How Reliable is Government Information?
By David Henderson
Many economists, after noting that government regulations have harmful unintended consequences, advocate replacing government regulation with government-provided information. These economists see the bad consequences of having government officials make decisions for people and not allowing people to make their own decisions. At the same time, they argue, the government officials might have good information and if they simply provide that information to the public, that will improve the situation.
In the cases other economists and I discuss, a replacement of regulation with government provision of information would be an improvement. With such a shift from regulation to information provision, people could take the government’s information into account but still make their own decisions. Would it be preferable to a situation with no regulation? For it to be preferable, the government would have to provide good information and not mislead people. But does the government generally provide good information? Figuring out the answer would take years of research, but recent evidence during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some basic reasoning about government officials’ incentives, should make us hesitant to trust government information.
This is from David R. Henderson, “Less Regulation, More Information: Better Results?” my latest article at Defining Ideas, published on June 3.
Another excerpt, in which I point out the tough spot Dr. Rochelle Walensky is in:
The second area in which good information would have been helpful is in guiding the decisions, not only of state and local governments but also of individuals, about whether to mask while outdoors. It never made much sense to me to wear a mask while walking outdoors unless I was in a densely packed crowd with no movement, the kind of crowd you might see in a “mosh pit” at a rock conference. (Disclosure: I have never been in a mosh pit and plan never to be in one.)
It turns out that my intuition was right. According to Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, who also holds a master’s degree in public health, “viral particles disperse quickly in the outside air.” Gandhi cites a number of studies that find that well under 1 percent of investigated infections were linked to outdoor transmission. In one study from China, only one case out of 7,324 (0.0137 percent) was contracted outdoors. Yet on April 27, the CDC’s Walensky stated, “Less than 10 percent of documented transmission in many studies has occurred outdoors.” Well, yes. Although one or two studies did find a little less than 10 percent, most found well below 1 percent. So Walensky’s information was true but misleading.
In Walensky’s defense, she was arguing that masking outdoors was generally unnecessary. My guess is that she was trying to do her best as a medical professional but was feeling strong opposition both from within the White House and from members of the public who support President Biden and strongly support masking.
Read the whole thing.