Opinion | With the coronavirus pandemic, Republicans are saving germs

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Again, this should be obvious. It is common sense; it is also, in this case, the basic economy. The Econ 101 has a lot of good things to say in free markets (probably too many good things, but this is a discussion for another time), but no rational discussion of the economy says that free markets, delivered to themselves, can solve the problem of “externalities” – the costs that individuals or companies impose on others who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example of an externality that requires government intervention, but the spread of a dangerous virus poses exactly the same problems.

Yet many Conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point. And they also don’t seem willing to grasp a related point – that there are things that need to be provided by public policy rather than individual initiative. And probably the most important of these “public goods” is scientific knowledge.

Some readers may know that Senator Rand Paul – who claims to be libertarian – has shot many people against Dr. Anthony Fauci. In May, he denounced Fauci for warning that a premature reopening could lead to an increase in the number of new Covid-19 cases. More recently, apparently undeterred by the fact that Fauci was right, he demanded that Fauci be “humble” and be “optimistic”.

What struck me, however, was the way in which Paul justified his attacks on the recommendations of epidemiologists: by invoking the free market doctrines of Friedrich Hayek. “Hayek was right: only decentralized power and decision-making, based on millions of individualized situations, can determine the risks and behaviors that each individual should choose.”

Whatever you think of Hayek (as you can guess, I’m not a fan), it’s weird. Decentralized decision-making can do many things, but establishing scientific truth is not one of them. Even the Conservatives used to understand both that expertise counts and that promoting scientific research is a legitimate and necessary role of government.

But conservatives and Republicans have changed. The modern American right is about denying that people have any responsibility to each other and about muzzling the experts who try to tell people in power things they don’t want to hear.

And the fact that selfishness and willful ignorance are now guiding principles for much of our political establishment is a big part of why America fails the Covid-19 test so spectacularly.

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