State and local officials may claim, or even possess, lawful police powers to shut down their communities. We offer no analysis of such powers or claims under the myriad of state constitutions and authorizing legislation. But they should resist exercising these powers. The governor of Virginia, in particular, deserves admonition for unilaterally imposing a lengthy period of virtual house arrest.
We do not know, and cannot yet know, how many Americans will become sick or die from the virus. We do know that predictions regarding infection and death rates are highly unreliable. Even actual deaths attributable to COVID-19 are not so easy to count, as Italy has discovered. Age, general health, and comorbidity are difficult variables to assess, and people may die “with” the virus but not “from” it. It is also very difficult to assess the lethality of the virus relative to previously known types of flu and colds.
To date, COVID-19 deaths in the US are far fewer than deaths in ordinary flu seasons or from past pandemics such as the H1N1 virus. This understanding is critically important to put the virus, and the government response to it, in perspective. Even during past pandemics, depressions, and world wars, Americans went to work.
In 1850, French economist Frédéric Bastiat helped the world understand the “seen and unseen costs” of state policies. It is simple to see how quarantines and lockdowns will slow the spread of COVID-19. It is critical, but not so simple, to see the costs and harms caused by the economic shutdown.
Only then can we rationally understand the tradeoffs involved.