Chief Medical Officers should make their value judgements clear and Premiers shouldn’t just defer to them

The Australian Institute for Progress ran an excellent webinar last night, on the economic response to the pandemic, featuring prominent Australian businesswoman and former ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell and Griffith University Economics Professor Tony Makin. It’s certainly a good time for public discussion of the response to the pandemic.

In Australia, we see the unpredictable and increasingly draconian public health response is ruining businesses, crashing confidence (see the chart below and this ABC News report), condemning people to long-term unemployment, and risking a prolongation of the deep recession we’re currently in, with 1.6 million unemployed and a private sector on life support from JobKeeper.

Furthermore, the situation in New Zealand is terrifying and should be forcing us to reconsider our public health response. How confident can businesses be if they are worried that any future cases of COVID-19, no matter how few, will lead to a re-imposition or ramping up of restrictions?

It is time to ask our political leaders harder questions about why particular restrictions are being imposed. Kate Carnell gave a great answer when I asked her whether Premiers should be deferring to Chief Medical Officers and accepting their advice on restrictions uncritically. Carnell replied that we’re not very good at nuanced arguments. The politically simple (and strangely popular) thing to do is to accept the advice from the CMOs and to lock down our economies and close borders. But this comes at a huge economic cost, with associated adverse social and health outcomes.

As Henry Ergas and Joe Branigan argued in their recent Menzies Research Centre paper (e.g. check out Catch up on COVID-19 with Joe Branigan), we need to find a balance, where we can control the spread of virus without destroying the economy and breaking the spirit of the population.

I’m not a public health expert, so I have to concede it’s possible the CMOs are recommending the right approach. That said, I’d like to see them explain the normative or ethical premises that take them from there ‘is’ statements to ‘ought’ statements. How do they solve David Hume’s is-ought problem?

Economists mostly do this by adopting the normative premise articulated by Jeremy Bentham, that our governments should act to achieve the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number.

But how do our public health officials solve the is-ought problem? It can’t be that they’re abiding by the Hippocratic oath, to above all do no harm, because the restrictions they’re recommending to control COVID-19 are certainly harming many in the community who are subject to curfews, job losses, or business failures. And CMOs don’t appear to be Benthamite utilitarians, as they appear to be over-reacting to any new cases of COVID-19 and reimposing restrictions without regard for the adverse economic and social consequences.

It’s time for our CMOs to be clear on the normative premises and value judgements underlying their recommendations, and for our politicians not to simply defer to the CMOs, avoiding responsibility for the adverse impacts of the ongoing restrictions.

Business confidence is on the way down again.

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3 Responses to Chief Medical Officers should make their value judgements clear and Premiers shouldn’t just defer to them

  1. johnsnowy says:

    CMO’s guilty of frightening idiot politicians! The worst governments in Australian history. They should all be voted out everywhere. Any thinking person would sack the medico who predicted armageddon, that would ensure that this sort of behaviour was prevented. I have lived through three pandemics costing millions of lives and no one ever came up with this world wide nonsense. Lets suggest that whilst in the emergency all public servants reduce to $750 per week and see how much of an emergency this really is, politicians included.
    The facts are nothing has happened to population people have got sick and vulnerable people have died was it ever different?

  2. Jim says:


    An interesting post on an issue where nobody really has a watertight argument either way.

    Economists will always (correctly) try and understand the trade-offs, but we need to be careful not to attribute ALL the economic pain to government policy as some commentators incorrectly seem to be doing.

    Doing nothing was never a realistic option. So the relevant trade-off is actually more like a voluntary approach that a behavioral economist might suggest (e.g. the Sweden model) vs. a more stringent approach (like many other Scandinavian and nearby countries such as Denmark or Austria). Eyeballing data from these countries perhaps gives a better indication of the actual trade-offs (e.g. consumer spending in Sweden is down about 20%, while in the other countries it is down about 25%). Much of the change is due to behavior and not policy. We need to be cognizant of this in our analysis.

    I’d really like to see some genuine robust economic modelling of a bunch of different approaches and scenarios (e.g. approaches like the US, Sweden, Australia and NZ). Only then can we really understand the trade-offs properly.

  3. Gene Tunny says:

    Thanks Jim. That’s a great point about not attributing all the blame to policies. Yes, I’d like to see some robust economic modelling, too.

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