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Sweden’s Keyhole Solution

Summary:
As I explain in Open Borders, a responsible advocate of government intervention always asks, “Is there any cheaper and more humane approach?”  “Government should do something” is perfectly consistent with “Scrupulously avoid collateral damage.”  Following Tim Harford, I call such responsible approaches “keyhole solutions.”  This recent AIER piece from James Cooper (via Dan Klein) provides a fine example: I am an American living in Stockholm. I have been living here for 17 years and am fluent in Swedish. I am from Northern Virginia. Regarding this article, I will just point out that the American people have been buffalo’d into a very binary way of thinking – there are only two possibilities when dealing with COVID-19 – complete lockdown or nothing at all. This is

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As I explain in Open Borders, a responsible advocate of government intervention always asks, “Is there any cheaper and more humane approach?”  “Government should do something” is perfectly consistent with “Scrupulously avoid collateral damage.”  Following Tim Harford, I call such responsible approaches “keyhole solutions.”  This recent AIER piece from James Cooper (via Dan Klein) provides a fine example:

I am an American living in Stockholm. I have been living here for 17 years and am fluent in Swedish. I am from Northern Virginia.

Regarding this article, I will just point out that the American people have been buffalo’d into a very binary way of thinking – there are only two possibilities when dealing with COVID-19 – complete lockdown or nothing at all. This is also referred to as TINA (There Is No Alternative).

For many of my American friends, they find it difficult to understand that there are many possibilities in between the two extremes. In fact, a more nuanced approach not only makes more sense, but is more sustainable. That is precisely what the Swedish approach is all about.

If you look at the numbers, you will see that there is negligible risk to those aged 4-50 years old. This group also happens to represent the most economically productive group in society as well as the group that spends the most money. So why shut them down?

The response I get from friends is that they must be shut down because otherwise people will die. This is an emotion based argument.

The reality is that in Sweden all at-risk people have been asked to self quarantine. If they do that, how will their lives be threatened by allowing the under-50 crowd to go out, with some social distancing guidelines?

Keep in mind that if you live with an at risk person, or you are a primary caregiver for an at risk person, then (in Sweden), you are expected to self quarantine; or at least go to extreme social distancing.

I myself had some concerns about whether I was in the risk group, and I took the precaution of keeping my kids home from school until such time as I could get a more definitive answer from my doctor. My kids’ school fully supported me in this approach.

So, I go back to my American friends and ask, how can allowing the under-50 crowd out with social distancing put the at risk population in danger? Yes, it requires people to take personal responsibility and to actively work to protect those at risk. And, assuming this is followed, then those at risk can be expected to be reasonably protected.

Why did they have a complete lockdown in the U.S. in the first place? We were told that it was meant to flatten the curve so that the hospitals have a chance to deal with the patient loads. Mass lockdown simply pushes the problem out in time, to be dealt with later. Yes, over the next 18 months, at risk people will get the virus and there will be many that die. This is in large part unavoidable. I suspect that in the end we will see similar numbers within a range across all Western countries. This will play out over 12+ months.

If we can accept that statement, then we would need to admire Sweden for taking an approach that does not further burden its economy, does not destroy people’s God given right to freedom, while also working to protect those at risk, and augmenting immunity.

Let me add: The best objection to the Swedish approach is that high-risk people often live with low-risk people.  If each person in the family does their own thing, the low-risk people are likely to sicken the high-risk people who live under the same roof.  True enough, but I say that decision – like the decision to move your family to Africa to do missionary work – can and should be a family decision about the right way to trade-off the interests of people within the household, not a government decision about the right way for every household to operate.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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