If the Wuhan coronavirus and our federal, state, and local governments’ response to it does nothing else, it should put in sharp relief the limitations of experts and bureaucrats, and remind us of why so many people voted against them in 2016.
Most will agree that Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are superb public health officials. They explain things well without going into hysterics. They try to calm but also spur to action. They have studiously avoided politics. But neither they nor the organizations they head are infallible, and neither are the state and local versions that governors and mayors are relying on for advice.
Early on, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control moved catastrophically slowly in approving tests, and the FDA went along with that, refusing to use their powers to authorize emergency-use, and discouraging or preventing private labs from developing and using their own tests. When it comes to masks, the FDA’s foot-dragging continued until recently: it wasn’t until March 19 that it permitted industrial N95 masks to be used for hospitals.
If no bureaucrat ever got fired for saying no, and no baseball manager ever lost his job for going by the book, no politician ever lost votes for “doing what the experts said.”
But which experts?
Early on, President Trump sounded like he was trying to talk down the virus as one would talk down the dollar to a more favorable exchange rate. But it was around that same time the president imposed a partial travel ban on China. According to Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), that was more in accordance with advice from defense and national security analysts, and over the objections of the public health experts, who were still listening to the Chinese Communist Party’s WHO-laundered happy-talk.
Only a fool would argue that technical expertise doesn’t matter. But technical expertise is, by its very nature, limited to that specific area of knowledge. It often also comes with a highly specific way of looking at problems and looking at the world.
Moreover, it sometimes breeds distrust for those outside the guild. Consider the masks.
Early on, public-health experts recommended that the public not wear masks when out and about because, they said, they weren’t effective. It now seems increasingly clear that that advice was given not because it was true, but in order to manipulate public behavior. N95 masks were already the unobtanium of the current crisis, and it was important that doctors and nurses have access to them and to surgical masks.
But rather than tell people the truth, ask them to do what was right and most beneficial, and trust them to do it, the experts advised us that masks simply wouldn’t benefit us. Now, they’re telling us something different.
And because decisions are being made piecemeal, here in Colorado, the state attorney general issued a cease and desist order closing down fabric and craft stores like Michael’s, JoAnn’s, and Hobby Lobby the very week that the governor told us all to start wearing masks in public.
That approach has now rightly and dangerously backfired. Rightly, because we don’t pay our public official to lie to us, and because it’s unlikely that any of them will pay a price for doing so. Dangerously, because these people are still public-health experts, and lies undermine their credibility when we need it most.
Fauci and Birx are professionals. They seem to be doing their best to provide the soundest advice. I’m sure that’s happening here in Colorado as well. But they have one job right now—to minimize COVID-19 deaths. And both their training and their professional experience limit their ability to see the broader picture.
That broader picture includes the economic costs of misguided attempts to push “pause” on a complex economy. Not only are individuals out of work, supply-chains are being re-routed, or not routed at all, factories are shutting down, people are finding themselves with cash and little to spend it on, and inventories are building up or being left to rot.
It includes societal costs of further atomizing, through social distancing and stay-at-home orders, a country already plenty distanced. And the costs of encouraging all of us to release our inner Gladys Kravitz by ratting our neighbors out for a fee. (Sadly, the social network app NextDoor seems almost purpose-built for this.)
It includes the cost of making China look like a competent hero by rushing to order masks and other personal protective medical gear from them, at a time when that country is seeking to capitalize on a crisis it foisted on the rest of the world.
No, it’s not the job of public health officials to balance all these considerations, because they’re not equipped to do it.
It’s the job of the political leaders to do that—but right now they’re failing to do so because they’re ignoring the limits of expertise.