Out of an abundance of caution, we now recommend everyone wear a mask. Out of an abundance of caution, we now require you to wear a mask. Actually, you know what, you should probably wear two masks…out of an abundance of caution. Close all businesses and restaurants, out of an abundance of caution. Get tested as many times as possible, even if healthy, out of an abundance of caution. Shut down schools for kids who are at near-zero risk, out of an abundance of caution. Your friend’s mom’s brother’s barber’s second cousin returned an inconclusive test? You should probably lock yourself in your basement for two weeks, out of an abundance of caution.
How many times over the last year have you heard this phrase, “out of an abundance of caution”? It’s become one of those pre-programmed sayings that the entire establishment parrots verbatim. It reminds me of the local news compilation where anchors across the country discussing Donald Trump and “fake news” somehow knew to repeat the exact same words, each of them concluding, “This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.” The “abundance of caution” phrase has become a blanket saying used to justify the wildest overreactions to COVID-19.
You may ask, what’s wrong with using an abundance of caution? After all, it’s good to be safe, right, so why not be as safe as possible? Unfortunately, this way of thinking doesn’t hold up to any level of scrutiny and anyone attempting to live their life based on this principle would quickly find themself living an incredibly dreary and unsustainable existence.
Almost everything we do involves some level of risk. When you step out of bed in the morning, your foot could land wrong and you could twist your ankle. When you step in the shower, you could slip and fall and possibly die. The cereal you eat for breakfast may have been poisoned. When you get in the car to drive to the store, you could get into an accident.
So how do we decide which risks to take and which ones not to? Generally, we don’t worry about the risks involved with stepping out of bed, showering, or eating cereal. However, we might worry about the risks of, say, skydiving, running across the street without looking, or picking up a needle off the sidewalk and sticking it into our arm. We have to assess the level of the risk, or, the likelihood that some bad thing will happen. Is it likely that I will twist my ankle when stepping out of bed? Is it likely that I will get hit by a car if I cross the street without looking? Is it likely that I will get Covid?
Also, we have to assess the magnitude of the risk. If the bad thing that we’re worried about happens, how bad will it be? Twisting my ankle when stepping out of bed would be somewhat painful, but certainly not life-threatening. Getting hit by a car because I crossed the street without looking could definitely cause serious injury or death. If I get Covid, I may get sick or die, or I may not even know I had it.
A third factor we consider when assessing risk is, what would we have to give up in order to avoid the risk? If I am so afraid of stepping out of bed because I might twist my ankle, I’m basically giving up any hope of living. I’ll have to stay in bed forever. To avoid the risk associated with crossing the street without looking, I could instead just look for cars before I cross or look for a crosswalk. This probably will not have a significant negative impact on my life. To avoid the risk of Covid, many have decided or been forced by government to give up a tremendous amount of the things that gave their life meaning.
Finally, we have to determine the likelihood that the mitigation measures we are considering will actually reduce the risk and if so, by how much? You can be sure that by not taking a shower, you can avoid slipping and falling in the shower. If you decide to cross the street at a crosswalk instead of blindly crossing the middle of the street, you’re much less likely to get hit by a car. Does locking yourself in your house and wearing one or more masks when you go out significantly reduce your chances of getting and becoming seriously ill from Covid? The so-called “experts” tell us so, but the evidence of this is far from conclusive.
Using the phrase “out of an abundance of caution” to justify taking the supposedly safe approach to every decision regardless of the likelihood and magnitude of the risk, the consequences of avoiding the risk, and the extent to which your caution actually protects you, essentially implies that these basic risk assessment tools, which humans use almost subconsciously to make everyday decisions, are unimportant. The only thing that matters is safety. But of course, safety cannot be the only thing taken into consideration if one is to live any semblance of a meaningful life. If the value of life is more than mere physical existence, then taking intelligent, appropriate levels of risk, where caution is one factor of many under consideration, is necessary and unavoidable.
However, when it comes to the insane Covid-related restrictions imposed over the past year, all justified under the mantra of “an abundance of caution”, it would be exceedingly overgenerous to those responsible for these policies to say that they have simply miscalculated their assessment of risk by overvaluing safety at the expense of relatively meaningless life satisfactions. This is not someone who decides to avoid flying because he’s afraid of a highly unlikely plane crash, thus inconveniencing his ability to enjoy travel. This is someone who decides not to fly and instead rides a motorcycle with no helmet and weaves in and out of traffic at 100 miles per hour because he wants to be overly cautious not to die from a plane crash.
To the extent that lockdowns, mask mandates, and other government restrictions actually reduce the risk of Covid-related harm, a proposition for which there is shockingly little scientific evidence, it is dwarfed by a vast range of negative effects. Covid restrictions have had a tremendously damaging effect on mental health. We’ve seen suicide numbers skyrocket, particularly among young people. Older people have essentially become prisoners, unable to interact with their children and grandchildren and confined to a life of complete solitude and isolation. The millions who have lost their jobs or businesses due to lockdowns have been made into beggars dependent on their generous government overlords to provide them with their next unemployment or stimulus check. Cancer screenings have been greatly diminished and all other non-Covid related medical issues are now much more difficult to get treated, due to the hyper focus of the medical system and hospitals on Covid. The list of harm done not by the virus itself, but by the response to the virus implemented in the name of caution, goes on and on.
In other words, it’s not simply that caution is being overvalued at the expense of some trivial but disposable life pleasures, it’s that caution in one very narrow sense (avoiding Covid) is being prioritized over caution in every other area of life, as well as so many things that are absolutely essential to human flourishing. In Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt warns of the fallacy of over-focusing on the short term consequences of a policy on one small group, while neglecting the short term consequences on all other groups, as well as the long term consequences on all people. Drawing a parallel to today’s world, we have become so narrowly focused on one shortsighted issue, namely, reducing the spread of Covid, that we have neglected so many other important issues, and completely neglected the long term effects that these policies will have on everyone.
Over the past year, the pandemic, the government’s response, and more importantly, the public’s acceptance of the government’s response, has illuminated something about humans, which is that we are terrible at assessing risk, much less at understanding what risk even is. The constant use of phrases like “out of an abundance of caution” to justify any action that may provide the slightest increase in safety from one particular threat, regardless of the consequences, the magnitude of the supposed threat itself, or the actual efficacy of the action, is exemplary of how poor we are at understanding tradeoffs. The government has managed to exploit this deficiency in order to expand power in ways that were inconceivable just a year ago while at the same time convincing the people that they are all nobly protecting their fellow man from harm.