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Covid19 and Project Fear

Summary:
Joseph Sternberg has a very interesting column in the WSJ. Interesting particularly from the viewpoint of communication. Sternberg’s thesis is that political establishments have been busy, in the last few years, in “Project Fear” rhetoric: they tried to caution the populace against political breakthroughs, like Brexit, appealing to disastrous consequences that ultimately did not materialize (happily, the world is more complex and more resilient than we pundits believe). Now with COVID19 they are playing along the same lines. There are two problems with this. The first is that it may have the usual consequences of crying wolf: i.e., people get bored by fear, and then when a truly fearful situation appears they end up not paying attention. The second is that scare

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Joseph Sternberg has a very interesting column in the WSJ. Interesting particularly from the viewpoint of communication. Sternberg’s thesis is that political establishments have been busy, in the last few years, in “Project Fear” rhetoric: they tried to caution the populace against political breakthroughs, like Brexit, appealing to disastrous consequences that ultimately did not materialize (happily, the world is more complex and more resilient than we pundits believe).

Now with COVID19 they are playing along the same lines. There are two problems with this. The first is that it may have the usual consequences of crying wolf: i.e., people get bored by fear, and then when a truly fearful situation appears they end up not paying attention. The second is that scare tactics become path-dependent: as you denounced the sky was about to fall before, you cannot adjust to new evidence and so better trim policies. This is potentially disastrous since lockdowns have jeopardized economic activity to a degree far more conspicuous than anything we have seen before.

Writes Sternberg:

policy makers are letting themselves be guided less by “the science”—which remains preliminary and conflicting—than by a perceived public clamor for a draconian response to the pandemic. The important word is “perceived,” since whatever outcry exists has been filtered through a media eager to hype the fear factor.
The longer the crisis drags on, the less natural that fear seems. We now know the virus is not nearly as deadly as early data from China suggested. Doctors are developing more-effective treatment protocols, and some drugs have shown early promise. Deepening research into which traits make people more vulnerable to the disease allows for more finely honed shielding measures.

All of that should trigger a modulation of the fear surrounding the coronavirus—not a denial of the severity of the disease, but an understanding that new insights bring the prospect of new ways to balance risk while reopening stalled economies.

That modulation isn’t happening among the media or many political officials, and even some members of the public, because Project Fear is too appealing as a means by which to attempt to control public behavior, and as a method for virtue signaling.

Alberto Mingardi
Mingardi, one of the rising stars of European libertarianism, is the founder and Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni. His areas of interest include the history of economic thought and antitrust and healthcare systems. He is particularly well known for popularizing the work of past scholars under-appreciated by today’s libertarians. Currently an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Mingardi has also worked with the Heritage Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Centre for a New Europe.

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