One of Paul Krugman’s most recent efforts struck me — a semi-dedicated reader of his — as the quintessential Krugman column. It had everything that one might hope for in a piece by the Nobel Laureate: a belabored reference to the failures of Republican tax policy, a series of unsubstantiated assertions offered in a decidedly uncharitable tone; and, as ever, a reliance on vaudevillian caricatures of his opponents to serve what might loosely be called his argument.
Krugman’s project in this piece was diagnostic: He sought to explain why “the right [is] treating a pandemic the same way it treats tax cuts and climate change,” namely, by resorting to “denialism.” His answer is predictable: The conservative movement is “almost entirely built around assertions that any expert can tell you are false,” and conservative leaders have cultivated “an attitude of disdain toward expertise” that bled over into the Right’s treatment of the coronavirus crisis.
This thesis, like most of his theses, raises more questions than it answers.
First is the extent to which “the right,” writ large, has “denied” the threat posed by the coronavirus. To be sure, some conservatives have ignored or downplayed the pandemic. It is true that the president, to his discredit, initially minimized the threat posed by the virus in his public statements, before taking more decisive steps to slow its spread. It is also true that some on the right, to their discredit, minimized — or continue to minimize — the threat posed by the virus. But it can’t be credibly claimed that “the right” as a whole has reacted as Krugman’s crude caricature suggests: “It’s a hoax, or anyway no big deal. Besides, trying to do anything about it would destroy the economy. And it’s China’s fault, which is why we should call it the ‘Chinese virus.’” It’s not even clear that “the right” as a whole has been worse than, say, Krugman’s colleagues — who compared the coronavirus to the flu, warned readers that quarantines have historically “been used to persecute the marginalized,” and claimed that enacting travel-bans to-and-from China was racist.
Krugman’s portrait of conservatives as the cartoon villains in this crisis does, however, beget a second question: Krugman laments the “centrality of science-hating religious conservatives to modern conservatism,” but how is his implication that this situation is not “China’s fault” anything other than “denialism” itself? If it is not “China’s fault” that the nation’s officials smothered information on the person-to-person transmission of the virus, arrested dissidents who tried to tell the truth about its dangers, allowed 40,000 families to gather in the outbreak’s epicenter for a banquet well after doctors knew the virus was contagious, and failed to prevent the virus from spreading around the world like wildfire, then whose fault is it? Republicans’?
The third and most pressing question Krugman’s piece raises pertains to “experts.” What specific “expert” advice about the coronavirus are conservatives alleged to have ignored, here? Before the seriousness of the pandemic became apparent and the world shut down, some of the “experts” cited by Krugman’s own newspaper told us that travel bans “don’t work” to mitigate the coronavirus’s spread. Should we have listened to them? A writer at Vox claimed that “most health experts said there’s no good evidence to support the use of face masks for preventing this disease in the general population.” Were people who distrusted this advice and wore their masks in public “denialists”? How about those who were skeptical when the World Health Organization chapter in Asia said largely the same thing? Should we have heeded the advice of New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot when she encouraged “New Yorkers to go about their everyday lives” and suggested that the “spread” of “racist ideas” was “the greatest risk to New Yorkers”?
Not all “experts” are so vapid and myopic, of course — the insights offered by credentialed experts are often useful to our broader public-policy squabbles. But they are not infallible, and they are very often wrong — a prominent Nobel Prize winner, in fact, once said that the election of Donald Trump meant we were “very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight” and equity markets would “never recover” from his elevation to the White House. That Nobel laureate should certainly be able to understand why his insistence that “any expert” could debunk the central “assertions” of conservative philosophy would be met with skepticism. If he thought long and hard about it, he might even come to understand how those “science-hating religious conservatives” whom he so deplores could come to despise “experts” like him in turn.