As professional economists, we have watched the response of much of the economics profession to COVID-era lockdowns with considerable surprise. Given the evident and predictable harms of lockdowns to health and economic well-being, we expected economists to raise the alarm when lockdowns were first imposed. If there is any special knowledge that economists possess, it is that for every good thing, there is a cost. This fact is burned into economists’ minds in the form of the unofficial motto of the economics profession that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
From the depths of our souls, economists believe that the law of unintended consequences applies to every social policy, especially a social policy as all-encompassing and intrusive as lockdown. We economists believe that there are trade-offs in everything, and it is our particular job to point them out even when the whole world is yelling at the top of its voice to be quiet about them. It may still be a good idea to adopt some policy because the benefits are worth the cost, but we should go in with our eyes open about both.
That lockdown would, in principle, impose overwhelming costs on the population at large is not surprising. The scope of human activity touched by lockdown is overwhelming. Lockdowns closed schools and playgrounds, shuttered businesses, and barred international travel. Lockdowns told children they could not visit their friends, put masks on toddlers, and dismissed university students from campus. They forced elderly people to die alone and prevented families from gathering to honour their elders’ passing. Lockdowns cancelled screening and even treatment for cancer patients and made sure that diabetics skipped their check-ups and regular exercise. For the world’s poor, lockdown ended the ability of many to feed their families.
Economists, who study and write about these phenomena for a living, had a special responsibility to raise the alarm. And though some did speak, most either stayed silent or actively promoted lockdown. Economists had one job—notice costs. On COVID, the profession failed.