I was planning to compose a takedown of Richard Epstein’s arguments for letting The Market sort out the COVID-19 pandemic, before the heavy hand of clumsy government intervention should ruin this wonderful little Hayekian experiment, but in true efficiency-regarding fashion he took care of that task himself.
So instead I’m going to make a few more general observations about this fiasco, which, far from being merely an indicator of Epstein’s own intellectual and emotional pathologies, is actually symptomatic of all sorts of wider trends.
First, a quick review:
Two weeks ago today, Epstein estimated that the pandemic would kill about 50,000 people worldwide by the time it had run its course, with around 500 of those deaths coming in the USA.
It took seven more days for the death toll in America to reach the latter figure, at which point Epstein offered another prediction, estimating that the final number of fatalities in America would be around 2,000 to 2,500, although he stuck to his original calculation of 50,000 (or fewer) worldwide deaths.
Six days later, aka yesterday, the American death toll passed the higher bound of his new and improved estimate.
As for Epstein’s estimate that no more than 50,000 people will die worldwide as a direct result of COVID-19, that number seems likely to be surpassed in another two or three days.
Epstein’s calculations have had a significant effect on the ongoing White House discussions of what to do about COVID-19; I’ve been told by someone with direct knowledge of those discussions that Jared Kushner in particular was impressed with the cogency of this eminent scholar’s arguments. (Kushner is apparently leading a sort of shadow White House task force on the issue).
Now onto some other diseases:
It’s a great mistake to think that the problem here is that Epstein is straying from his area of scholarly expertise into unrelated fields, in the classic manner of physicists or engineers who think that knowing how to analyze particle energies or bridge load tolerances equip them to opine on totally unrelated matters.
This is a mistake because Epstein has no genuine scholarly expertise to begin with. Epstein has spent more than a half century now purveying glib bullshit as serious scholarship, and getting away with doing so for reasons that sociologists of knowledge would, I think, find quite fascinating if any among them should ever choose to do an ethnography of elite American law schools.
Epstein’s career path is this: he was an undergrad, then he was a law student, then he was a law professor. That’s it. That’s all he’s ever done. He’s never had a job as a lawyer, or indeed as anything but a professor, at least not as an adult anyway. Furthermore he never seems to have gotten any formal postgraduate education, unless you count law school, which you really shouldn’t.
Now it’s important not to overrate the value of formal education. There have been plenty of great scholars who didn’t have graduate degrees, and even more terrible ones who did. But here’s the thing: it can help, a lot. This is especially true for “law and” people like Epstein.
In the 1960s, American law schools were on the whole intellectually moribund places, although they did have the advantage of employing a lot of faculty members who, unlike Epstein, had actually been lawyers at some point in their lives.
Law schools at the time conceived of themselves as professional training schools, with not much in the way of academic pretensions. (The overwhelming majority of law faculty had no postgraduate education other than law school itself, which for the most part consisted of a three-year exercise in training people to do faux appellate court advocacy, aka “the case method.”)
For complicated reasons, at just about the time Richard Epstein was graduating from law school, the elite and semi-elite slice of legal academia started to think it needed to tart itself up and integrate itself more into the rest of the university. The fastest and easiest way to do with was to become more “interdisciplinary,” and the discipline that lent itself most readily to this project was economics, or more precisely microeconomics, or more precisely still Microeconomics 101.
In the hands of people like Epstein, Econ 101 was transformed from a necessarily simplified set of heuristics, designed to introduce callow undergrads to a far more complicated subject, into an entire Intellectual Program, dubbed The Economic Analysis of Law, or, less formally Law and Economics.
The version of Law and Economics that Epstein promoted was, in retrospect, almost unbelievably crude. Behold , for example, the completely characteristic thesis of his book Forbidden Ground: The Case Against Employment Discrimination Laws. It is, in short, that the costs of such laws are much greater than their benefits, and that the common law principle of employment at will (this means an employer can refuse to hire or can fire any employee for any or no reason) is superior to governmental intervention in the form of things like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Why? The answer is the same answer Epstein gives to literally every single social problem: Because the market will do a better job of rooting out wrongful discrimination than the government will. And why is that? Because — and this too is always and everywhere the answer to every question in EpsteinWorld — because efficiency-seeking firms will have a competitive advantage over firms that discriminate in inefficient ways, so competition will drive unwarranted forms of discrimination out of the market.
Now if the version of Law and Economics Epstein and his epigoni promulgated had ever advanced to Econ 102, aka “It’s a Little More Complicated Than That,” perhaps Epstein wouldn’t have made such an utter fool of himself over the past couple of weeks, when he made essentially identical arguments about why the government should pretty much stay out of the pandemic amelioration business.
But he and they didn’t, so here we are.
ETA: See this thread from Jeet Heer about how Epstein’s aggressive refusal to look at anything as uninteresting as actual real-world data is of a piece with, among other things, the Austrian School economics that are at the heart of so much right wing intellectual fomentation:
There’s a great deal more to say about this, but a couple more notes for the moment:
(1) By the oh-so-scientific metrics used to measure the value of legal scholarship — whether it gets cited, and whether it influences public policy — Epstein’s contributions to the COVID-19 debate have already been a smashing success.
(2) Epstein continues to insist that COVID-19 is not actually any sort of serious public health problem, although he hasn’t quite been brazen enough to put it in just those words.
Consider what it means to estimate that COVID-19 will cause 50,000 deaths, or less, on a worldwide scale. In the abstract, 50,000 deaths sound like a lot. Yet in the context of annual worldwide mortality, it isn’t even a rounding error: Absent COVID-19’s effects, the global all-cause mortality rate in 2020 was going to be about 770 per 100,000. Adding 50,000 deaths to that total — assuming, very unrealistically, that all COVID-19 deaths will be this year, and that everyone who dies from the virus wouldn’t have died from some other cause before the end of the year — increases that rate to . . . 770.6 per 100,000. It’s one extra annual death per every 156,000 people! That’s two extra deaths, total, all year, in cities the size of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.
People like Epstein refuse to consider the reality of a pandemic, because real pandemics — not the fake moral panic pandemic that Epstein has conjured up on the back of his increasingly smudged envelope — are the ultimate refutation of his entire world view. They can’t really be real, for the same reason climate change can’t really be real.
But — speaking of economics — there’s basically an infinite market for glib pseudo-academic bullshit, if it protects and enhances the political and economic power of the already wealthy and powerful.
That, more than anything else, is the base on which the intellectual Potemkin village that Epstein and his ilk have built continues to rest so securely.
. . . This is really good.
Andrew Gelman with some excellent followup thoughts.