The Devil Didn’t Make ’Em Do It, and Neither Did the Pandemic

A specter is haunting discussions of the economy — the specter of Covid agency. Almost from the very moment unprecedented government actions were announced worldwide to stop the spread of Covid-19, people became accustomed to referring to the virus as a sentient being with the ability to bend people to his will.

It became customary to speak of business closures caused by the virus. People worried about the impact of virtual schooling on students ever since the pandemic forced schools to shut their doors and go online. Covid is causing people to leave work and not come back. The virus is also causing increased substance abuse and overdoses, road rage, and a spike in the murder rate. Most of all, Covid is the prime mover behind all the executive orders.

People have grown used to how arbitrarily Covid seems to behave from one area to the next. For example, Covid doesn’t cause schools to require masks in much of Europe, but it does in much of the United States. People accept this fickleness without question. In some nations the pandemic responds favorably to treatments that we’re told would be intolerably risky in America. Covid didn’t cause gyms and bars to close in some U.S. states, but he did in others. The virus even knows when you’re walking to your table and when you’re “actively” dining. Sometimes Covid allows you to breathe free outside; sometimes it doesn’t — it depends. The pandemic hates it when people gather together in large crowds to enjoy themselves, but there are certain noteworthy occasions where exceptions are made. Covid is even known to get starstruck and make distinctions among people at the same gathering.

While accepting the caprice, people nevertheless seem to regard Covid as a strict enforcer with the omnipresence more commonly attributed to the likes of Santa Claus, “so be good for goodness sake.” But it sees you when you’re eating; it knows your protest’s woke. Such childish anthropomorphism is encouraged by government authorities and media reports, and after all, why not? With such a mercurial godlike character on the scene, they can act as Covid priests, and who can question their divine revelations?

In shameful consequence, people have learned to behave as if Covid infects when someone transgresses. Being infected is seen as a consequence of someone’s Covid sin — whether by the infected or by the wanton acts of perceived Covid heretics. This superstition strips them of simple human compassion for people who become ill — unless it’s a loved one who has been a devout adherent to Covid’s revealed will, in which case they are very angry at supposed miscreants, especially non-celebrity anti-maskers or the unvaccinated. These toxic beliefs are destroying social comity and ripping apart the fabric of our society.

The virus, however, is a virus. It has no reasoning capacity, no sui generis moral code, no sentience whatsoever. It is brainless, answers to no one, commands no one, obeys no one, punishes or excuses no one. 

Individuals choose, not mindless particles

Believing Covid shuts down businesses, closes schools, causes substance abuse, requires emergency orders, and so forth requires the unstated presumption that individuals are not the ones choosing to shut businesses, close schools, overindulge in alcohol and drugs, overindulge in emergency orders, and so forth. It’s a signature fallacy in the Covid era, and one that I had thought people would have given up by now.

To be blunt: Covid-19 cannot do those things. They are results of individuals’ choices. Yes, some individuals make choices out of fear of exposure to the virus, and so they avoid certain businesses and choose to stay and even work from home (or not work). Some business owners voluntarily close their doors. Some parents voluntarily choose homeschooling or online education over in-person schools.

But what media reports miss so consistently, to the point of deliberate ignorance, are the choices of certain other individuals and their effects. They include governors, public health bureaucrats, local officials, and even mayors who decided to order closures of certain businesses as “nonessential” or “too dangerous” and who decided to cripple the business models of many others with capacity limits, restricted hours, mask requirements, and whatever other arbitrary and capricious measures they willfully decided to impose. These individuals used real or asserted authority to coerce business owners into shutting their doors, putting their employees out of work, and taking other steps they might otherwise have not made on their own.

They, not Covid, are also responsible for closing the schools — if not executive officials, then the school board members or leaders. For families leaving public schools, it’s not the virus that’s making them seek alternatives. Many of them are seeking educators with a demonstrated commitment to education and values more closely aligned with their own, unlike public school leaders who could very well choose to close schools again and meanwhile continue to force ineffective masks on children.

The Coronavirus does not take people’s jobs, nor does it make individuals choose against retaining their jobs or seeking employment. There is a human being, not an insensate virus, responsible for each individual who leaves a job not to return. People did not become automatons in March 2020, not even for 15 days. They still respond to perceived incentives and disincentives.

The virus is certainly not forcing heads of nations, states, or even cities to require Covid vaccination or stripping people of their employment, ability to travel, access government services or health treatment, or the ability to shop, dine, and enjoy a concert. Nor is the virus forcing President Joe Biden to declare he has a vaccine mandate in the works so as to coerce large employers into implementing it as if it were already ordered (it’s not) and suddenly established law (not possible from the Executive Branch).

If airline pilots, doctors, nurses, police officers, firefighters, and so forth are fired across the country — or choose to leave their jobs under threat of being fired — for not complying with leaders’ choices to impose such a mandate on them, what then? Whatever ill results proceed from those choices can’t be said to be Covid’s fault. It would be stupid to blame the virus for travel disruptions, hospital bed shortages from staffing woes, rising crimes from lack of police presence, and increases in fire damages. Blame the individuals whose choices brought about such negative unintended consequences.

For the good of society, let’s hope those leaders realize that they have ownership of their choices and the consequences. The virus doesn’t make them force their preferences on others. In this pandemic, as in other aspects of life, top-down central planning always fails. The “wisdom of crowds” is a concept at least as old as Aristotle. Friedrich Hayek detailed the knowledge problem besetting central planners in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” — acting as they do from only a crumb of the sum total of the knowledge dispersed across society makes their directives woefully inefficient compared with decentralizing decisions.

Central planners are no more adept at managing people’s responses to a pandemic than they are managing their other economic choices. To the doubters, I say res ipsa loquitur. Look and see. Nevertheless, even now, the best thing for our society is for our leaders to return to their senses and restore respect for other people’s choices.

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