December 30, 2020

VIA BRYAN CAPLAN: The “Democratic Centralism” of COVID.

Since very early in the pandemic, there has been a somewhat novel approach to information flow in the media and particularly on social media sites, at least compared to the baseline in the western world. Very quickly, there seems to have been a consensus that information gatekeepers should determine which opinions about the nature of the coronavirus and the appropriate policy response should be allowed to be widely disseminated. One of the notable early examples was when Medium, which is basically a website host, took down a piece written by Aaron Ginn arguing that the costs of lockdowns should be considered. There was no basis to argue that he was providing disinformation; his post was removed because it argued for a different position than what was being promoted.

While biased journalism is hardly new in the US or anywhere, the movement to close down the ability to distribute alternative opinions seems to have been novel at least within the United States. This was not like the New York Times refusing to publish opinion pieces that disagreed with its editorial stand; this was more like if the people in the olden days who sold bulk newsprint paper refused to allow anyone who dissented from the views of the newsprint providers to even obtain raw materials for printing.

This new attitude is puzzling given the novelty of the virus and the nearly intractable nature of the optimal policy decision, which must take into account the likely spread of the virus under various policies and the overall effect of the policies on the enormously complex and interconnected global economy. It is frankly absurd to think that by March or April all reasonable people had converged to the consensus view that the world economy should be locked down, but major press outlets and information platforms proceeded as if this was established fact. Given the extraordinarily poor performance of even the relatively simple virus models that were applied to the consensus view and the total inability to even begin to estimate the economic and human costs of the lockdowns, in retrospect this rapid convergence on consensus appears to be one of the single greatest acts of hubris in the history of mankind.

But, crucially, even at the time and without the benefit of hindsight this rapid collapse onto a single acceptable viewpoint by those who control the flow of information should have been seen as a colossal error. Modern information economics makes it abundantly clear that in the presence of biased experts whose objectives do not perfectly align with the people receiving advice, having multiple experts, each with their own different biases and preferences, is much better than having a single biased expert. This is true even if you could chose the least biased expert as your one expert.

This was never about providing the best advice, or enacting the best policies.

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