Are We Being Kept in Partial Lockdown by Status Quo Bias?

Status quo bias is when one prefers the current state of affairs simply because it is the current state of affairs. First described by the economists William Zechauser and Richard Zeckhauser, this particular cognitive bias has been documented in many scientific studies.

However, you’d hope that it wouldn’t affect decision-making over something as consequential as a national lockdown. Where the lockdown is concerned, you’d hope that rational judgement based on firm principles, or rigorous cost-benefit analysis, would prevail.

Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case, as the Tory peer Daniel Hannan argues in a piece for Conservative Home:

Would anyone, coming fresh to our current situation, propose a lockdown? The vulnerable have been shielded: around 95% of people over 50, along with healthcare and care home workers, have had what turns out to be a highly effective vaccine. The inoculation programme is now reaching healthy people in their early forties – people for whom, in most cases, the virus would manifest as a cold. As I write, the latest daily death count is six. Not six per million. Six.

Even if you believe a lockdown was necessary to “flatten the curve” (which, incidentally, it very likely wasn’t), the curve has now been thoroughly flattened. And with seasonality starting to kick-in, any remaining benefit of lockdowns is rapidly approaching zero. (Recall that every European country saw declining death numbers last May.) Despite all this, some lockdown measures are still in place. Hannan continues:

The trouble is that lifting restrictions is an altogether tougher proposition than not imposing them in the first place. People tend to anchor to the status quo. Governments are reluctant to relinquish the powers they assumed on a supposedly contingent basis. Just as with post-war rationing, bureaucrats fear chaos if controls are lifted, and struggle to understand the (admittedly counter-intuitive) notion of spontaneous order. Freedoms, as always, need to be prised from the cold grip of the administrative state.

And as Hannan notes, the costs of the ongoing measures are far from trivial:

Well, for one thing, each of the next 19 days will cost us several hundred million pounds. Sums that would have horrified us a year ago have now become unremarkable; but they haven’t become any smaller. To say “just another couple of weeks” is much easier if you are a government official at home on full pay than if you are, say, a restaurateur or hotelier. Every day in lockdown is adding weeks to our recovery.

It’s time for the Government to acknowledge that the last four months have gone better than expected, and the remaining lockdown measures should be lifted immediately. Meanwhile, Hannan’s article is worth reading in full.

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