How can public policy best deal with infectious disease? In answering this question, scholarship on the optimal control of infectious disease adopts the model of a benevolent social planner who maximizes social welfare. This approach, which treats the social health planner as a unitary “public health brain” standing outside of society, removes the policymaking process from economic analysis. This paper opens the black box of the social health planner by extending the tools of economics to the policymaking process itself. We explore the nature of the economic problem facing policymakers and the epistemic constraints they face in trying to solve that problem. Additionally, we analyze the incentives facing policymakers in their efforts to address infectious diseases and consider how they affect the design and implementation of public health policy. Finally, we consider how unanticipated system effects emerge due to interventions in complex systems, and how these effects can undermine well‐intentioned efforts to improve human welfare. We illustrate the various dynamics of the political economy of state responses to infectious disease by drawing on a range of examples from the COVID‐19 pandemic.