No Herd Immunity, But Lots of Herd Thinking, or So I Have Heard

By August 15, 2020 Commentary

In March when I was doing ads and beginning to write posts blasting politicians for engaging in mass hysteria and lemming-like behavior in the manner in which they responded to the epidemic, I knew I was right, but I wasn’t smart enough to figure out some more systematic way to prove that.  Well people much more intelligent than I have written a research paper concluding that this is exactly what drove the lockdowns.  (PNAS Study)    The authors note the uncertainty about both the impact of the euphemistically named “non-pharmaceutical interventions” and around factors such as best timing of those interventions.  (I am referring to all of those by the more accurate term “lockdown”.)  Their research was sparked by the observation that most developed countries implemented lockdowns in a very similar window, which would seem surprising if you consider the challenges in determining optimal timing and scope of the lockdowns, and the differing conditions in countries.  (Although not explicitly acknowledged by the authors, perhaps out of kindness, I will note that politicians are not currently among our most intelligent citizenry and certainly are not rational, so expecting rational, thoughtful behavior would be surprising, not the opposite.)  So the researchers sought to identify factors which might account for this mass execution of lockdowns at the same time.

The authors weren’t looking at efficacy or need for a lockdown, just factors for timing.  They contrasted country-specific necessity factors and what they refer to as “mimicry” or doing what others do to basically, well, cover your ass.  (Again, how brave, as well as wise, do Sweden’s leaders look now.)  The authors primarily focused on geographic proximity as a factor in mimicry, but noted that other factors also could give that sense of similarity.  They were also interested in whether extent and nature of democracy played a role.  A primary finding was that the more countries in geographic proximity engaged in lockdowns, the more likely any country would adopt one.  The authors conclude that given the heterogeneity in actual epidemic situation in countries, the rapid implementation in lockdowns in a two-week period among most developed countries could only be primarily attributed to mimicry.  Another finding was that countries with low democracy scores tended to adopt lockdowns more quickly, but that there was large variation even among countries with high democracy scores and nations with strong democracies were most likely to engage in mimicry.  In general, countries with higher democracy scores were particularly slower to implement school and workplace closings.   Other factors appeared to be more hospital beds led to slower adoption, higher population density led to faster adoption, more income inequality led to slower adoption.  What is kind of astounding in light of the finding of mimicry being to some extent based on perceptions of similarity with other countries, is the Western democracies mimicry of China in implementing lockdowns, of all the totalitarian regimes in the world.

One observation I would make is that the paper supports the removal of emergency powers from the executive branch for any length longer than a couple of days.  The more deliberative and more democratic legislative processes are likely to hinder the herd mentality which would otherwise govern and ensure a more thoughtful response based on more information.  Our Incompetent Blowhard (formerly the “Dictator”) likes to criticize the legislature for moving too slow and insists on keeping his emergency powers so he can make quick, necessary decisions, but he has been a paradigm of herd thinking and made one dumb decision after another, most of which have inflicted extensive damage on Minnesotans.  I believe we would have been far better off with the legislature making decisions in collaboration with the executive branch.

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