungs/hearts/brains of flu patients without reason, so we barely have any basis for comparison other than knowing they occur with some level of frequency with other respiratory illnesses. And look, I can link to an article with a super spooky description too! This study shows 48% of elite high-endurance athletes showed myocardial inflammation following a common cold!

So mere personal prudence is enough to lead many of us to decline invitations to weddings, retire our gym memberships, and eschew dine-in restaurants. It’s enough to keep managers and business owners from calling their workers back to the office. Now add a functioning moral compass to mix. In that case, a moderate level of entirely voluntary self-isolation and avoidance of un-distanced and/or mask-free social situations becomes practically inevitable… Here in Iowa, we’ve never had an official lockdown, and we’ve had very, very few restrictions of any kind. Nobody’s stopping anybody from going to the movies, but nobody goes to the movies. Restaurants are open, but there aren’t many people in them.

So now he’s going to tell us that, hey lockdowns don’t matter anyway, because this is all completely voluntary!

It’s hard to tell the practical difference between the Great Barrington approach and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds’ active hostility to city-level restrictions, mask mandates, and remote schooling. Yet it’s completely obvious, if you live here, that this approach hasn’t put us any nearer to “normal.” The governor’s aggressively laissez faire approach has delivered some of the country’s highest infection rates, but with very few mitigating economic benefits.

Oh, except it…does make a difference? Apparently lockdowns are all benefit and no cost! Sounds like great news, right? Well let’s just check to make sure Iowa is actually doing just as bad, if not worse, than their more lockdown-prone neighbors.

Iowa’s COVID deaths per 100k: 54

Michigan’s COVID deaths per 100k: 77

Illinois’s COVID deaths per 100k: 78

https://www.statista.com/statistics/1109011/coronavirus-covid19-death-rates-us-by-state/

Well this is awkward, I was wondering why he didn’t link to any sources on that claim. But surely the economic benefit must be negligible to non-existent given the confidence with which he writes.

Iowa’s unemployment rate: 4.7% (5th lowest in the country)

Michigan’s unemployment rate: 8.5% (9th highest in the country)

Illinois’s unemployment rate: 10.2% (5th highest in the country)

https://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm

Hmm, guess not. It’s almost like he’s just making stuff up in hopes nobody takes the 30 seconds it requires to google his claims.

I recently visited Massachusetts, which has responded to the pandemic far more aggressively and competently than Iowa has. It now has one of the lowest infection rates in the country, which is why economic and social life there was notably more active and normal than it is here in plague-ridden, anything-goes Iowa. This is not hard to understand. If people don’t feel safe, they won’t go shopping.

Oh good he’s talking about my home state, so before even opening google I can tell you how full of it he is. He claims Massachusetts responded “competently.” Deaths per 100k in Massachusetts? 144. That’s third-highest in the country and well over double the per capita COVID death rate in Sweden. And why is our death toll so high? Here’s a hint: ⅔ of our deaths have occurred in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. It’s actually impossible to even fathom how the government could have handled this less competently. Of course “competent” to Team Apocalypse just means implementing policies that are arbitrary, authoritarian, and ritualistic in nature, so I suppose it’s not surprising the whole article seems nonsensical to those of us who still speak normal English.

And what about our economy? Since our economic and social life is so much more active and normal than “plague-ridden” Iowa, this must be reflected in the numbers, right? Oh, nope, 9.6% unemployment, 6th-highest in the country (although thankfully down from July when we were number one). Keep in mind our epidemic curve peaked in April and has been flat for months at this point, yet we still have close to a 10% unemployment rate.

Finally, is there any evidence that Massachusetts is more active and normal than Iowa? Well we have mobility data.

Massachusetts Retail Relative to Baseline: -18%

Iowa Retail Relative to Baseline: -9%

Massachusetts Grocery and Pharmacy: -10%

Iowa Grocery and Pharmacy: +11%

In fact by every metric Iowa is either equally active or more active than Massachusetts, except for visits to parks (which is only because they’re going elsewhere, since the residential time is equal between the two states.)

(https://www.gstatic.com/covid19/mobility/2020-10-25_US_Massachusetts_Mobility_Report_en.pdf)

(https://www.gstatic.com/covid19/mobility/2020-10-25_US_Iowa_Mobility_Report_en.pdf)

This body of research includes studies like this recent NBER working paper, which takes advantage of huge sets of cell phone location data to confirm that official stay-at-home orders had almost nothing to do with the huge drop in mobility that began in late February and early March. A bit later, there was modest divergence in the rate at which mobility declined between places that had no stay-at-home order, places that issued orders early, and places that issued them late. But it’s evident from the data, illustrated in the chart below, that the slowdown of social and economic life started around same time everywhere regardless of official “shutdown status,” that the slackening of social and economic life reached its nadir at the same time everywhere, and the partial thaw proceeded at about the same pace.

Ah, so now he’s comfortable discussing mobility data. Yes, it’s true that in the initial weeks of the pandemic everyone was sufficiently terrified that we all hid away in our homes. This is because we were presented with inaccurate models and scary graphs showing an explosion of hospital bed requirements, with a red line hovering one millimeter above the x-axis showing hospital capacity. We were also told (lied to) that this would be temporary and last no longer than a few weeks, and at the time there was no pandemic fatigue.

But we do have a way of evaluating his claim. His hypothesis is that people voluntarily isolate once cases begin to rise. The virus did not sweep through the U.S. all at once, it arrived in distinct epidemic waves. That means we should see mobility trends fall in accordance with each subsequent wave. The Sun Belt had their wave over the summer. Do we see a drop in mobility similar to what we saw in March?

https://ourworldindata.org/covid-mobility-trends

Nope, doesn’t look like it. Mobility in the U.S. starts rising again in April and pretty clearly stabilizes over the summer. It’s almost like people behave differently when presented with new information.

Our infection rate is relatively high here in Iowa. Still, ordinary economic and social life in most respects remains on pause or in low-power mode, so there’s approximately zero chance we’ll get anywhere near herd immunity before a vaccine materializes. There will be no “protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity,” as the Declaration puts it, because we’re not going to get to pre-vaccine herd immunity. And that’s not because anything resembling a “lockdown policy” has been imposed. The bars downtown were packed last Saturday with heedless undergrads cheering at the top of their lungs for the Hawkeyes. They’re simply trapping the vulnerable in their houses, stripping them of the freedom to safely undertake activities far more necessary and fundamental than watching the game in a drunken horde. The only reward we’re getting for our laxity is needless fear and death.

Wait a minute, what? Didn’t this guy just say Iowa was “plague-ridden” and that “Restaurants are open, but there aren’t many people in them?” Didn’t he just say that Massachusetts was “more normal and active” than Iowa? We aren’t even allowed to have bars open until a vaccine, nevermind packing in college kids to watch a football game. Forget about moving the goalposts over a matter of months, Team Apocalypse can’t even keep their story straight in the time it takes them to get up and get a cup of coffee.

As far as the herd immunity threshold, that’s a much more complicated issue. It’s absurd to say we’re “not going to get to pre-vaccine herd immunity,” when we don’t even know what the infection rate has to be to reach it, nor do we know how long it will take to get a vaccine. And no, it’s not a matter of 1-(1/R0) (https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.23.20160762v2, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6505/846.full) as population heterogeneity and partial resistance/pre-existing immunity also play a role. There is some interesting pattern in which rates seem to fall at around 15-20% antibody prevalence, but even this is difficult to estimate given waning antibodies. (Shockingly, a quick ctrl+f for Sweden yielded no results /s.) He also demonstrates a common misconception about herd immunity, which is that it is both binary and a fixed number. Even some immunity is still a benefit, and in some cases it can be a large one.

So what does any of this have to do with the libertarianism of AIER? Well, libertarians need to believe that, in this case and many others, a policy of doing nothing will work out because they think that government-led efforts (other than the protection of property rights) rarely succeed in improving our lives or securing our freedom.

This is quite ironic because the opposite is even more true. Team Apocalypse has an absolute religious devotion to the state and its ability to shape human behavior and society as a whole. Their entire worldview is motivated by a sick fetish for utopia. However, if you seriously talk to any of the supporters of the GBD, almost all of their solutions to shifting the burden of infection onto the less vulnerable involve government action, it’s just that it’s action that is less destructive and easier to implement because it doesn’t require micromanaging the movements of every citizen in the country for indefinite periods of time.

I’d guess that’s why the authors and advocates of the Declaration studiously ignore actual patterns of individual agency easily observable in places, like Iowa, which have very few restrictions. If they allowed themselves to pay attention, they’d see that the dismal half-life of pandemic America is due more to the invisible hand than the state’s whip hand.

Again, this is one paragraph after he just said downtown bars were recently packed with college students on a Saturday.

You might find yourself struggling to deny that the state’s authority can solve otherwise unsolvable collective action problems, supply otherwise unsuppliable public goods, and insure us against otherwise uninsurable risks. You might then become tempted to conclude that not only are we materially better off when the state does all that stuff, we’re also in many respects more free…That’s why a proposal released by the libertarian AIER simply can’t be one that accepts that our Covid woes result mainly from millions of voluntary acts of individual prudence and moral duty rather than “government shutdowns.”

At the risk of belaboring this point, this whole section in the piece is totally confused and incoherent. He again cannot decide the actual impact of government policy. He says voluntary actions can make us less free, and government action can make us more free. But also, the effects of lockdowns are almost entirely due to voluntary distancing. But then again, Iowa is doing much worse than Massachusetts, which took an aggressive lockdown approach, which is why they’re more free. Starting to notice a pattern?

I’ve argued repeatedly that we easily could have done what they did to similar effect. We could have followed our own pre-existing pandemic control plans and implemented a large-scale testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation program. We could have saved a medium-sized city’s worth of American lives as we moved swiftly toward the return of something resembling normal.

For context he’s talking about New Zealand, which is of course a completely ridiculous comparison. But he says we should have “followed our own pre-existing pandemic control plans and implemented a large-scale testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation program.” Ok well let’s look at our pre-existing pandemic control plan. According to the CDC, once a pandemic is declared “Patient isolation and tracing and quarantine of contacts should cease, as such measures will no longer be feasible or useful.” Theoretically if you entirely seal off your border and engage in rigorous contact tracing very early on you may be able to stop an outbreak, but it isn’t clear when the virus even first arrived in the U.S. We’re told that we should have been able to emulate South Korea (despite no other country being able to test on the scale South Korea did). But is it true South Korea stopped the virus in its tracks through contact tracing? “Although this study was conducted with a small size and unrepresentative sample, our finding suggests that the number of undiagnosed missing cases may be at least ten-fold higher than the total number of confirmed cases based on PCR testing.” And that also seems consistent with this study, which indicates that, between January and March, when South Korea was supposedly “taking the virus seriously,” contact tracers were only able to identify 0.16 out-of-household positive contacts per index case, which seems too low to significantly bend their curve, nevermind bring cases down to near 0.

Let’s look at Germany, which he also cites as an example worth following. The study found 1.3% of Germany had detectable antibodies, but the number of confirmed cases was 200,436. This means there is an undercounting of cases by at least a factor above 5.3. Oh, and cases in Germany are now spiking along with the rest of Europe, and they just announced another partial lockdown. Unfortunate timing for Will.

And here’s the dirty secret about contact tracing: basically every country has tried it in one way or another. https://english.elpais.com/society/2020-07-30/spains-covid-19-contact-tracers-all-our-energy-is-being-put-into-containing-the-coronavirus.html https://www.zdnet.com/article/contact-tracing-italys-open-source-app-finally-lands-taking-the-google-apple-model/ Many European countries tried using apps to improve efficiency, but they were often buggy and had low usage rates amidst privacy concerns.

But this is the Team Apocalypse M.O. They wait to see which countries have low case rates and then smugly post articles about how we could be just like them if we gave up our backwards, individualist predilections. And since every country has taken some measures the Team Apocalypse have been demanding we implement (or just implement harder), they’ll find some reason to condescendingly lecture us about how we’re just not “following the science.” And if those countries suddenly see a spike in cases? Well, that will all get memory-holed and they’ll find their new pet example to badger us about.

Conclusion/TL;DR: This is the worst article I have on the topic of the Great Barrington Declaration, and I would even say COVID in general. He links to studies that are either irrelevant or prove the opposite point he’s trying to make, he constantly contradicts himself with respect to the role government intervention has played in the effects of the response to the virus, and he relies on anecdotes or personal experience when the data clearly doesn’t support his argument. In fact it is not an argument at all, it is an extremely confused diatribe against (what he perceives to be) libertarianism. This article is a total embarrassment and never should have seen the light of day.

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