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The President and Governors Alike Botched the Pandemic Response

Last week, four Republican senators co-sponsored legislation “to let states approve and distribute diagnostic tests when the state or federal government has declared a public health emergency” becausein the words of their press release“our federal bureaucracy simply has not moved fast enough during this crisis.” It was an explicit rebuke to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for botching COVID-19 testing and for standing in the way of state governments, universities, and private labs that were willing and able to do the job.

Implicitly, it was a shot from the president’s own party at the Trump administration’s incompetent handling of the pandemic. The senators could easily have broadened the targets of their bill; this year has seen the president, governors, and government officials of all types go out of the way to turn a health crisis into a larger catastrophe through bungling, malice, and overreach.

That the CDC dropped the ball is no secret. Early testing kits produced by the agency were contaminated by bad procedures and then bureaucratic delays hampered efforts to fix the problem. Amidst ample evidence of in-house incompetence, the feds then tried to make sure nobody else could show them up.

“Agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services not only failed to make early use of the hundreds of labs across the United States, they enforced regulatory roadblocks that prevented non-government labs from assisting,” CNN noted last month.

Was the CDC’s incompetence and obstructionism a result of inadequate resources? Nope. “The CDC’s budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today,” Reason‘s Eric Boehm reported. The agency has all the money it needs for good or illand it’s done ill in spades.

Perhaps inspired by the CDC’s example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has also done its best to impede pandemic response by stealing medical supplies before they can reach hospitals and clinics. FEMA “is quietly seizing orders, leaving medical

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Economic Lockdowns Kill People–Yes Literally

A recent Bloomberg article discussed the opposing arguments in the debate over COVID-19 lockdowns. The article described the epidemiological way of thinking versus the economic way of thinking. In the simplest terms, epidemiologists think in terms of reducing the spread of disease, while economists think in terms of balancing trade-offs.

While expert epidemiologists are much needed during a pandemic, if we fail to think as economists, we may find ourselves with policies that cause more pain and deaths than necessary. It is also important to understand regarding the present crisis that economists do not only deal with trade-offs between lives and economy as the Bloomberg article asserts. But rather, we also deal with lives versus lives—both without lockdowns and with them. That is, COVID-19 causes deaths, but so do lockdowns, although it is somewhat more difficult to see them in the latter case.

These casualities will be more visible if we view the lockdowns through the lens of economics.

Economists have long understood the “it takes a village” concept in a radical sense. A global division of labor and many of us specializing in incredibly niche lines of work make it possible for 7.6 billion people to survive at once. A great real-world demonstration of this comes from a TED Talk in which a young man describes how he bought the cheapest electric bread toaster he could find (costing under four British pounds) to reverse engineer it in order to make a toaster of his own from scratch. Once he disassembled it, he found that it had about 400 parts (wires, springs, screws, plastic casing, among many others) from manufacturers all over the world.

Making a simple toaster from scratch, he learned, is much more difficult than he had imagined. But he kept trying, finding that he had to go into mines to extract his own iron, copper and mica, convert the iron ore into steel, make his own plastic casing from potato starch (as he had no oil to begin with), and so on. After a number of months of trying to make his electronic toaster, the final product turned out to be completely unworkable—not to mention, an aesthetic disaster.

But let us step back to review the “unseen.” The manufacturers of those 400 or so electronic parts in the store-bought toaster could not possibly know all of the final goods in which their electronic parts were ultimately used. They had buyers of their products, who distributed and exported the products, who sold to industrial supply companies in various markets, who sold to other manufacturers, who often exported further, and so on. That is, from manufacturer to consumer, products exchanged many hands—forming a “globe-spanning web of interconnectedness” and made possible through the price mechanism. As F.A. Hayek once put it:

[We] are all working for people whom we do not know and are being supported by the work of people we do not know… Profit is the signal which tells us what we must do in order to serve people whom we do not know.

Now we must elaborate on the previous point made about dealing with the loss of real flesh-and-blood human lives—not only in the absence of lockdowns but also because of them.

It is not only that people need money as the fruit of their labor in order to buy food for survival (which is true). It is also not only that the highly destructive inflationary and high-debt policies embraced by governments around the world in response to COVID mean that we will all suffer a great deal financially, which has a downward push on human life expectancy (as people living in more affluent nations live longer), and an upward push on infant mortality rates (as less affluent nations have higher infant mortality rates). It is also not only that there will be additional deaths caused by depression from job loss, suicides, substance abuse, and the like (so-called “deaths of despair”).

It is that we as contributors of labor, capital and ideas cannot possibly know the extent to which our individual contributions plug into that intricate and delicate “web of interconnectedness” and the ramifications of our forced removal of those contributions through government-imposed lockdowns.

Remember those electronic parts that go into toasters? Medical equipment needs many of these same parts. But as the manufacturers of these parts around the world are not able to know all the ways in which their products are ultimately used in final goods, they would hardly be in a position to lobby their respective governments to allow them to continue production as approved “essential” businesses during lockdowns. As a result, we see increased scarcity of medical equipment, which is particularly counterproductive for the current pandemic.

To be clear, the economic way of thinking does not lead us to dogmatically disfavor lockdowns simply because we find them inconvenient. What economic thinking does is moves us beyond merely thinking in terms of the immediate consequences to also considering the long-term consequences. It moves our attention beyond merely what is easily seen and reported by heads of state each night on television (number of COVID-related cases and deaths during a lockdown) and has us also consider what is unseen: including deaths caused by lockdowns. We cannot possibly support the lives of 7.6 billion humans on earth if we are not allowed to produce. It takes a global village to make it all work—not the “intelligent design” of mere mortals in the halls of power.

One Barber’s Successful Lockdown Defiance Shows Why the Separation of Powers Matters

Karl Manke has been cutting hair since 1961. In March, he closed his Owosso barbershop, located about 40 miles northeast of Lansing, when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered a statewide lockdown closing all “non-essential” businesses.

When Whitmer extended that order to May 28, Manke decided he could not comply and opened anyway.

“I had no income,” said Manke, who wears a protective mask while cutting patrons’ hair.

The 77-year-old barber was cited twice and had his licence revoked. But this week a judge refused a request from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office to shut down Manke’s barbershop.

“(The attorney general) has not presented any studies underlying the doctor’s conclusion. (The attorney general) has not shown any nexus between the cutting of hair and an increased risk of transmission,” the judge wrote in his opinion. “(The attorney general’s) filings rest more on general facts about COVID-19 than specific practices or conditions at (Manke’s) business.”

Michigan’s attorney general’s office, which says “every second (Manke) operates constitutes a new irreparable injury,” plans to appeal the decision.

Checks and Balances

In his classic work The Spirit of Laws, Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (better known simply as Montesquieu) explained why it is necessary to distribute power in any governing system.

“When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty,” observed Montesquieu (1689-1755).

Montesquieu’s statement reveals two important things. First, it contains the idea of the separation of powers, which would influence the Founding Fathers and in turn the American system of government. Second, it reveals the only justifiable purpose of government: liberty.

Montesquieu is especially important today as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, which threatens not just lives but the livelihoods and liberties of millions of Americans like Karl Manke.

To contain the spread of the virus, many states have, like Michigan, instituted sweeping lockdowns that have caused widespread economic destruction. These lockdowns are unprecedented in human history. For centuries if not millennia, quarantines involved isolating sick people and those known to have been exposed to deadly contagion,

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Is Civil Disobedience Justified in Defense of the Freedom to Worship?

In defiance of orders from their respective governors, a significant number of houses of worship will open for services beginning tomorrow. As John Dale Davidson of The Federalist notes, most of them will be doing so while maintaining social distancing measures that are at least as thorough as those at Wal-Mart, Home Depot, hair salons, or the Department of Motor Vehicles. They will nonetheless be engaged in civil disobedience.

Where do you stand on this issue? Is civil disobedience ever justified? Does it constitute official discrimination against the practice of religion when government declares that liquor stores and abortion clinics are “essential services” that can stay open while it deems your spiritual health non-essential and orders your church, synagogue, or mosque shut? Does it bother you that if a house of worship performed abortions or served alcohol, it would stand a better chance of earning the state’s blessing?

I concede there may be room for differing views on these matters among people of good will. But if you are in the camp that categorically opposes even non-violent civil disobedience—for any purpose, against any stupidity or oppression—I have a few more questions for you:

This is a country born in civil defiance of a monarchy 3,000 miles away. If you could go back in time and walk the streets of Boston in the early 1770s, could you have urged the citizens, “Pay that Stamp Tax, let those troops quarter in your home, stop criticizing the King!”?

Harriet Tubman and tens of thousands of others defied the law to escape slavery. Could you have looked any one of them in the eyes and exhorted, “Go back, you’re breaking the law!”? If an escaped slave showed up on your front porch, would you have turned him in or helped him out? If you say you would have helped him out, then you too would be a lawbreaker.

When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Alabama, she was engaged in civil disobedience. If you were the bus driver, could you have told her, “Get in the back or get off!”?

Franklin Roosevelt

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