The Pandemic Is a Case for Policy Humility

Politicians and policymakers know less than they think they do, in part because they have less power over our lives than they assume.


One thing that's more clear than ever after a year of pandemic governance is that politicians and policymakers know less than they think they do, in part because they have less power over individual lives and choices than they assume. 

A brief case study: When Texas' Republican Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state's mask mandate and ended all capacity limits at the beginning of March, becoming the first state to do so, his decision was greeted by a flood of high-profile criticism from left-leaning lawmakers and policymakers. 

California's Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has presided over the nation's most restrictive coronavirus policy regime, called the move "absolutely reckless." Andy Slavitt, President Joe Biden's senior advisor for COVID response, said, "We think it's a mistake to lift the mask mandates too early. Masks are saving a lot of lives." Biden himself called the move "Neanderthal thinking." And Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky insisted, "Now is not the time to relax the critical safeguards." 

These are people whose job is to shape policy at the highest levels of government, and they were united in their belief that Abbott's move was dangerous. They were certain that without mandates set down from above, Texas was in for a world of hurt. Yet their dire warnings didn't pan out. 

A little more than three weeks after Abbott lifted the mandates—about the time when you would expect to see an uptick in COVID cases if the mandate was genuinely critical to preventing transmission—Texas reported its lowest case rate in a year, and a further reduction in hospitalizations. There's been no sustained uptick since. 

As Dylan Scott wrote in Vox last week, compared with states like California and New York, which have maintained much more restrictive policy regimes, Texas has performed admirably well. Indeed, when economists from Bentley University and San Diego State University recently looked at Abbott's decision, they found "no evidence that the Texas reopening affected the rate of new COVID-19 cases during the five weeks following the reopening." As it turned out, those critical safeguards weren't so critical. 

There's a similar story in Florida, another big state that ditched many coronavirus restrictions and embraced the reopening ethos, often to predictions of death and doom that never came to pass. Like Texas, Florida was seen as "reckless." California and New York were not. 

You might assume that these two very different approaches would produce two very different results. Yet as Scott writes, "looking at the case and death numbers since the coronavirus pandemic began, it's not obvious which states were cautious and which were not."  

Much about the pandemic remains unknown or in dispute, and researchers and policymakers will undoubtedly spend the coming years arguing about what we know and what we don't, what worked and what didn't. 

Yet if there is a single, one-sentence takeaway from the radical experiments in public-health governance America has seen over the past year and change, it is this: Aside from the vaccines, it's not obvious what worked. And it is distinctly possible that much of what was done in the name of protecting people from the coronavirus made little or no impact at all. 

One reason why it's so hard to know which interventions, if any, made a difference is the nature of the virus itself. COVID spread differently in different areas, and during different time periods. Similarly, policy responses varied from place to place and time to time, even within states, making it genuinely difficult to isolate the effects of any specific policy.  

And it may simply be that many policies—even those presumed to have substantial impacts, like Abbott's early bid at reopening—had little effect on anyone's behavior at all. As the authors of the Texas study note, not only did Abbott's decision have little effect on viral transmission, it also had essentially no effect on mobility or foot traffic in businesses, or on employment. The policy had changed—but behaviors didn't. The residents of Texas simply went on with their lives. 

Policymakers and political officials might set rules or issue guidelines, but they don't actually determine individual behaviors like masking, gathering with others, or going out for a meal. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson recently wrote in a perceptive piece on Texas' reopening, people "make these decisions for themselves, based on some combination of local norms, political orientation, and personal risk tolerance that resists quick reversals, no matter what public health elites say." It's not just that there are limits on what policymakers can know. There are also limits on what policy can do—limits that policymakers often don't acknowledge. 

It would be tempting to look at all of this and resort to a kind of nihilism—to conclude that nothing works, that governance is irrelevant or inconsequential, that policymakers can have no impact at all. But that would be to commit the same error committed by Biden's COVID advisors and by the CDC, which is the error of certainty.

This is not a lesson in policy futility so much as a lesson in policy humility—both about what we can know about policy, especially in an unprecedented situation like a pandemic, and about what even the most sweeping emergency policies can accomplish. 

Yet that sort of humility about the limits of policy was sorely lacking last year, and it continues to be in short supply as the pandemic fades inside the United States. 

That lack of humility is why Anthony Fauci, the nation's chief infectious disease scientist and frontperson for the government's pandemic message, repeatedly lied to the public about key issues, such as herd immunity and masking. It's why experts who should have known better convened around an all too certain consensus that the coronavirus could not possibly have come from a Chinese lab. And it's why Newsom continues to keep California in a state of emergency that dramatically enhances his own power, despite the pandemic's ebb and little evidence that the restrictions he has championed remain effective or necessary. 

A more humble approach to policy might have been more cautious about sweeping restrictions on business and social activity, or at least more apt to change course as new information—about, say, schools or outdoor transmission—emerged. A more humble approach to policy would have placed more emphasis on guidelines intended to aid individual risk assessments rather than broad-based, one-size-fits all rules, understanding that not even the most well informed policy maker has all the answers. And a more humble approach to the post-pandemic world would be patiently seeking to learn from the last year, rather than rushing to use the crisis as a justification for unrelated permanent policy changes

Which, of course, is the opposite of what we got and what we are going to keep getting. For among the things that policy makers don't know and have consistently refused to let themselves learn is how little they know.