There is perhaps no greater goal than promoting safe behavior during a pandemic. Policy makers need to know the correct proscriptive policy to encourage, or perhaps force, citizens to act in safer ways. For citizens themselves, the calculus is different. Safe behavior can fall on a continuum of greater or lesser risk, but that typically corresponds with costs. Some behavior that is very safe can be costly. Gordon Tullock famously explored this trade off with his thought experiment “Tullock’s Spike”.
Automobiles have become a lot safer over the past 30 years, and much of that is the result of innovation in safety technology. One of the biggest advances has been anti-lock brakes. These prevent cars from skidding during braking and allow for more mistakes by drivers. In theory, they should make us safer.
But researchers found something odd – a lot of these innovations did not seem to be promoting safer driving. Instead, empowered by a feeling of safety, individuals decided to drive less safely assured that the advances in auto safety would allow them to travel more quickly (lowering their costs) while not incurring the risks. Anti-lock brakes, airbags, seat-belt laws, crumple zones, all lower the costs of accidents to individuals.
How then to “encourage” safety? Tullock said, let’s put a sharp metal spike in the middle of the steering wheel. That would have the practical effect of keeping the costs directed, literally, at the driver who would adopt safer practices.
Why is this relevant today other than to remember Tullock’s unconventional way of thinking? Public health officials face the exact same dilemma. COVID-19 cases are rising, particularly among the young. Despite shaming, nagging, and pleading, the young are not heeding the pleas of our public officials to act “safely,” and are going to bars, having meals, and otherwise leading relatively normal lives. They are doing this because there is no spike on the steering wheel. The young and healthy are largely unaffected by COVID and understand this. After having been deprived of many things over the past six months, they are, understandably, reluctant to continue to live in semi-isolation.
It seems to me policy makers have a stark choice. Closing bars and forcing public mask wearing won’t solve the problem. Young people will move to private homes and parties. They will continue to meet and talk and flirt and do what young people do. The only way to change their actions is to force them to pay the costs for the COVID increase. I would suggest we need to think more in terms of a tax. Anyone under the age of 30 who tests positive for COVID and through contact tracing can be shown to have engaged in risky behavior should pay a tax or penalty. It may not be perfect, but it will change the calculus for those who right now are driving very safe Ferraris and putting other members of society in direct risk of infection.