You already know the basic story of the 2020 coronavirus global pandemic, but the proper interpretation is still in flux. If we fail to discern the role of the tyranny of experts, we will miss the linchpin that turned a pandemic into a catastrophe.
As a public-health problem, COVID-19 started in late 2019, when a mysterious new coronavirus infected people in Wuhan, China. Within a couple of months, it had spread to every corner of the occupied world. At first, when officials outside China did not know how dangerous it was, reactions varied. In late January, President Donald Trump responded to the news by restricting travel from China. At the time, the World Health Organization still downplayed the risk and criticized limits on travel. Trump’s opponents, from Joe Biden to Nancy Pelosi, accused him of xenophobia. By late March, though, panic was setting in, and Trump’s domestic critics were claiming he had not acted fast enough.
In downplaying the danger early on, the World Health Organization seemed to be carrying water for the regime in Beijing. (We provide the details in our new book, The Price of Panic.) But in March, the UN agency reversed course. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed to a scary model from the Imperial College London, which predicted as many as 40 million people could die worldwide without draconian efforts to reduce the spread of the virus. It would be more than a month before non-experts learned that the model was little more than high tech, unreliable conjecture.
American public health experts followed the lead of WHO and advised the president accordingly. On April 8, Trump explained that “two very smart people walked into my office and said, ‘Listen these are your alternatives.’ And that was a projection of 1.5 to 2.2 million people would die if we didn’t close [the economy] up.” One of these was public health official Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Dr. Fauci and a few other officials soon became household names, thanks to a viral boost from the press and social media. As a result, government bureaucrats with narrow expertise gained the status of infallible oracles. This made it politically deadly for the president to weigh their advice against the advice of other experts.
That arrangement, we should now realize, set the stage for disaster. The coronavirus was surely a danger, especially to the elderly who suffered from ill health. But it’s not nearly as severe as the Spanish flu a century ago, and it poses less risk than the ordinary flu to the young and healthy. As a result, we argue in The Price of Panic that the cost of the public response – which involved untested, population-wide lockdowns rather than targeted quarantines – vastly exceeded even their promised benefits.
Let’s grant that the federal government has a proper role to play in public health and, in particular, during a pandemic. Still, public health officials left to their own devices should not have this sort of power over government leaders or public perception. Executing policy is finally the job of elected officials, practical men and women who are accountable to the public and who are charged with balancing the advice of competing experts, not getting rolled by them.
The problem here is not that public health officials are wicked. Let’s assume they are all noble and well-meaning. The problem is that they are bound to maximize a certain kind of safety, to the neglect of other goods. In this way, they are like anxious doctors who run every possible test on a patient. Looking for problems is a physician’s job. Misdiagnosis could be considered malpractice. This makes them risk-averse and hypervigilant. They tend to respond to the worst-case scenario. But you, as a patient, have different aims. What you deem best for you, weighing costs and benefits, may not be what is best for the doctor who is treating you.
In the same way, putting medical specialists in charge of nations – or the whole globe – is asking for overly cautious and even oppressive policies. These experts tend to become fixated on the single malady in front of them, to the exclusion of any other concern – with tragic results for us in the United States and every other country that followed the doctors’ orders.
Consider, as Exhibit A, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel – oncologist, bioethicist, and one-time public health guru under President Barack Obama. Probably for shock value, news outlets quoted him in April saying that the whole country must be locked down for 12 to 18 months until there is a vaccine. “Realistically, COVID-19 will be here for the next 18 months or more. We will not be able to return to normalcy until we find a vaccine or effective medications,” he said. “I know that’s dreadful news to hear. How are people supposed to find work if this goes on in some form for a year and a half? Is all that economic pain worth trying to stop COVID-19? The truth is we have no choice.”
The doctor was wrong: There is always a choice. We could have quarantined the sick, isolated those at high risk, taken commonsense precautions, and then gone on with our lives – just as people did during the swine flu, the Asian flu, the Hong Kong flu, and on and on. Failing that, at least we could have pivoted as soon as we saw that the coronavirus was not as deadly and indiscriminate as predicted.
Why couldn’t Emanuel see this? For the same reason that Exhibit B, presidential advisor Anthony Fauci, said: “I don’t think we should ever shake hands, ever again, to be honest with you. Not only would it be good to prevent coronavirus disease, it probably would decrease instances of influenza dramatically in this country.” This from the man the New Yorker called “America’s doctor.”
In mid-May, Dr. Fauci spoke to a Senate health committee about the dangers of reopening schools and warned governors of “needless suffering and death” if we reopened states “prematurely.” Prematurely, compared to what? The word implies a fixed end date, like a due date during a pregnancy. But Fauci promised no end date to the madness.
Why do public health officials like Emanuel and Fauci say such things? Because they are in the grip of a single goal. Such officials tend to think in bulk, to focus on the quantity of abstract life protected in the near term, rather than the quality of actual lives lived over the long term. Imagine, for instance, what might happen if a risk-averse public health expert who had spent 30 years obsessing over traffic deaths could dictate the driving choices of 330 million Americans, or eight billion humans. It would not be pretty.
The problem is not expertise. We all benefit from experts. The problem is the tyranny of experts – when their constricted focus dictates policy for everyone. In a sane world, the media would grasp that experts like Emanuel and Fauci offer one narrow take on a vast and complex problem, and that while we should not ignore them, we should not idolize them, either.
Regrettably, the press weaponized Fauci against President Trump and other politicians who challenged the wisdom of an indefinite shutdown. The headlines reporting on Fauci’s May testimony before a Senate committee – when Senator (and doctor) Rand Paul had the temerity to tell him, “You’re not the end-all” – were predictable: “Trump’s Push to Reopen Schools Clashes with Fauci’s Call for Caution”; “Fauci Warns of Colossal, Deadly Mistake. Will Trump Listen?”; “Fauci Warns: More Death, Econ Damage If US Reopens Too Fast.”
Of course, Fauci has no expertise in economics, and even his health advice changed over the course of the winter and spring. As Steve Deace noted on May 14:
In January, Fauci did an interview in his native NYC saying coronavirus was just another flu. In February, he wrote virtually the same in the New England Journal of Medicine. In March, he said Americans don’t need to be walking around wearing masks. Then later in March he told Congress this would kill 10 times more people than the flu. He signed up to lockdown the country based on the disgraced Imperial College Model in March, too. In April, he sentenced us to further lockdown based on the always wrong IHME model. Later in April he said he wasn’t sure we could trust the models. Now in May he’s not sure we can send the kids back to school this fall, a linchpin to reopening the country, despite the fact kids are returning to school in China, Japan, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, France, Israel, and Sweden.
So, how do you know which Fauci to worship? Your demigod sure does change his mind a lot.
No matter. The press had elevated Fauci and other specialists to the status of infallible oracles – whose most recent pronouncements erased whatever they had said the day before – and dared governors and presidents to challenge them. But challenge them we must, if we’re going to avoid a repeat of the 2020 catastrophe.
Jay W. Richards, Douglas Axe, and William Briggs are the authors of The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic into a Catastrophe.