It’s become increasingly clear that President Donald Trump and much of the Republican leadership have behaved irresponsibly in failing to take basic precautions against COVID-19. Less commonly understood is how even a “thinking man’s approach” can lead to a kind of recklessness. Therein lies a lesson: Fighting this pandemic requires better policies, as education alone is unlikely to work.

The sad truth is that even if each individual’s choice is rational, it can lead the collective to some undesirable places.

Consider a person such as myself. I have no reason to believe I’ve been infected, and have had two negative test results following some travel. I am also aware that many COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, meaning I might have caught COVID-19 and not known. Since I’ve had some lengthy trips (with distancing), and my household is small to begin with, I could have been carrying the virus without infecting others close to me.

The more time passes, the more I wonder if I have, in fact, contracted an asymptomatic version of COVID. The chance of that was quite small in February, but as each month passes it becomes modestly more likely. That realization could easily nudge many people into taking just a bit more risk.

Another train of thought considers the possibility of having a pre-existing protective immune response, perhaps from T-cells. Experts are not sure of the likelihood or magnitude of this effect, but some have suggested that as many as one-third of Americans may have some built-in protection.

Again, as the months pass, it’s rational for me to upgrade the probability that I have such a protective immune response. With the passage of time, I will feel more protected than I used to.

The basic reasoning is straightforward: Since I haven’t caught a bad form of it by now, I must be relatively safe. Many Americans may or may not grasp the finer points of the immunology and the Bayesian statistical reasoning, but that is a very common-sense kind of response.

And so such people will take more risk — to the detriment of the broader community. Yet it is hard to say those individuals should feel guilty, as they don’t seem to have had the virus themselves, nor have they seen any concrete signs of having transmitted it to anyone else. Shaming them is thus unlikely to succeed, and in fact it might alienate them and turn them against public-health measures more generally.

It is missing the point to call these people stupid. In fact they are the opposite, as they are willing to change their conduct in response to observed evidence. This is rational behavior, but it is not an ideal quality to have in the citizenry during a pandemic of this kind. Preferable would be a mix of innate fear and an anti-virus, pro-social-norm dogmatism.

Unfortunately, the problem gets worse yet. You might think all the recent data showing cases rising in many U.S. states and parts of Europe would make people more cautious. But sometimes such reports have the opposite effect. If the risk is going to be around for a long time, many people infer — rationally, from their individual point of view — that they need to get used to it.

For purposes of contrast, assume that I knew the pandemic would be over within a week, and I just had to stay inside my home for that long. That would be psychologically bearable, because there would be a clear end in sight. In economic terms, I would engage in “intertemporal substitution,” meaning that I would save up my socializing until after the virus had cleared.

But now it seems that COVID-19 risk will be here throughout the winter, possibly at a heightened level. And with every new report of vaccine delays and uncertainties, the despair grows a bit more. A lot of people are going to respond to this state of affairs not by isolating themselves but by accepting more risk.

One of the worst things about not controlling the virus early is that it has created a class of citizens who are deciding to adapt to COVID-19 rather than avoid it. The way forward is through better coordinated public policy — including testing and tracing, prevention measures, and speedy health-care responses — rather than labeling individual Americans as stupid or misguided.


Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”