Since our “state of emergency” was declared on March 11, the citizens of Arizona have been forced to practice a new state-run religion, otherwise known as mandatory social distancing. This religion is based on several unprecedented, deviant, and pseudo-scientific “non-pharmaceutical interventions”, i.e., physical distancing, quarantines, lockdowns, and “re-openings.” A key tenet of this religion is the novel, collectivist notion that your health is now my responsibility. Thus, anyone who rationally calculates risk, as most of us did before March 2020, and chooses not to wear a mask in certain situations or is less than six feet away from a stranger, is “selfish” and thus, a heretic. These heretics are now subject to verbal abuse, public shaming, snitches, and threats of physical violence from a new breed of religious militants.
The architects of this novel state-run religion are our new, unelected bureaucratic masters: the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), who appear to be accountable to no one. ADHS seems to have fully captured government in a clever coup d’état, armed with faulty epidemiological models and voluminous statistics on a single infectious disease that have been repeatedly shown to be highly inaccurate. Of course, these same “public health” experts, while bombarding us with faulty statistics on COVID, have been virtually silent on how the practice of our new religion has affected other aspects of public health, such as missed screenings for cancer and heart disease, suicides and other deaths of despair, drug overdoses, child abuse, human trafficking, domestic violence, addiction, mental health, and obesity/weight gain that increases the risk for complications when infected with COVID.
Most politicians, including our Governor, the mainstream media, and even many leaders in the business and non-profit communities are devout followers of this religion. Furthermore, our elected representatives and the media treat ADHS with undue reverence. More importantly, they have failed to scrutinize the antecedents and consequences of their actions.
An important aspect of the state-run religion is the use of Orwellian-style propaganda to formulate and sustain a narrative to justify this monumental forced collective sacrifice and the greatest political act of theft in history (of private property, services, and of course, economic, personal, and religious liberty). Such propaganda plays an important role in securing and retaining adherents to the religion and demonizing those who dare to question it. The first Orwellian tool was the development of an authoritarian taxonomy of industries and workers that were deemed either “essential” or “non-essential.”
To justify quarantines and lockdowns, we were encouraged to “Stay Home/Save Lives,” a phrase that was almost universally adopted by adherents of the new religion. Of course, the irony is that “staying home” has probably destroyed more lives, since the consequences of staying home has caused massive economic, psychological, and sociological damage, and is degrading numerous (non-COVID) dimensions of public health. There are several credible studies that have shown this to be the case. For example, in the United Kingdom it has been estimated that more lives will be lost due to mandatory social distancing practices than due to the virus itself.
Another popular propaganda message by adherents of our new religion is “We are All in This Together.” In the interest of accuracy, that phrase should be modified to “We are All Forced to Be in This Together,” since there has never been any semblance of informed consent, even from our elected representatives who have presumably been rendered inert by the “state of emergency.”
Furthermore, we are not even sure what this is. In a form of mission creep, the state-run religion, which had as its original goal: “two weeks to flatten the curve” is now being promoted as a permanent, long-term tactic against “an invisible enemy,” which cannot be abandoned. ADHS and its advocates in the mainstream media (who almost appear to be rooting for the virus, given its political expediency) engage in statistical legerdemain and selective coverage (highlight the virus, ignore the victims of the religion) to maintain the crisis, and thus, sustain the religion. It appears that our new goal is to practice this religion until the virus has been eradicated. We are repeatedly told by adherents of the new religion that we cannot return to the “old normal.” Mask-wearing mandates provide a tangible, physical reminder that our everyday lives will never be the same.
We say this because our Governor and ADHS have clearly fallen for what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy.” This fallacy has arisen because we have followed the misguided advice of ADHS and made substantial “investments” in mandatory social distancing practices. In our economics and strategy classes, we teach our students that rational agents should ignore costs already incurred and only pay attention to future or prospective costs.
In the realm of public policy, a classic example of the sunk cost fallacy occurred during the last phase of the Vietnam war, when many supporters of America’s military involvement invoked the following logic to support this policy: Since the U.S. has invested millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers had perished, any U.S. withdrawal without achieving its objectives, would waste these significant sacrifices. It appears that our Governor has succumbed to a similar sunk-cost fallacy, as both he and ADHS believe that practicing the state-run religion has allowed us to achieve “victory,” when cases or deaths attributed to COVID-19 level off. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the Governor will change course until a vaccine is administered to the entire population. And of course, asking ADHS to abandon its myopic, maniacal focus on COVID-19 and adopt a broader perspective on public health is like asking Tiger Woods whether to cancel the Masters.
The time has come to fully open up our economy without delay. Given the sunk cost fallacy, it is likely that only our legislators (who have little invested in this public policy disaster) will have the courage to end this tyranny and suspend the practice of this state-run religion. Whether it is the legislature or the Governor, our elected representatives must quarantine ADHS and open up our state, as Governors in Florida and Tennessee have recently done. This does not mean abandoning voluntary virus mitigation efforts, only an end to the “state of emergency” and the state-run, ADHS-led religion, which dictates that life in Arizona revolve exclusively around COVID-19. Our practice of this religion will have persistent, long-term effects, so there is no time to waste.
Donald S. Siegel, Ph.D., Foundation Professor of Public Policy and Management and Director, School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University (Donald.Siegel.firstname.lastname@example.org)
Robert M. Sauer, Ph.D., Professor of Economics, Royal Holloway, University of London (Robert.Sauer@rhul.ac.uk)