Fatalism and counterfactuals in times of lockdowns

One of the more curious phenomena of the last 18 months has been the fatalism on display on both sides of the lockdown divide. In the anti-lockdown brigade fatalism props up in the guise of “this was the inevitable outcome of decades of planning”, a view of humanity  wherein only ‘evil’ has agency and the rest is a passive victim of fate, though usually the adherents of such a story line make an exception for themselves and everyone who follows them (because only they can stop evil). In the pro-lockdown camp, fatalistic thinking is of the form “it had to be this way and there was nothing we could have realistically done otherwise”, which sometimes is followed by its somewhat revealing corollary “and there is nothing I am going to do about it because it is all inevitable”.

In both versions of fatalism, there is a negation of human agency, either as individuals or as a collective. It is pre-enlightenment thinking. Let me here expand on the fatalism I see in the pro-lockdown camp because I regard it as a mental prison I hope some in the pro-lockdown camp can escape from once they recognise it.

That is not a counterfactual!

The fatalism I have often seen in this pandemic by those going along with the lockdowns is of the form ‘we had no choice’. There are many variants of the ‘we had no choice’ meme, including the kiddy version (‘the virus forced us’), the political version (‘the political reality was that we had to do this’), and the intellectual version (‘I have not heard a realistic counterfactual’).

To understand how these variants are but branches of the same fatalism, we need a reminder of what the whole notion of ‘choice’ actually is in scientific, legal, and democratic thought. To understand fatalism we need to ask the perhaps strange question of whether choice really exists or is but a convenient invention.

At some level one can always claim with some justification that it was impossible for people to have done anything else than they did. After all, whatever the reason for what was done, that was then the reason it was done. One can thus always argue there was no real choice: the reason for what was done compelled what was done. It is the old ‘there is no free will’ argument that because a decision was made, it had to be made. Whether it was a decision made out of limited information, stupidity, political expediency, divine steering, or whatever, is something irrelevant to that type of thinking. The past can never be undone so it has no realistic counterfactual because it had a reason that cannot be undone. The only realistic (counter)factual is then what actually happened and all stories of “what could have been done” are absurd because they by design do not account for the compelling reasons for what was done.

It is an argument that cannot be disproven and has been adhered to in some societies for centuries (both the Greeks and the Vikings believed in ‘Fate’), but it makes for very poor advise on future choices. It also negates the notion of accountability.

Hence the true point of saying “there is always a choice” is to take individuals and collectives seriously as deciders, demanding they make choices in particular ways. Our societies need the notion of choice and free will so as to be able to hold anyone to account. We treat people and politicians as capable of making different choices so as to have a better functioning society.

So the law treats murderers as having been capable of a different choice in order to punish them for their choice and thereby to set incentives for the future and uphold a notion of justice. Democratic institutions treat politicians as capable of making choices for the public good so as to have a politics that is somewhat beholden to the public good and to have that accountability as our self-image of our society. The notion that ‘there is always a choice’ is thus a means of taking responsibility for our own fate. The fatalist might say that the idea of “having a choice” is always an illusion looking backwards (and they might seem to have a valid argument), but the point of the idea of choice is never to change the past but to have a better future by holding people accountable for past choices.

That enlightenment notion of agency replaced the fatalism widespread in the Middle Ages and is exactly how our institutions view policy choices. It is the basis of all cost-benefit analyses, impact analyses, event-studies, parliamentary inquiries about past choices, etc. It is how we depict elections (choose this or that!). It is also the basis of the notion of responsibility in our legal system.

The deep question is then the societal norm as to what ‘choices’ we deem could have been made. Where are the limits?

The choices that one deems ‘possible in hindsight’ are the choices for which we had the technical means. One hence then takes the ‘motivations at the time’ out of the picture. It is the essence of stepping back and gaining perspective: means are kept constant so as to judge the choice made on the basis of what else could have been done with the means.

This does not imply that scenarios constructed to help with choices are more than vague impressions of possible futures. When choosing between two types of coffee we do not ask what life will be like ten years from now if a different coffee is chosen, but which one is going to taste better the next two minutes. The means are constant (one can buy this coffee or another), and the choice is made on the basis of a stepping back to consider the main implications of what could have been done with the means (the taste experience of the different coffees). The important element in the scenarios of choice analyses, either looking back or forward, is thus to vary the main element that cause a lot of pain or gain.

So in choice scenarios one never tries to sketch a complete alternative of how things might have been. Only a dithering time-waster asks of a care-salesmen what two different cars would mean for every subsequent day in the future. So too for a voter asking for how a policy would change every aspect of the future. It is basically a form of hiding from responsibility to demand a complete alternative.

Consider the absurdity of demanding a complete alternative in a legal setting: “what would the murderer have had for breakfast in stead of what he actually ate the morning of the murder?” is not a relevant question in a murder trial. The counterfactual to a murder in a murder trial is that the murder did not take place, simply because it was in the means of the murderer not to murder. What would have been had for breakfast is not important and the murderer is not let off if the prosecution cannot establish with a 100% accuracy what that breakfast would have looked like.

I hope this makes clear how absurd some of the “Show me the full counterfactual” brigade have been the last 18 months. They in essence have tried to hide their heads in the sand on the question of lockdowns by asking the equivalent of “what would the murderer have had for breakfast instead”? Their equivalent has been that anything short of extreme detail was “not a factual counterfactual”. It is a strange form of fatalism that avoids the question of the damage done by the murder and the culpability of the murderer.

I have thus often been asked the last 18 months by several people what the alternative was to going along with the panic and my essential answer has always been ‘not to panic and not to blindly sacrifice’. That is also the essential alternative I have advocated at every moment in time: ‘stop panicking and start optimising’. I have provided several more ‘fleshed out’ scenarios, but in essence I have viewed panic and sacrifice as a choice. That is the enlightenment notion of rational choice: the notion that we can look around, analyse the trajectory, consider the options, and choose what is both in our means and in our collective interest. That is the viewpoint baked into economics, the legal system, our democratic system, international law, etc. It not so much presumes agency but demands agency of individuals and institutions. It sometimes even demands changes so as to make some choices possible (such as the would-be murderer finding an alternative outlet for his or her feelings). In a sense, it is the viewpoint that creates agency by holding people accountable in that manner. My counterfactuals were thus designed to hold people, politicians, and communities to account for what they did, meaning that they sketch the main areas for where the pains and gains of actual choices occurred.

Within that strategy of looking at choices, one counterfactual to the choices Australian institutions and politicians have made are the choices made by Western institutions and politicians in different countries. So the Australian policy trajectory could have been the French one, the Serbian one, the Canadian one, the Singaporean one, or the Swedish one, basically because similar means were at the disposal of Australian politicians. Those scenarios were of course stylised alternative choices, for no Australian politicians could have exactly enacted the French reactions for the simple reason that they don’t even speak French!

Another counterfactual would have been the policies our own societies had prepared for the eventuality of a pandemic of the type we have had. So the blueprints Victoria and other places actually had are important counterfactuals. Yet another would be some notion of ‘business as usual’. Another is the choise that is ‘probably optimal from a wellbeing point of view’. These kind of ‘broad counterfactuals’ are exactly how cost-benefit analyses are done thousands of times in Australia and other countries. It is how the blue prints for the pandemic (that were ignored) came about: analysts run stylised situations against each other to discover what was likely of greater public benefit. That method of choosing has been of immense benefit to humanity the last 300 years because it has forced us to be much more aware of different possibilities and their benefits. How odd of some to abandon it now!

All counterfactuals are hence “not factual”. It is simply a meaningless thing to ask of a counterfactual. All there is are sketches of how things might have been done and how that would turn out. Impressionism is all one ever gets with counterfactuals, and supposed minute detail are merely pretend-details to help an audience ‘get it’. This does not mean there are no degrees of plausibility and degrees of comprehensiveness, but it does mean that the audience needs to engage with these acts of imagination. That is even true in a murder trial, where the counterfactual of ‘no murder’ needs to be imagined by the jury as the ‘thing that should have happened’.

The fatalism of those who demand the impossible (factual counterfactuals) is nowhere more visible than their own reaction to being asked to take a stand on what should happen next. I am yet to meet a counterfactual-doubter who is willing to take a clear stand, particularly not a stand that goes against authority. So not merely is the past viewed as something they had no agency in, but so too the future, absolving them in both cases of responsibility. I have been tempted to conclude from this that the true purpose of fatalism for many is that provides a means to live with the shame for their own cowardice. However, that would require the coward to be self-aware of that dynamic.

The enlightenment notion that we as individuals and communities have real choice thus allows a whole set of counterfactuals to be considered at any point in time: they are the choice set by which individuals and communities are held to account. This goes for both small choices and large choices. The point of doing so is to take people and communities as capable of making informed choices.

I do of course see the point of those who feel that if they or their leaders are held accountable for their decisions, then they need to be given some notion of what the alternative choices then would have been. That notion of ‘the choice set we expect’ is a social norm itself. When it comes to crimes being committed, accountability needs no more than the statement ‘dont do the crime’ counterfactual. Yet, it it is in many cases a matter of habit and law as to how much flesh is supposed to be on counterfactuals. Reality is so complex, changing, and varied that one should not get lost in a 1000 details when sketching alternative choices, but stick to the main points.

The reality of those wanting to be convinced on 1000 details before they are willing to face the accountability question is thus that they are avoiding responsibility. I am afraid I see them as groveling slaves that patiently await the next dictat of whomever the masters are, consoling and defending themselves with the intellectual equivalent of “que sera, sera”. It is a survival strategy, but bereft of honor. In a strange way, by asking me to view their situation in that way too, they are asking me to abandon hope for themselves: to grant them the death of the part of themselves that could be held accountable. It’s a lot to ask. I do not want to abandon them in this way, even though they ask it themselves.

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13 Responses to Fatalism and counterfactuals in times of lockdowns

  1. conrad says:

    I think fatalism is really just a part of the human condition, especially in the immediate future — we’ve evolved for the last 500 million years to avoid immediate harm and now that we have bigger brains I guess it is unsurprising that we can think of even more ways of determining what harm is (virus harm, harm against my psyche by locking me in, ..).

    In the longer term it also seems common, and I think this is more surprising. This is because its amazing how much better the world is now that, say, 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, but this seems lost on many, perhaps most, people — at least in their daily lives. Sure we go through crappy periods in history — the population of many great empires looks like a sine wave until relatively recently. But why should we hit the bottom now? We got so far in the last few hundred years.

    Perhaps one reason, and you can see it in people’s love of fantasy futures and read it in books is that it’s clear people love dystopian futures more than the non-dystopian ones (Star Trek excluded). One might wonder here if this just an availability thing since it’s simply easier to imagine more negative futures because you don’t have imagine anything novel, but more positive ones seem harder. So if you ask people to imagine what the future would be like, perhaps its just easier to think of miserable scenarios. Not too many people in 1950 would have said ‘go into a supermarket and buy almost any type of fresh food any time of the year’ or ‘take cheap plane flights more or less anywhere we feel like’ or ‘play games on our phones’, but these are things we simply take for granted now. You can try it yourself — how will people’s lives be immeasurably better in 30 years from now and will they take those things for granted?

    On this note, I seem to remember you are far more pessimistic (not fatalistic) than me on the long terms societal effects of covid. To me I look at the 20th century and it was a disaster in many way but great in many others. Now if you look at the disasters they caused all sorts of fiscal problems and often did almost unmeasurable damage to infrastructure, yet here we are now better off than ever. Now you might be able to give me some reasonable counterfactuals, but how useful will they be to predict what happens, in, say, 30 years? Could I have predicted Melbourne would be a rich city from being almost broke 30 years ago? Probably not (I didn’t think about it). Similarly why wouldn’t people adapt to less government services? For example, if the roads are clogged because the government can’t build anymore, presumably people will start using low-powered electric vehicles to get around (as they do China and other places now) and I see that as a good thing. In addition, if medical are services are worse and we all die 1 year earlier on average, does is it actually matter to people? Would people adapt to that? etc. .

    I could go on and on here but clearly I have different set of counterfactuals to you, and some may be qualitatively different to yours so it makes things very hard to compare. So I think the bigger problem problems is not people worrying about 1000 different possible counterfactuals before doing anything but rather just agreeing on the main points. If you use happiness, I use GDP, and someone else uses life meaningfulness, then obviously we’ll come to somewhat different conclusions when they lead to different decisions. You can try and frame things to try and measure the same outcome variables (e.g.,total deaths, c.f., typical medical vs. economic responses), and I salute your Herculean efforts to for trying and do that (god knows, I would have given up), but if people don’t believe how you get to the same outcome variable (e.g., long term debt causes death, a death now is worth the same as a death in the future..) then the problem is not endless counterfactuals but agreement on the main things that should actually be measured and considered, and I suspect this the bigger problem in terms of ‘what to do now’ in the lockdown debate.

    • paul frijters says:

      thanks Conrad.
      I totally agree that one should not lose sight of the fact that life has gotten a lot better for much of humanity in the last 100 years. In my book, I thus without hesitation say 2019 was the best year humanity has had till then. I am also optimistic about the future. As you say, progress can be made very quickly.

      The issue of ‘what to measure’ is, I think, less controversial if you can get people in a reflective frame of mind whereby they ask themselves what the things are that matter to them, their loved ones, etc. How to measure them is probably not that controversial either. Weighing them against each other though, that is of course where the knives come out. Establishing any plausible causality is even more a battlefield. But at least one is then in the right type of conversation.

      One point I was trying to make in the post is that counterfactuals for the purposes of accountability and choice are not truly that difficult or cumbersome, nor should they try to look too far ahead. It is basically a matter of looking for the clear gains and losses. No 20 years ahead needed.

  2. ianl says:


    I’m afraid I regard this essay as even more circumlocutious than counting the number of angels on a pinhead as a way of avoidance.

    “We” (the sardonic version of the Royal We) are given a choice, with varied circumstance, of being locked “down” or locked “up”. That is, one can meekly stay inside the house or flat for some unknown duration, or one can ignore that imposed requirement and be manhandled into goal by police thugs. Either way, one finishes locked away. That’s the actual choice.

    How would you have us alter this ? Practical, useful, succinct suggestions, please.

    Every time I come across an essay like this, it is always lacking in recognition of reality. And yes, I see hard evidence of authoritarian manipulation towards 1984-type perpetual control, using C-19 as its’ template. To save the planet, of course.

    • paul frijters says:

      We share the same fear, Ian. You will just have to forgive me for also having quite nerdy interests.
      If you are looking for the quick ‘easy solution button’, forget it. Against what has now arisen the historical solutions have taken a lot of time (and usually a lot of unpleasantness).
      The only thing that will really get us out of this is a broad civic movement with a view of a better Australia. You need that movement to dismantle the control institutions. You can try to build such a thing locally: ‘citizenry’ is a mesh of local groups. Building that type of movement is a matter of many different initiatives, particularly setting up its own media. I am afraid it will also need to engage in a lot of thinking because there is an awful lot to reform.

  3. Jerry Roberts says:

    You and Cameron Murray saw this coming, Paul, in Game of Mates. I am annoyed with myself for not picking it up earlier. My excuse is that I don’t pay much attention to the medical world. My physician is the local swimming pool. Australia has descended into full-on fascism. The legal profession is slow to get test cases into the courts. My trade of journalism is part of the jackboot, as are the major political parties. I agree with your comment above. It is a long haul to get out of this mess.

    • paul frijters says:

      me and Cameron saw the corruption and the betrayal of the elites for many years now, true, but we certainly did not see the current troubles coming. I recognised the panic immediately, but not how it would be used and the crazy situation that both population and elites now find themselves in. We’re on one hell of a strange ride in that respect.
      I suspect that events have forced the elites into a trajectory they do not really want to be on because it is both very damaging to the countries they run and ultimately depend on, but also because the situation is so fraught with dangers for them. They were on a great wicket with only vague long-run threats to their position. Whilst the situation has allowed them to expand their powers, it is also leaving them very exposed.
      As I said about a year ago when Victoria embarked on its experiment with uber-authoritarianism, the furies have taken off and god knows where they will land.

      • Jerry Roberts says:

        In the immediate Australian future it will be interesting to see if there is an upward trend in independent candidates at the forthcoming federal election. Nicholas calls them randos (or is it rambos?)

      • Paul re “I suspect that events have forced the elites into a trajectory they do not really want to be on because it is both very damaging to the countries they run and ultimately depend on, but also because the situation is so fraught with dangers for them. They were on a great wicket with only vague long-run threats to their position. “

        It is a 1914 : lights going out never to return in our lifetimes moment.
        And the answer to the question: ‘ who done it’ re Covid19 and all that will in 100 years time be as unresolved and hotly contested amongst the various tribes of the Minervas Owls as the question: ‘ who what ‘ plunged the globalised urbane Europe of 1913 into utter self destruction , still is unresolved.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    “My trade of journalism is part of the jackboot”

    I agree with that comment, even if I don’t quite agree that what we’re seeing IS a jackboot. But we now live in a society that seems to have no desire, no interest, not even any comprehension of the need to stand up for the principles that gave us one of the best periods of human history.

  5. Jerry Roberts says:

    One of the video clips I saw recently came from an American nurse in a hospital treating patients injured by the Covid vaccines. She was asked for a single piece of advice and replied — don’t watch the news.

  6. Jerry Roberts says:

    An example of jackboot journalism was an email sent to me personally by Peter Fray, editor-in-chief of Crikey, an Australian news service to which I once subscribed. Peter unashamedly told me about Crikey’s disgraceful attack on Craig Kelly MP who is alerting Australians to the dangers of the Covid vaccines by quoting statistics from the Government’s data base in the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

    Peter and all journalists and politicians (and economists) should be supporting Craig and insisting on transparency from Government and readily available access to the TGA”s comprehensive data on our health. The TGA, meanwhile, accuses Craig of breaching copyright. Copyright on government data about our health! What are they trying to hide and why?

    • paul frijters says:

      Many such examples in the Netherlands. Mainstream newspapers and tv-channels have run character assassinations, open shaming of whole groups, calling for intolerance towards those with the wrong opinions, and hiding or ignoring information that did not fit the official narrative. It has been brutal.

      In Australia, I find the far-left media to be the worst. Take an article by Jenny Hocking who fought so tirelessly for 2 decades to unearth the correspondence between the Crowns and the Governor at the time of the Whitlam dismissal. You’d think she’d be a bit wary of the overreach of authority, but essentially calls those not falling into line with Victorian public health a traitor: https://johnmenadue.com/the-age-demeans-itself-as-well-as-the-victorian-public-health-team/

  7. Jerry Roberts says:

    Yes Paul, I saw that from Jenny and found it hard to believe that she could be so misinformed and authoritarian.

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