In a recent interview with Sky News, London resident Viral Bhundia described what it was like to watch his young son Jay struggle with speaking.
“If he wanted something he would scream, and it was up to us to kind of decode it and figure out what he wanted,” said Bhundia. “Does he want a cup? Does he want water?”
Jay’s struggles are not an anomaly. They are part of a broader trend of children across the world lagging in basic language communication.
The latest evidence comes from Speech and Language UK, which found one out of every five children in the United Kingdom are behind in basic speech. This is reportedly the “highest number of children with speech and language challenges ever recorded” in the UK, Sky News noted.
It’s not difficult to glean why so many children are deficient in basic language skills. Around the world, governments responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with an arsenal of blunt tools— lockdowns, mandatory mask orders, endless social distancing, and travel restrictions—which had a devastating impact on learning development. (Of these, masking in particular is viewed by many as the primary cause of speech delays.)
The pandemic years were a challenge for everyone, but it was particularly damaging for children, an abundance of evidence shows. In the United States, for example, ACT scores fell to 30-year lows, while teenage girls reported record levels of sadness and suicidal tendencies, likely because of widespread social isolation.
It’s important to understand such social outcomes were not caused primarily by the virus, but by government responses to the virus.
The distinction matters. In previous pandemics, government officials had considered similar “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs) but opted against them, believing they would do little good and cause serious economic and social harm. In 2020, government officials opted for a different approach, embracing the idea that central planning could be used to enforce policies designed to ameliorate the spread of the virus. Healthy people and sick people alike would be masked and quarantined.
The decision was disastrous.
Lockdowns have been described as the worst policy mistake in modern history. Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci was recently embarrassed on CNN after being confronted with damning evidence showing how ineffective masks and mask mandates were in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
The government’s response to COVID-19 was a total failure, and one some of us saw coming. In March 2020, I pointed out there’s a lengthy track record of governments responding to crises and making things worse.
Basic economics helps explain why some of us predicted (correctly) that the government responses would prove counterproductive.
First, anyone who has read the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek’s The Use of Knowledge in Society understands that central planners lack the knowledge to effectively plan economies because they lack local knowledge.
Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.
It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.
Hayek understood that societies are incredibly complex—almost infinitely so—something many people fail to grasp, especially those who seek to engineer society. This was always the fatal flaw of centrally planned societies, and there was no reason to believe that central planners would be any more effective at managing an invisible pathogen than they are at planning economies.
Second, any student of economics understands the reality of tradeoffs, loosely defined as “any situation where making one choice means losing something else, usually forgoing a benefit or opportunity.” Once one understands tradeoffs, it becomes clear that even if governments did have the knowledge to mitigate the spread of COVID—a dubious assumption—it would come at great cost.
Economist Antony Davies and political scientist James Harrigan made this very point when they exposed the “if it saves one life” mantra politicians were using to justify lockdowns in 2020.
Five-thousand Americans die each year from choking on solid food. We could save every one of those lives by mandating that all meals be pureed. Pureed food isn’t appetizing, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing. Your chance of dying while driving a car is almost double your chance of dying while driving an SUV. We could save lives by mandating that everyone drive bigger cars. SUVs are more expensive and worse for the environment, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing.
If these policies sound absurd, there’s a reason for that: they were meant to. Harrigan and Davies were making a point about tradeoffs.
“The uncomfortable truth is that no policy can save lives; it can only trade lives,” they explained. “Good policies result in a net positive tradeoff.”
Sadly, tradeoffs were not even part of the conversation in 2020 and 2021. Not one government bothered to conduct a cost-benefit analysis of its COVID policies. Indeed, the idea that government policies might actually cause harm was not seriously entertained (and in some cases it was treated as “misinformation”).
Yet the tradeoffs were apparent. In some cases they were deadly, like children denied heart surgery because of travel restrictions. In other cases, the tradeoffs were deemed “minor”—like lost learning because of school closures or mask mandates. (One should ask Viral Bhundia if he believes Jay’s speech challenges are “minor.” I suspect he’d answer no.)
It’s a sad reality that many people had to learn about tradeoffs the hard way during the pandemic. CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen was a vocal supporter of mask mandates, until she learned about one of the tradeoffs of the policy.
“Masking has harmed our son’s language development,” Wen stated. “There is a tradeoff.”
Indeed there is. And widespread speech development issues are just one of the countless unintended consequences of turning individual decisions over to government bureaucrats.
To their credit, workers at Bhundia’s nursery made it clear to Sky News that they believe government policies are to blame for Jay’s language struggles.
The government’s response is also telling.
“We are conscious of the effect the pandemic has had on pupils’ education which is why we have made almost £5bn available for education recovery,” a Department for Education spokesperson told the paper.
You read that correctly. Lawmakers are now spending billions of taxpayers’ money to fix the problems they created. A very government response, indeed.