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Too Much Risk Aversion Is Too Risky

A Commentary by Michael Barone

"This is not politics," President Joe Biden said last week. "Reinstate the mandate if you let it down." Give him credit for consistency: When Gov. Greg Abbott ended Texas' mask mandate last month, Biden called it "Neanderthal thinking."

But maybe the Neanderthals got it right. COVID-19 deaths in Texas plunged in March, and as National Review's Philip Klein points out, there's no relationship between mask mandates and coronavirus levels.

Biden is clearly wrong on another point. This is not "not politics." America's constitutional federal system, and the latitude that both former President Trump's administration and the Biden administration have given state governments, have produced distinctly different Democratic and Republican coronavirus policies.

Democrats have tended to impose mask mandates, to order restaurants and retail businesses closed, to require social distancing. Republicans have tended to push for full-time instruction in schools and to allow open-air gatherings in playgrounds and beaches.

Yes, there are exceptions here and there. But what's most striking is the prevalence of partisan patterns. Look at the maps of school closings, mask mandates and mask usage and the partisan patterns are obvious.

The economic results are obvious, too. With more restrictions, Democratic states have seen higher unemployment and less economic growth than Republican states.

Why the partisan correlation? The answer is that different responses to a pandemic reflect different degrees of risk aversion, and political differences often reflect differences in risk aversion as well. As economist Allison Schrager argues, welfare-state protections have appealed to risk-averse traditional Democrats, while deregulated free markets have appealed to more risk-taking Republicans.

Women tend to be more risk-averse, for obvious evolutionary reasons (they're needed for species survival), and be more Democratic and dovish; men, more willing to take risks, are more Republican and hawkish. There's a reason every society protecting itself against attack has always depended on strong, aggressive, utterly non-risk-averse (think skateboarding!) young men.

One oddity of American COVID responses has been the one-dimensional perspective of liberal decision-makers. They claim to be following "the science," but with a narrow focus.

To prevent the spread of a virus that is often asymptomatic and less lethal than influenza to people under age 65, they have imposed restrictions that have reduced life-saving medical screenings and produced mental illness and stunted development among children and adolescents.

The economic and spiritual cost has been highest on their home turf. Manhattan has lost half a million private-sector jobs, seen thousands of restaurants close permanently and seen its concert halls and entertainment venues sit empty. The things that make New York and mini-Manhattans around the country attractive to an overwhelmingly liberal minority have suffered terrible damage.

The urge to close things down, however, has occasionally been suspended. Liberals who denounced spring-breakers on Florida beaches were unfazed by tighter-packed, "mostly peaceful" Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer.

Similarly, woke Gen Zers, who were so appalled when The New York Times ran an opinion article calling for dispatching troops to stop rioting that they took part in getting the editorial page editor fired, are now cool with National Guard troops and an ugly fence protecting the Capitol against an unlikely repeat of the Jan. 6 assault.

Progressives call for defunding the police, even amid the biggest increase in murders since at least 1960, and are untroubled by the largest flood of illegal immigrants across the southern border in the last 25 years. Californians are untroubled by homeless encampments and human feces-laden sidewalks.

Evidently, the urge to patrol others' conduct is suspended when violence comes from people seen as victims of "white supremacists."

So, this one-dimensional risk-averseness starts to look like an urge to control the movements of others. It's an urge visible in liberals' enthusiasm for fixed-rail transit -- ruinously expensive trolleys in central cities, California's high-speed-rail to nowhere. Rails control where people can travel and prevent them from going where they want in their cars.

Some risk-averse policies resulted from an initial and inevitable ignorance about a novel coronavirus. Unlike the flu, it's not easily spread on surfaces; unlike colds, it doesn't manifest among children; unlike Ebola, it's not easily susceptible to contact tracing. But risk-averse decision-makers are reluctant to abandon any restrictions once they're in place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director says the CDC data "suggest that vaccinated people do not carry the virus." But Biden wants mask mandates continued, and Dr. Anthony Fauci talks of double-masking.

We're learning that risk aversion can go too far. A 5 mph speed limit could reduce vehicle deaths toward zero, and closure of elementary schools would vastly reduce the spreading of colds. But too much risk aversion can be too risky.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.


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See Other Commentaries by Michael Barone.

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