The High Cost of Banning Dissent
By Dr. Thomas Patterson |
America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was possibly the most consequential public policy blunder in our history.
The enormous costs included $5 trillion or so in unproductive federal spending, inflation, reduction in our standard of living, and permanent economic damage that will be felt for generations to come.
There was massive learning loss and the specter of loved ones dying alone. The incidence of depression and drug addiction skyrocketed. Businesses were shuttered while many Americans seemingly lost their work ethic.
What happened? The short answer is that we panicked and listen to “experts” who vowed we could halt this virus if we were willing to sacrifice enough.
At first, with imperfect information around a deadly new phenomenon, projecting a worst-case scenario and drastic measures to prevent it made sense. However, more data and experience with the virus soon tended to support a strategy of containment (“stop the spread”).
Still the decision makers at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), doubled down on their zero-COVID based recommendations. Lockdowns ensued. We scoffed at cost-benefit analysis. “If only one life…” and “in an abundance of caution…” became the guiding standards of policymaking.
The American people mostly went along with it. Why wouldn’t they? They were provided little awareness of alternate approaches.
Once the narrative had been established that eradication was the only permissible strategy, opposing viewpoints were excluded to a degree any Third World dictator would have envied.
Dissenters were shamed and censored. Professional reputations were attacked. Dr. Fauci informed us that “I am the science” and thus all who disagreed were “science deniers.”
Consider the case of Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Professor of Health Policy at Stanford. He also directs Stanford’s Center for Demography and Economics of Health and Aging and is a research associate at the National Bureau of Economics Research. So, the doc isn’t exactly an empty suit. He was also a co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), signed now by thousands of medical scientists and practitioners, which advocated for “focused protection” against COVID.
Since COVID is dangerous only to a relatively small proportion of the population, it was argued that the greatest efforts should be in protecting people most at risk, the chronically ill and elderly. This would focus resources where they do the most good, saving lives and money.
Agree or not, there is nothing looney about this notion that one-size-fits-all doesn’t make sense for COVID-19. It was mainstream common sense, advocated by highly qualified, non-political scientists.
Yet the blogosphere and leading scientific opinion channels exploded with vitriolic denunciations. The authors were accused of promoting infections among the young to achieve a cruel herd immunity strategy. The claimed the GBD was promoting a wholesale return to our pre-pandemic lives—that they were encouraging fringe groups who distrust health officials and prioritizing individual preference above public good.
None of it was true, but to the social media tyrants, that didn’t mean that Dr. Bhattacharya should be vigorously debated. It meant that he must be threatened and silenced.
We just recently learned that he was indeed censored and intentionally shadowbanned by Twitter. His account was tagged with a label of “Trends Blacklist.” He was censored before he tweeted a single message.
He had violated no rules. He spread no “misinformation.” He only defied the approved consensus. He was silenced by the mob at Twitter, none of whom had anything like his knowledge or experience.
The GBD authors were right, of course. None of the isolations, lockdowns, or school closures affected the eventual course of the virus. We received virtually no benefit from the massive self-inflicted harm.
It’s ironic in our supposedly modern, enlightened age that dogma won out over science. That is, we based our societal decisions on knowledge rooted in deemed authority, not the open inquiry of the scientific method.
We paid a big price for listening to the Fauci’s of the world with their refusal to balance benefit with cost. Dr. Fauci bragged of not caring about the cost of his demands.
They convinced our leaders to spend money we don’t have in a vain attempt to achieve the impossible.
Bad idea. We can’t afford to let it happen again.
Dr. Thomas Patterson, former Chairman of the Goldwater Institute, is a retired emergency physician. He served as an Arizona State senator for 10 years in the 1990s, and as Majority Leader from 93-96. He is the author of Arizona’s original charter schools bill.