I know as little about biology and medicine as the typical public health expert knows about economics and the scientific study of society. I don’t know if hydroxychloroquine is effective against Covid-19 or under which conditions. However, I believe I know something about, or I have the analytical tools to understand, a social system where politicians or public health pontiffs decide what is good or not for individuals and force it upon them.

Frequent readings about Covid-19 and a cursory perusal of recent articles in medical journals on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine led me to believe either that the drug was detrimental or else that it had no beneficial effect. My opinion was not moved by the crowd pushing the drug, from Peter Navarro and Donald Trump to Stella Immanuel, a Texas doctor who also thinks that sex with demons in dreams causes some gynecological diseases.

Even if I lack experience in sex with demons (like, I suppose, most of my readers), I replied to a Facebook friend who did not seem to think that Immanuel is a charlatan:

I respectfully suggest that you should try to recognize a wacko when you see one.

I would add that it is difficult to believe anything from somebody who thinks that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” (a field that I know a bit) when he declares that hydroxychloroquine can cure Covid-19. Quickly recognizing a charlatan when you see one allows you to economize on information, a costly resource. It is not impossible, of course, that a given wacko be right per mere happenstance.

Then, economics professor Steve Ambler (Université du Québec à Montréal) brought my attention to a Newsweek article (“The Key to Defeating COVID-19 Already Exists. We Need to Start Using It,” Newsweek, July 23, 2020) where a respected professor of epidemiology at Yale University, Harvey Risch, summarizes the results of the research he published in a major epidemiology journal. He claims rather persuasively that the administration of hydroxychloroquine, together with other drugs, has shown its efficacy when administered early in the treatment of Covid-19 (as opposed to later phases of the disease as reported in other studies).

Whatever the results of the scientific debate turn out to be, Professor Risch’s study is useful for at least two reasons related to economics. First, it confirms the main advantage of free speech. It allows mainstream science and whatever else we know, or think we know, to be challenged. Knowledge that survives free-speech challenges can be given the benefit of the doubt, as John Stuart Mill argued in immortal terms  (On Liberty, 1859):

If even the Newtonian philosophy were not permitted to be questioned, mankind could not feel as complete assurance of its truth as they now do. The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of. … This is the amount of certainty attainable by a fallible being, and this the sole way of attaining it.

In the same vein, I wish the White House would now recognize that the “enemy of the people”—in this case, Newsweek—is helping a minority idea that it itself promotes to receive a wide exposure from the pen of a credible scientist.

Second, Risch’s contrarian claim also helps make an important distinction, on which he himself does not pronounce and which is generally anathema to the public health movement. Whatever “the science” says, it should be left to each individual adult to make his own choices and trade-offs between different benefits and costs and risks as he evaluates them. This applies to which medication and treatment to choose or not to choose. Such freedom, if it were really implemented, might lead to (more) great personal tragedies in the case of individuals who would make these choices without consulting people who know how to think about medical consequences—like medical doctors. But then, tyranny also brings a lot of personal tragedies. Historically, there is no doubt that tyranny maimed and killed many more people than individual medical choice. And in a system of free choice, perhaps individuals would learn or re-learn how to be responsible for their own welfare.