Whither the Precautionary Principle?

Comic Depicting the Precautionary Principle, by Maxweiss1. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Comic Depicting the Precautionary Principle, by Maxweiss1. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The precautionary principle, per Wikipedia, is “a strategy for approaching issues of potential harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. It emphasizes caution, pausing and review before leaping into new innovations that may prove disastrous.”

Over the last half century or so, regulators and activists have regularly invoked the precautionary principle versus industrial and commercial concerns: Will this new car wash ruin the nesting grounds of the Great Purple-Crested Bandersnatch? Could construction of that pipeline conceivably pollute a river? Might the noise from a proposed refinery disturb the sleep of some nearby Mrs. Nimby?

Then came COVID-19, and all of a sudden many of the same voices who’d have followed the precautionary principle to hell and back to stop construction of a nuclear power plant or delay the logging of a plot of old growth forest completely abandoned it.

For THIS situation, panicking and screaming “SCIENCE!” at the top of one’s lungs suddenly and inexplicably became satisfactory substitutes for “caution, pausing and review” before radically transforming the lives of more than 300 million surprised human lab rats.

I’m pretty sure that placing millions of Americans under de facto house arrest and shutting down significant portions of the US economy constitute “new innovations that may prove disastrous.” And every day it becomes clearer that “extensive scientific knowledge on the matter was lacking” when it came to the rationales for doing so.

Over the course of the last month, projections of US COVID-19 deaths from supposed “experts,” based on their super duper magic … er, “scientific” … models, have fallen from a high of 1.7 million, to a likelihood of between 100,000 and 240,000, to perhaps 60,000.

None of those numbers are numbers we want to hear when we’re talking about dead people, of course, but the fall from 1.7 million to 1/28th that number is a strong indicator that the overall process was based on something resembling wild, panicked guesses (and in some cases raw political opportunism) more than realistic modeling based on smart assumptions and fed with good data.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “I’ve looked at all the models. I’ve spent a lot of time on the models. They don’t tell you anything. You can’t really rely upon models.”

But those models were  what federal bureaucrats, state-level politicians, and local health officials DID rely on, and point to, as the basis and justification for a cascade of crazed policy decisions that have already resulted in what will likely turn out to be the worst US economic collapse since the Great Depression.

Don’t let the government’s COVID-19 Catastrophe Caucus fool you into believing they saved America or humankind. Before this is all said and done, we will have gotten off very easily if their mistakes haven’t killed more people than COVID-19 would have killed if left to rage completely unchecked.

It’s time to start interpreting the precautionary principle as a strong presumption against trusting the state with any power whatsoever.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


Small Business Versus the State

Cartoon by Joseph Keppler (<em>Puck</em> magazine, 1881).
“What are you going to do about it?” cartoon by Joseph Keppler (Puck magazine, 1881).

On April 18, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program lent out the last of $349 billion it had on hand in emergency funds. Efforts are underway to ensure that those billions will not be the Program’s last.

Meanwhile, others question whether small business should be saved. Paris Marx calls for nationalization of large companies rather than subsidization of smaller ones, asserting that if the handful of the former dominating the tech industry were replaced by the latter, “network effects would simply cause a re-monopolization in the future” (“Build Socialism Through the Post Office,” Jacobin, April 15).

However, the billions flowing through the SBA won’t match the trillions in bailout money for big business — or the indirect benefits to the latter that go unseen.

A decade before the Wall Street Journal reported that SBA funds are often “either too late in coming or won’t provide enough cash” for small businesses (“Small Businesses Opt To Close Despite Aid,” April 16), The Nation‘s Alexander Cockburn noted that “whatever backwash they got from the stimulus often wasn’t readily apparent” in the wake of the 2008 recession. They were being “stomped by regulators and bureaucrats while the big fry get zoning variances and special clause exemptions,” yet “the left disdains them.”

The manifesto of an earlier Marx argued that the support for small business still widespread among socialists at the time amounted “to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means.”

Yet many of the industrial age’s biggest economic changes came from outside the gargantuan organizations that dominated it. Ralph Nader and Mark Green observed that “The firms which introduced stainless steel razor blades (Wilkinson), transistor radios (Sony), photocopying machines (Xerox), and the ‘instant’ photograph (Polaroid) were all small and little known when they made their momentous breakthroughs.”

The economic regulations enacted during America’s Progressive Era were what historian Gabriel Kolko called The Triumph of Conservatism rather than of Progressive (or Marxist) values, keeping the biggest competitors on top by shielding them from smaller upstarts. Kolko emphasized how the Federal Meat Inspection Act’s safety regulations went easier on large meatpackers, even if they engaged in riskier practices than smaller ones.

Peter Kropotkin related how the organizers of the English Lifeboat Association, “not being Jacobins, did not turn to the Government” that lacked “the co-operation, the enthusiasm, the local knowledge” of voluntary efforts. Kropotkin’s words inspired modern efforts to help out during emergencies like Occupy Sandy, and heeding them may save the economy of the 2020s.

New Yorker Joel Schlosberg is a contributing editor at The William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism.


“China Lied, People Died?” Look Who’s Talking!

COVID-19 Outbreak World Map
COVID-19 Outbreak World Map by Pharexia et al. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

“The costs of the pandemic keep piling up,” writes Marc Thiessen at the Washington Post. “Somebody has to pay for this unprecedented damage. That somebody should be the government of China.”

And why, pray tell, should China’s government be punished? For “intentionally lying to the world about the danger of the virus, and proactively impeding a global response that might have prevented a worldwide contagion.”

Sounds fair, doesn’t it? If a government lies and people die as a result, that government and its functionaries should be held responsible, right? Good enough for me.

But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, so if we’re having Peking Duck this week, I’d like to know when Thiessen plans to cough up his share of US government’s tab.

As a speechwriter for US president George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in the first decade of this century, Thiessen was directly responsible for pushing lies that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Humanity is still paying a steep price for fairy tales about weapons of mass destruction and cries of wolf that “the smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud” — fairy tales and cries of wolf that Thiessen helped draft and craft.

In fact, he’s got a lot of nerve pretending that he’s even on the same moral level as Chinese government actors who may have lied about COVID-19, let alone in a position to lecture them.

Those Chinese actors were, at worst, trying to save face for their regime, and at best trying to keep themselves out of jail (the Chinese Communist Party has a reputation for harsh treatment of people who embarrass it).

Thiessen was shilling for an unprovoked war of aggression in Iraq by his regime, and he could have quit that job any time he chose without fear of being dragged off for “re-education.”

Governments collectively, and the people who comprise them individually, lie. A lot. About all kinds of different things and for all kinds of different reasons. And often, as a result, people die. I’m all for holding them accountable, but accountability starts  at home.

Let’s be honest about what’s going on here: Republican flacks like Thiessen are trying to shift blame away from their party’s own policy failures by re-premising the same old anti-China campaign they’ve been waging for years.

Don’t forget to tip your server, Marc.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.