In the field of economics it is generally accepted that for governments to direct the production of ordinary goods and services based on the projections of state experts is not a good idea. No matter how clever are the experts, it turns out that leaving this stuff to private citizens leads to much better outcomes – more things in the shops that people actually want. And those private citizens tend to be much more cheerful under this way of doing things too, regarding it as a key part of being free.
Even the Soviet bloc ultimately had to give up on the “command economy” model after witnessing the invisible hand of the market stretching the living standards lead of the West to the point where it rendered the arms race unaffordable.
But this simple formula of trusting people to make their own choices has its limitations in other spheres. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has argued that it cannot be relied upon when it comes to the fight against coronavirus because the choices of one person can have such major knock-on consequences for others.
If a fit and healthy young man chooses to go to a crowded bar, he may increase his own chances of catching a disease from which he will almost certainly recover. But he also increases his risk of handing it on to the elderly lady he sees in the corner shop most mornings and it could well kill or at least hospitalise her.
This view that the people cannot be trusted to contain Covid has led Conservative politicians who went into the crisis as apparent firm believers in personal freedom to transform into Soviet-style commissars before our eyes. In the first wave of the pandemic Mr Hancock even went on the television to threaten that he would close all public parks if people kept sitting on the grass when the sun shone.
But here’s the rub: while it is undeniable that containing a pandemic is more complicated than ensuring shops are stocked with popular things and merits rather more top-down direction, the state and its experts are still far from infallible. It turned out that there is almost no risk of passing on Covid when household groups sit in parks a few yards apart from each other on sunny days.
While it would be an exaggeration to say that everything the politicians and their advisers thought they knew has turned out to be wrong, it wouldn’t be all that much of one.
We have, for instance, seen huge U-turns concerning the importance of mass testing in containing outbreaks. Initially Public Health England didn’t bother, then testing became the big thing and now its efficacy and relevance is once more being doubted. The same applies to the controlling of international arrivals, the wearing of face masks, the importance of ventilators, whether to keep schools open or closed, the 10pm curfew and many other aspects of the War-On-Covid.
So a little humility from ministers and mandarins would seem to be in order – a recognition that there is a balance to be struck between informed individual decision-making and state direction. Having everyone’s life choices controlled almost entirely via state decree is neither sustainable nor wise. Which is why it is so refreshing that the Prime Minister has decided to resist a determined bid by the public health establishment to blow up the “Christmas freedoms” that were announced a couple of weeks ago.
Two leading health journals and a phalanx of scientific experts have unleashed a bombardment of fear, partly based on the outcome of a laissez-faire approach to Thanksgiving in the United States three weeks ago. More household mixing is deemed to have led to more Covid and the inevitability of more deaths.
So Boris Johnson has been under substantial pressure to scrap his policy of permitting up to three households to mix over five days and instead order everyone to stay within their own households. But apparently he has said no. One Government source told The Telegraph: “We’ve set out the rules, people know what they are, it would be wrong to change them this close to Christmas when people have made plans.”
Two other factors are also in play that have led to Mr Johnson turning his back on the simple formula that more mixing means more deaths and therefore must be prevented. First is the potential positive impact upon people’s morale of sanctioning greater contact between family members for a short while.
In this he has some expert opinion behind him, too. As Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, put it: “My personal view is that the potential benefits of being able to spend some time with your loved ones for many people outweigh the risks.”
Secondly, there is the damage that will be caused if there is mass flouting of new rules that have been brought in at the last minute and are seen to be unreasonable. It could well be habit forming. As the Tory MP William Wragg put it: “People are going to do it anyway. Better not to have people resenting the Government saying they can’t.”
So could we be witnessing the start of a more judicious balance of decision-making between the Government and the governed when it comes to combating Covid? Alas, that appears unlikely. The public health establishment is so powerful that there is likely to be a high price to pay for five days on a slightly longer leash.
Despite all we have learned about the unintended negative consequences of allowing the state to micromanage the people, there is every prospect that the restoration of a bit more personal agency and free choice will not be for life, but just for Christmas.
Only the tug upon the thread of Mr Johnson’s lifelong attachment to liberty can make it otherwise and I am afraid that more powerful forces are pushing in the opposite direction.