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The Urban and Environmental Economics of Voluntary Social Distancing

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The aggregate contagion risk posed by the Coronavirus declines if more people engage in voluntary social distancing.    Given that social distancing reduces one’s own risk of being infected, is this a sufficient incentive to enforce this public health mandate?

Standard microeconomic logic would predict that there will be a free rider problem here as everyone hopes that everyone else will engage in social distancing.   This issue of course arises with respect to greenhouse gas emissions production in an economy where there is no carbon tax. 

This free rider concern may not be important here because it “takes two to tango”.  The joy from not engaging in social distancing hinges on finding other people who want to be close to you.  Given the anxiety about this “known unknown”, are there many urban people who are eager to break the norm and agglomerate close to each other? 

If there are many of these people and if cell phones allow these urbanites to find each other in cities, then contagion rates could increase as a byproduct of their face to face interactions.  These folks do not want to cause the epidemic to be exacerbated. Instead, they may be impatient people with a need to socialize and some may underestimate the probability that their encounters pose risks to themselves and society.  Young people know that their death risk is lower and thus they may be more likely to free ride and continue with their lives.

In this case,  Robert Ellickson’s work on “norm enforcers” is relevant.  If the police do not use their power to disperse crowds, will social sanction identify such individuals and further ostracize them?

Dora and I explore shame and ostracism in our 2007 paper on deserters in the U.S Civil War.

Now a completely different urban economics issue pertaining to the Coronavirus focuses on the size of housing.  The media is reporting that those in jails and other settings featuring high indoor population density are at risk because people are too close to each other.  This issue that cities “are too dense” will emerge here.

If we were uniformly distributed across the U.S, then reducing contagion risk here would be much easier because transportation costs to allow people to meet would be high enough to reduce disease transmission.


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