To Understand the Pandemic, Look to History (Economic History)

As the holiday shopping season gears up, Joy has invited us to suggest some books that you might give as a gift (or read yourself!).

I have one very strong recommendation: Werner Troesken’s 2016 book The Pox of Liberty. Unfortunately the publisher did not foresee the renewed interest in pandemics due to COVID-19, so you might have to settle for an electronic version of the book right now (though you might have better luck with the publisher than Amazon).

The Pox of Liberty – A Book Review By Dr. Price Fishback - Foundation For  Teaching Economics

Tragically, Troesken passed away two years ago. Many of us would love to hear his thoughts about the current pandemic. The beauty of this book is that we can still learn from him even though he is no longer with us, not only about pandemics of the past, but possibly with lessons for our current health crisis.

Troesken brings his broad knowledge of economics, history, and demography to examine the history of smallpox, typhoid fever, and yellow fever, as well as the policy responses. Broadly Troesken asks: why has the US historically been one of the richest countries in the world, yet so bad at fighting infectious diseases?

I won’t spoil the whole book, but he argues that the answer to both questions can be found in the US Constitution. The liberties protected in the Constitution allowed for the US economy to be among the best performing in the world, but made it hard for the federal and state governments to address pandemics. It’s a trade-off, or rather multiple trade-offs, as Vincent Geloso has put it.

We can see this clearly in the differences between the US and European responses to COVID-19: European countries were able to close their borders which spared many central and eastern European countries from the first wave of the current pandemic (though it does look like this may have been a temporary reprieve, as Czechia, Poland, and others are now seeing dramatic increases in COVID-19 cases). In the US, the virus has slowly spread from state to state, seemingly sparing no one in its path despite varying public policy interventions (including mostly unenforceable travel restrictions). We don’t know what the future holds for COVID, but the constitutional factors at play that Troesken described for smallpox 100 years ago seem to still matter today.

On a personal note, Troesken was a professor of mine in grad school (he spent one year at George Mason University, though most of his career was at Pitt), and he was a big influence on me, especially his teaching style. While I respected his work greatly, I was always puzzled by his interest in infectious diseases. What was the relevance of this topic for understanding the modern world? Well, in 2020, we all found out. And now we miss Werner even more.

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