If the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated anything, it is that there is no situation so severe that government can’t make it worse. Government’s recent crimes are legion: standing in the way of testing; complicating efforts to acquire protective equipment; imposing authoritarian and uniform lockdown rules across very different populations; and enforcing those rules in dangerous and ill-considered ways.
If you can assess the conduct of government officials through the pandemic and conclude that what we really need is more of that, then we’re probably going to cure the novel coronavirus long before we find a treatment for whatever it is that ails you.
The societies over which governments exert their power are made up of myriad individuals, businesses, churches, and organizations interacting with one another for purposes of their own. The people in a society may inhabit dense urban areas or sparsely settled countryside. They may have deep pockets or meager resources. They may have high tolerances for risk or shy away from danger. Often, they have little in common except goods, services, and ideas to exchange for mutual benefit. Forcing them to walk in lockstep makes little sense.
“Americans are being told they must still play by New York rules—with all the hardships they entail—despite having neither New York’s living conditions nor New York’s health outcomes,” Bret Stephens pointed out in The New York Times last weekend.
Other than a few basic rules like “don’t murder” and “don’t steal,” there is very little you can impose from the top-down on a diverse society that can help and please one group without hurting and offending another. But that’s exactly what government does—inflicting one-size-fits-all-mandates that don’t fit many people at all and are usually poorly considered, at that. And during this pandemic, the government has exercised its taste for incompetence and draconian rules with a vengeance.
Famously, the federal government produced a dumpster fire of a COVID-19 test rather than adopt proven tests developed elsewhere. It also prevented universities, researchers, and private laboratories from developing their own tests, throwing bureaucratic hurdles in their way for weeks and allowing the disease to spread.
When it became obvious that available stocks of personal protective equipment were insufficient, federal regulators told aspiring new mask producers that getting approval for their efforts could take anywhere from 45 to 90 days.
Distilleries that tried to shift to producing much-sought hand sanitizer discovered they would be required to pollute their production lines with “denaturant” meant to make the product unpalatable—and therefore complicating the return to producing beverages after the crisis passed.
When hospitals and state officials do find supplies, they have to worry that they’ll be flat-out stolen by federal agencies who think they would be better used by somebody else.
Rules closing businesses, limiting gatherings, and even restricting outdoor excursions were supposed to “flatten the curve” to slow the spread of COVID-19 so that hospitals didn’t get overwhelmed. But the virus didn’t hit the same way everywhere. Instead, New York City and a few other hot spots got slammed. Elsewhere, most medical facilities found themselves tending empty beds, pondering the fate of patients whose “elective” cancer, heart, and back surgeries are deferred to some uncertain date in the future, and watching cash reserves dwindle for lack of patients to treat.