Opinion

Preliminary Analysis of Pandemic Response

The latest executive order from Governor Roy Cooper, dated November 23

Asheville – About half a year ago, an inquiry into the rhetorical charge that there were no libertarians in a pandemic led to an email exchange with David Boaz at the Cato Institute and an awareness of a portion of the deregulation going on behind the political scenes thanks to organizations like CEI.org. Significantly, forces high in government had been persuaded to temporarily suspend regulations long enough to allow nurses to work out-of-state without recertification and medical equipment to be sent to hotspots without expensive, drawn-out certificate-of-need approvals. Unfortunately, though, those regulations that proved a hindrance to public health remain suspended only temporarily.

Back in May, much less was known about COVID-19; but this month, Cato’s Thomas Firey revisited the claim in a policy analysis, “Government in a Pandemic.” Because co-opting terminology is one way powermongers silence commonsense challenges, Firey used considerable space rehashing classical liberal definitions and self-evident Smithian economic theory. He then defended his thesis that elected officials possessing knowledge, creativity, and deference for constituents’ wellbeing would have seen COVID didn’t have to become a false dichotomy of either saving lives or promoting economic health. Government should have done both.

Spending no time debunking this political season’s polemical hysteria; Firey, who is better connected with the movers and shakers in this crisis than most, serves as a credible source for what really happened – the good, the bad, and the oopsies on both sides of the aisle. A “losertarian” policy wonk, his objective is to promote sound economic policy that defends personal liberty. He’s not shoveling the party line to advance anyone’s political career.

Firey clarified there’s a difference between advocates of limited government and those of zero government. “Liberty means creating important roles for government in protecting the freedom of exchange and private ordering.” Free marketeers believe people should be able to make their own victimless choices for association and exchange. They oppose micromanagerial regulation that smacks of crony capitalism setting impossible stakes for lateral entry into political donors’ incumbent industries. What is justified, however, is government intervention when the ability of persons to freely associate or exchange goods is damaged. This is known as market failure, and it could take the form of, for example, fraud or invasion by a foreign aggressor.

Firey argued, “From an economic perspective, under properly limited government, market failure is a necessary but insufficient condition for government intervention. Another necessary condition is that the proposed policy does not violate established liberties. Also, intervention always comes with costs, and those costs must not outweigh the benefits.” There is also something called government failure, characterized by self-dealing common to all walks of life.

Firey sides with the best available medical information from those most likely to be informed and comes to the same conclusions as those taking more of a risk management approach. That is, people are free to go about their business, but they are not free to launch germs into the lungs of others who could be more vulnerable. In other words, people should be wearing masks and social distancing. He considers this a small sacrifice for the greater good and more impactful than no-shoes/no-shirt requirements. As far as government goes, Firey said alarms from other countries had already convinced people to do this without top-down intervention. For those who deemed it a hoax and refused to stoop and play along, he suggested government would have done well to launch a serious public information campaign and answer 911 calls to remove as trespassers persons defying an establishment’s requests. Firey said it’s only a question of degree how much the economic shutdown would have occurred voluntarily.

Then, there’s the fatal conceit of those in power thinking they know more than all experts in all fields. This was illustrated by comparing the COVID response in South Korea and the United States. The first case of COVID in South Korea was confirmed a week after the first in the US. In South Korea, government swiftly met with top pharmaceutical companies and promised expedited approval of testing regimens. The first was approved a week later; within a month, 96 facilities were processing 20,000 samples; and by March, there was no shortage of test kits.

In the US, the FDA authorized only the CDC’s test, which was soon discovered to provide a lot of false readings. Experts found the problem to be in a tainted and unnecessary feature, but the FDA rules required the superfluous step for almost a month before a waiver could be approved. The FDA eventually expanded test kit approval to “government-certified clinical laboratories,” with certification no easy task, a move Firey called “swapping one regulatory barrier for another.”

Many of the applauded actions taken by government were little more than made-for-television theater, and, thus, partisan pseudo-victories. For example, while pundits and politicians were clamoring for Defense Production Act interventions, and before the authorization was ceremoniously signed, Ventec Life Systems and General Motors, Medtronic and Tesla, and GE Healthcare and Ford had already entered into partnerships for mass producing specialized equipment; and 3M had already doubled its domestic output and begun importing masks produced abroad. In addition to the political grandstanding, Firey said the only purpose the DPA authorization served was to empower the federal government to redistribute resources to politically-allied jurisdictions. After citing multiple examples of how US leaders have done the same through the years, he added this might be the first time it was done in a life-and-death situation.