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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Costs of Mitigation Efforts Vastly Outweigh Benefits for 89% of Population, Health Researchers Conclude

These results are all the more reason to leave decision-making to the individual judgment level.

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This article is excerpted from the FEE Daily, a daily email newsletter where FEE Policy Correspondent Brad Polumbo brings you news and analysis on the top free-market economics and policy stories. Click here to sign up.

COVID mitigation measures were always a question of costs and benefits, of good intentions versus unintended consequences. Two health researchers just concluded that for roughly 89 percent of Americans the benefits of both voluntary and government mitigation efforts alike have been vastly outweighed by their costs.

“The list of [pandemic policy] mistakes is long, but the most glaring was the failure to understand and act on the virus’s propensity to attack the old and vulnerable,” pharmaceutical consultant Charles L. Hooper and Hoover Institution health economist David R. Henderson write in the Wall Street Journal. “Policy makers failed, in other words, to understand the enemy.”

They looked at the fact that COVID-19 death rates varied widely among age groups, with an 85-year-old roughly 2,000 times more likely to die from the coronavirus than an 18-year-old. Then, they calculated the expected life years lost from infection for different age groups. Using this, the researchers estimated the value gained, on average, from mitigation measures for individuals of different age groups. 

They weighed this against the costs of mitigation measures, which include “reduced schooling, reduced economic activity, increased substance abuse, more suicides, more loneliness, reduced contact with loved ones, delayed cancer diagnoses, delayed childhood vaccinations, increased anxiety, lower wage growth, travel restrictions, reduced entertainment choices, and fewer opportunities for socializing and building friendships.” 

The result? 

Hooper and Henderson conclude that—only looking at economic, not social costs—mitigation efforts cost young people $102,000 but only preserved an average of 7.5 hours of life per individual. 

“Would you pay $102,000 to live an extra 7.5 hours?” the researchers ask. “What 18-year-old values his time at $13,600 an hour?” However, they find that for the elderly the benefits of mitigation efforts do exceed the costs: “The benefits of protection, measured in life expectancy, are 210 times as high for the older person.”

“Had policy makers understood the enemy, they would have adopted different protocols for young and old,” Hooper and Henderson conclude. “Politicians would have practiced focused protection, narrowing their efforts to the most vulnerable 11% of the population and freeing the remaining 89% of Americans from wasteful burdens.”

I’d take it one step further.  

The fact that costs and benefits associated with pandemic mitigation measures vary so enormously across different people is all the more reason to leave decision-making to the individual judgment level. 

As Nobel-prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote, “…the more the state ‘plans,’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” That’s why top-down dictates by bureaucrats who try to plan for all of society only lead to more dysfunction.

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