There’s tons of online debate about whether lockdowns are helpful to fight the pandemic. I have no idea whether they’d be helpful or not, but I suspect that they’re impossible anyway. In his essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read famously highlights the vast interconnectedness of millions of people that lies behind seemingly-mundane phenomena like 20-cent pencils at Staples. Echoing more academic treatment of similar themes in Hayek and Simmel and others, Read reminds us in laymen’s terms just how complex these networks are: not only do you need someone cutting down cedar trees, you need someone making saws and work boots and rope and chains; then you need trucks to transport the lumber to a mill, which means truck drivers, and people who manufacture trucks, and fuel for the trucks, which means people who drill for oil, and refine the oil, and all these people need coffee, which means coffee growers, exporters, importers, roasters, and so on. I have been reminded of this fundamental lesson several times during the pandemic as pundits would occasionally say things like “if we could just shut everything down for a few weeks, we could stop the spread.” But the problem is not that people are too selfish or stupid to stay home (though some are, to be sure), it’s that the very idea of “shut everything down” is a misnomer at best; at worst a deliberate red herring.
The Read-ian reason why we can’t actually “shut everything down” is that there are so many exceptions, each of which entails a vast web of corollaries. Thinking about it just for a moment, look how deep it gets. Don’t worry about whether you think any of these is essential; what matters for the exercise is that most people would.
D. EMTs/Ambulance drivers
E. All of these need support staff, road maintenance, mechanical and fuel supply workers, etc.
F. All people who work in hospitals, including but not only health care workers
G. E again, for the people in F
H. Lawyers and judges and corrections officers
I. E again, for the people in H
J. child care workers for the people in A-I
K. Grocery store workers
L. The people who make/grow the food
M. The people who transport the food from L to K
N. E and J for people in K-M
O. That means we’ll need public transportation operators, and E and J for them also
P. Journalists, broadly construed to include people who make newspapers, tv, radio
Q. Power supply workers
R. So, even more E and J
And so on. This exposes the fundamental fallacy in saying “shut it all down.” We couldn’t if we tried. That’s not to say, of course, that we shouldn’t practice social distancing until the pandemic is over. But an actual shutdown, like a pencil, is something no one actually knows how to make.