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I come to posit a theory, not to praise

Dear Sir,

Do you find yourself questioning the acuity of the Covid rules and those who impose them?

Masks on when you stand; off when you sit.

Curfews to curtail the spread when it can actually cause more people to congregate in a smaller period of time.

No alcohol except with food because…who knows?

Kristi Noem, the Governor of South Dakota, whose pandemic response has backfired

And who could forget the grocery day according to your surname.

There’s a litany of examples and no government or health bureaucrat hindered by humility to accept the things they cannot change.

But what if there is a method to the madness; ie, the rules and their imposers are rational. If you’re looking for comfort, then stop reading now. To borrow from my namesake, Marc Antony, I come to posit a theory not to praise it.

The theory that these rules are in fact rational is based on the public-choice theory in economics, which questions the idea that governments are motivated primarily by “the common good”. Instead, public choice assumes political actors are no different than regular people, meaning that like everyone else, they are guided primarily by their own self-interest.

Politicians are under tremendous pressure to “do something” both earlier this year and again now with a surge in new cases. That pressure comes from the media, health experts — or, rather, the experts that get the most media coverage — and even you, dear reader.

Doing something is a bureaucrat’s call to impose rules and restrictions. It’s in their DNA. According to public-choice theory, they are weighing the benefits and costs of these rules to themselves (self-interest), not for “the common good”.

Examples of the benefits of doing something include appearing to listen to “experts” and taking the virus seriously and satisfying the public demand. It can also include the avoidance of negative coverage. Just have a look at the overwhelmingly negative reactions to Sweden or South Dakota’s governor, Kristi Noem, who have not adopted strict government restrictions to tame the virus.

Now what are the costs? It’s very rare that the bureaucrat’s own business or personal freedom is impacted in a meaningful way. No loss of income, considered “essential”. And that’s even with the growing awareness of those in authority who are caught flouting the rules they impose.

I hope a picture is beginning to form as to why a politician might look to rules and restrictions that are questionable at best and, at worst, not for the common good. The benefits outweigh the costs. Imposing these rules is a better strategy for most politicians that by simply advising people to act responsibly, the politicians are acting rationally.

Yes, I agree that these are all immediate costs and benefits, and not medium or long term, but show me the politician who isn’t looking beyond the tip of their own nose.

As mentioned earlier, I offer no comfort with this theory but ’tis the season to be more positive, and so I maintain that the knowledge to behave in a way that is in the common good lies with individuals with authority to make their own decisions, not politicians and bureaucrats. Maybe we should be less eager to ask the Government to do something.

I’ll conclude with the words of my favourite economist, Thomas Sowell: the ordinary person needs some elbow room for themselves and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of their betters.



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Published December 23, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 22, 2020 at 4:05 pm)

I come to posit a theory, not to praise

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