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The Apologies of Repeal

Summary:
Whenever government repeals a bad policy, my first reaction is amazement. Then gratitude. Swiftly followed by indignation, because no matter how bad the repealed policy was, the government almost never apologizes. Homely example: The FAA used to ban the use of any electronic device during takeoff and landing.  When the rule finally went away, I was amazed, because I expected to endure this petty tyranny for all the flights of my life.  Next, I felt grateful for this small expansion of my freedom.  Soon, however, I became indignant, because the government never apologized.  A half-hearted, “Sorry that our paranoia inconvenienced people billions of times” would have gone a long way. The same holds for the COVID crusade.  Almost all vaccines sharply reduce contagion.

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Whenever government repeals a bad policy, my first reaction is amazement.

Then gratitude.

Swiftly followed by indignation, because no matter how bad the repealed policy was, the government almost never apologizes.

Homely example: The FAA used to ban the use of any electronic device during takeoff and landing.  When the rule finally went away, I was amazed, because I expected to endure this petty tyranny for all the flights of my life.  Next, I felt grateful for this small expansion of my freedom.  Soon, however, I became indignant, because the government never apologized.  A half-hearted, “Sorry that our paranoia inconvenienced people billions of times” would have gone a long way.

The same holds for the COVID crusade.  Almost all vaccines sharply reduce contagion.  Yet for months, government kept forcing vaccinated individuals to wear masks and socially distance.  When the CDC finally changed its guidelines, I was amazed.  Then grateful.  Yet before long – and to this day – indignant.  A half-hearted, “Sorry that our paranoia trampled the freedom of hundreds of millions” would have gone a long way.

A clever public choice economist might respond, “Getting government to repeal bad policies is nigh-impossible already.  If leaders have to apologize when they repeal, repeals will virtually vanish.”  Plausible, but you could also say, “If governments know they’ll have to apologize when they repeal bad policies, maybe they’ll be more cautious about adopting bad policies in the first place.”  It’s the same as the logic of war crimes trials:

One common objection to the Nuremberg trials was that they gave bad incentives to future war criminals.  If war criminals know they’ll be tried and executed if they lose, self-interest urges them to fight to the bitter end.  From this perspective, the trials were short-sighted.  They satisfied the impulse for revenge, but extended the duration of future wars.

On reflection, however, that’s only a medium-run view.  The apostle of credibility could easily retort, “Yes, the Nuremberg trials encourage future war criminals to fight to the bitter end.  But they also discourage future leaders from committing war crimes in the first place.  We should take a truly long-run view.”

But how abject of an apology does the public deserve anyway?  It depends.  If government justified a bad policy with hyperbole, willfully overstating the probability and severity of bad outcomes, then we deserve a giant blubbering apology.  At minimum.

In contrast, if the government justified a bad policy with agnosticism, admitting that the probability of severely bad outcomes was low, then even I’ll settle for a low-key apology.  Though as I’ve argued before, government minus hyperbolic rhetoric is practically impotent:

Why are proponents of government action so prone to hyperbole?  Because it’s rhetorically effective, of course.  You need wild claims and flowery words to whip up public enthusiasm for government action.  Sober weighing of probability, cost, and benefit damns with faint praise – and fails to overcome public apathy.

Added bonus: When government explicitly admits that, “The probability of a severely bad outcome is low, but caution makes sense until we know more,” the natural response is to try to swiftly ascertain the truth.  Mostly notable, if the world’s governments had responded to COVID with an earnest admission of ignorance, the impetus to apply the time-tested experimental method would have been far stronger.  Voluntary Paid Human Experimentation wouldn’t merely have given us vaccines sooner; it would have allowed us to calmly cease a vast array of ineffective COVID precautions a year ago.

I’d like to assert that, “History will not be kind to the enemies of Human Challenge Trials,” but that’s wishful thinking.  History is written by the victors, and the victors of COVID are unapologetic innumerates.  Though we deserve a massive apology, we’ll be lucky to walk away with the freedoms we took for granted back in 2019.

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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