by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
Image source: Screenshot from a Middle East Motoring article discussing automobile safety features and referencing the Tullock spike, April 17, 2012.
My latest article for the American Institute for Economic Research discusses “A Tale of Two Spikes: How the Tullock Spike Gives Insight Into a Viral Spike Amid Forced Mask-Wearing.”
But first, what is a Tullock Spike? It’s from legendary economist Gordon Tullock’s famous comment: “If the government wanted people to drive safely, they’d mandate a spike in the middle of each steering wheel.”
I like how the automobile website Jalopnik explains it:
The Tullock Spike, or, to sound more gearhead-friendly, the Tullock Steering Column was something first thought of by the noted economist Gordon Tullock. Tullock came up with the idea around the time seatbelts in cars were being mandated. The thinking was that seatbelts make drivers feel safer, and as such makes them more prone to risk-taking behavior, making them less safe.
That is the economist’s observation of offsetting behavior. So how does that relate to government orders forcing mass mask-wearing by healthy people?
First, by now the question isn’t “How well do masks work?” but “Why didn’t masks work?” I offer several reasons: well-established research that masks are ineffective as protection against airborne viruses, the known fact that this virus is airborne, compulsory mask mandates “based on computer models (only as good as their input assumptions) and the Precautionary Principle (emotionally based to induce never taking precautions against unintended negative consequences),” and also offsetting behavior:
Feeling empowered, trusting the message from politicians, health officials, media, celebrities, and social-media “fact checks,” and swaddling themselves in the talismanic protection of a face cloth, people’s perception of risk from the virus lessened. They engaged in riskier behaviors as a result. They offset their perceived greater safety by taking more risks. By extension, those who eschewed the masks weren’t necessarily engaging in riskier behavior. It’s quite likely that they took the risk head-on, not quite as dramatically as driving with the Tullock Spike, but certainly in terms of awareness of the virus and adapting their actions in response (anecdotally, these adaptions ranged wildly, including avoiding prolonged time in public settings, exercising, losing weight, upping vitamin intake, and spending more time outdoors in the sun, and later on deciding whether to be vaccinated).
Then, circling back to the previous reasons for why forced mask-wearing didn’t work, I ask what should be an obvious followup: “But what if, unlike with seatbelts and anti-lock brakes, people’s perception of lesser risk is fatuous? The result would be people taking on additional personal risks for nothing. That’s a real danger of forced masking.”