The Biggest Defect of the Left [with comment by Paul]

When asked to name the single greatest defect of the left, I usually answer quite narrowly: an inability to think in terms of tradeoffs. This is why liberals, owing to a Kantian-inspired disposition that favors intentions above consequences, tend always to utopianism, to the view that we if we just have good will and another tax increase, we can have the best yearbook ever! As Thomas Sowell likes to say, “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs; and you try to get the best trade-off you can get, that’s all you can hope for.”

This perennial thought is brought to mind by contemplating the current monomania for shutting down the world to fight COVID. Consider this evaluation from the World Bank, as reported in the Wall Street Journal today:

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown between 88 million and 114 million people into extreme poverty, according to the World Bank’s biennial estimates of global poverty.

The reversal is by far the largest increase in extreme poverty going back to 1990 when the data begin, and marks an end to a streak of more than two decades of declines in the number of the extremely impoverished, which the World Bank defines as living on less than $1.90 a day, or about $700 a year. . .

“This is the worst setback that we’ve witnessed in a generation,” said Carolina Sánchez-Páramo, global director of the World Bank’s Poverty and Equity Global Practice.

Add to this the number of excess illnesses and deaths from the large number of people postponing medical treatment because of fear of COVID in our health care facilities, and the elevated suicide rate, and it is far from clear that the lockdown policy hasn’t increased overall mortality rates.

Meanwhile, let’s talk some more about masks. Nature magazine, which reflects the conventional liberal outlook on nearly every political-scientific controversy (such as saying that Trump’s supposed “assault on science” could take decades to fix—decades!!), has an article out today on “Facemasks: What the Data Say.” Although Nature labors to be pro-mask, the story has to admit that the data are mixed:

Face masks are the ubiquitous symbol of a pandemic that has sickened 35 million people and killed more than 1 million. In hospitals and other health-care facilities, the use of medical-grade masks clearly cuts down transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But for the variety of masks in use by the public, the data are messy, disparate and often hastily assembled. . .

But being more definitive about how well they work or when to use them gets complicated. There are many types of mask, worn in a variety of environments. There are questions about people’s willingness to wear them, or wear them properly. Even the question of what kinds of study would provide definitive proof that they work is hard to answer. . .

Further confusing the public are controversial studies and mixed messages. One study in April found masks to be ineffective, but was retracted in July. Another, published in June, supported the use of masks before dozens of scientists wrote a letter attacking its methods (see The authors are pushing back against calls for a retraction. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially refrained from recommending widespread mask usage, in part because of some hesitancy about depleting supplies for health-care workers. In April, the CDC recommended that masks be worn when physical distancing isn’t an option; the WHO followed suit in June.

Or let’s look at another seemingly tiny and supposedly sensible policy: car seats for young children. It’s one thing to require car seats for infants, but increasingly state laws are tending toward requiring car seats for kids practically up until they turn 18 and head off to college. A couple weeks ago I came across a new paper on the Social Science Research Network that suggests car seats are more effective than condoms as a means of birth control. Written by two professors at MIT and Boston College, here’s the abstract:

Since 1977, U.S. states have passed laws steadily raising the age for which a child must ride in a car safety seat. These laws significantly raise the cost of having a third child, as many regular-sized cars cannot fit three child seats in the back. Using census data and state-year variation in laws, we estimate that when women have two children of ages requiring mandated car seats, they have a lower annual probability of giving birth by 0.73 percentage points. Consistent with a causal channel, this effect is limited to third child births, is concentrated in households with access to a car, and is larger when a male is present (when both front seats are likely to be occupied). We estimate that these laws prevented only 57 car crash fatalities of children nationwide in 2017. Simultaneously, they led to a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980, with 90% of this decline being since 2000.

PAUL ADDS: I agree that an unwillingness to acknowledge tradeoffs is one of the core defects of the left. Sometimes, though, conservatives are also unwilling to acknowledge them.

Shutdowns as a response to the coronavirus are an example. The view of some conservatives that, at the height of a pandemic, we could have had the level of social interaction necessary to avoid significant economic distress without generating a significant number of excess coronavirus infections, and therefore deaths, strikes me as denying a pretty obvious tradeoff.