the national interest

Richard Epstein Can’t Stop Being Wrong About the Coronavirus

Photo: NYU School of Law

Richard Epstein is back. The esteemed Hoover Institution scholar and libertarian theorist, a law professor by training, projected the coronavirus would only kill 500 Americans, an analysis that gained wide traction in conservative circles, including the Trump administration. A week later, Epstein conceded that he had committed a math error, and the real number would be 5,000 deaths, though “it, too, could prove somewhat optimistic.” (The current confirmed death toll exceeds 40,000.) Then Epstein gave a horrifying interview to Isaac Chotiner, laced with embarrassing errors including admitting he assumed the virus would weaken for absolutely no scientific reason, boasting erroneously that public-health eminence Bill Gates shared his skepticism that the coronavirus was a serious threat, which is a bit like saying you’re pretty sure Bernie Sanders is on board with your plan to eliminate the minimum wage, and many others.

Somehow this experience has not shaken Epstein’s confidence in his own ability to outthink the entire field of epidemiology. Epstein has written another essay, making no reference to his previous errors, arguing that “the response of the state governors to the coronavirus outbreak has become far more dangerous than the disease itself.”

I am neither an epidemiologist nor an expert in public health, and therefore I have no qualifications to second-guess the leading minds in either field. But I am qualified to second-guess the second-guessing of those experts by Richard Epstein, because his arguments are amateurish and transparently silly.

Epstein’s most obvious error is contained within his thesis sentence: “But it is the government, and not the private sector, that has thrown the nation into economic crisis.” Epstein seems unable to imagine possibilities other than these two, even though there is obviously a third possible culprit for the economic crisis: the coronavirus itself. The appearance of a highly transmissible, deadly pandemic illness with no vaccine or proven treatment is inherently going to create wide-scale economic disruption. Epstein’s belief that the economic pain is caused by the government response to the virus, rather than by the virus itself, is the foundational error upon which the rest of his fallacious reasoning rests.

Governors attempted to suppress the spread of the pandemic by closing public spaces. Epstein cites the relatively low death count that followed as proof that the lockdowns were never needed to begin with:

The question is why Cuomo thinks that doubling down on government restrictions is justified by the science and data. His own daily report of April 17 indicates that the rate of new infections is down and that the number of hospital discharges in the state now far exceeds the number of new admissions. Further data prepared by the New York Times reveals that the rate of infection is now slowing down rapidly throughout the United States.

Obviously, we don’t know what the death rate would be in the absence of those measures. But you’d think the fact that it is already nearly 100 times higher than his initial estimate, and ten times higher than his revised estimate, might give Epstein some pause before declaring vindication.

Epstein goes on to suggest the death count is exaggerated because most people who died had other health problems:

But the evidence is overwhelming that the virus by itself kills few individuals. The CDC reported that “approximately 90% of hospitalized patients identified through COVID-NET had one or more underlying conditions heavily concentrated in people over 70 years of age (where the comorbidities are more severe).”

The logic is bizarre. The fact that people who got the coronavirus and died might have had other health problems does not mean the coronavirus didn’t kill them. Their preexisting condition made them vulnerable to the coronavirus. The coronavirus was a necessary factor in their death. Unless Epstein is somehow positing that 90 percent of the people who died from the coronavirus were about to die anyway, which is crazy, what is his point?

Epstein asserts that the entire medical field has been far too alarmist about the pandemic. The sole evidence for this charge is the supposed recommendation by one health-care expert to maintain a full lockdown until a vaccine is developed:

The medical experts have been far too alarmist. As an example, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel makes the suggestion that the United States must remain on lockdown until we develop a vaccine — that is, for another 12-18 months.

If you follow through the link, and read past the inaccurate headline slapped atop the post by a right-leaning news aggregator, Emanuel did not say what Epstein claims he said. He said, “COVID-19 will be here for the next 18 months or more. We will not be able to return to normalcy until we find a vaccine or effective medications.” This is not the same as calling for an 18-month lockdown. First, “effective medications” will probably be available within a few months. And, second, just because he said society won’t return to “normal” does not mean maintaining a full lockdown. There are intermediate social-distancing measures that fall well short of shelter-in-place orders. Most businesses might reopen, but events like stadiums and other very crowded public gatherings might be curtailed.

Epstein then asserts, “Given all this, it is no surprise that vigorous protests are starting up around the county. People are eager to go back to work and are tired of having their freedoms curtailed.” In fact, polling is extremely clear that public opinion is just the opposite. Most people worry social-distancing measures will end too soon.

It is obviously true that there is a high level of uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus. The many open scientific questions leave room to legitimately question its potential scope and the validity of various countermeasures — some of which will probably be proven ineffective. Yet we do have clarity on the broad point that COVID-19 is a deadly pandemic necessitating a significant response. And we know as well that Epstein’s amateur theorizing has proven utterly unproductive to the task of understanding the situation.

Richard Epstein Can’t Stop Being Wrong About the Coronavirus