A Case Study in the Problem of Policymaker Ignorance: Political Responses to COVID-19

Cosmos + Taxis: Studies in Emergent Order and Organization 9 (5 + 6):18-28 (2021)
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We apply the analysis that we have developed over the course of several publications on the significance of ignorance for decision-making, especially in surrogate (and, thus, in political) contexts, to political decision-making, such as it has been, during the COVID-19 pandemic (see Scheall 2019; Crutchfield and Scheall 2019; Scheall and Crutchfield 2020; Scheall 2020). Policy responses to the coronavirus constitute a case study of the problem of policymaker ignorance. We argue that political responses to the virus cannot be explained by assuming that the interests of policymakers were at loggerheads with those of their constituents at the beginning of the crisis. In order to explain the responses of policymakers, it is necessary to recognize the effects of relevant ignorance on their incentives to pursue different policy objectives. We discuss the knowledge that policymakers required at the start of the pandemic in order to deliberately realize the goal of limiting overall human suffering and the spontaneous forces that could have facilitated the realization of this goal. The problem of policymaker ignorance implies that policymakers have not earnestly pursued the goal of limiting overall suffering due to the novel coronavirus, but have repeatedly resorted to the pursuit of relatively less epistemically burdensome goals. The problem of policymaker ignorance explains why policymakers have focused primarily on limiting one kind of suffering – physical suffering due to the virus – and have mostly ignored related kinds of suffering, i.e., the economic, sociological, psychological, and physical suffering caused by policies to limit physical suffering from the virus. The problem of policymaker ignorance also helps to explain why policymakers relied on the relatively blunt instrument of economic lockdown rather than more focused protection policies, and why they continue to resort to lockdowns, despite the emerging scientific evidence of their ineffectiveness at mitigating physical suffering due to the virus.

Author Profiles

Scott Scheall
Arizona State University
Parker Crutchfield
Western Michigan University School Of Medicine


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