Free-market advocates have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic relatively quietly. They should speak up. The pandemic and its fallout show the virtues of market forces while revealing the dangers of relying on bureaucratic central planners and shortsighted regulations.
An opposition to central planning grounded in the understanding that we can’t predict the future, a healthy skepticism of bureaucrats and experts who fancy themselves philosopher-kings, an awareness of the dangers of outdated and unnecessary regulations: these are the tenets of free-market thinking as espoused by the patron saint of libertarians, Friedrich Hayek. America’s response to Covid-19 reinforces their wisdom, and conservatives should take note.
The tension between adaptive individuals and misguided experts was on display in the pandemic’s early months. In February 2020, Surgeon General Jerome Adams was one of many public-health experts who discouraged Americans from wearing masks, asserting: “They are NOT effective in preventing [the] general public from catching” Covid-19. Yet common sense dictates that masks keep things off your face. It makes sense that a worried citizenry, faced with a microscopic foe, would take to wearing masks. It also makes sense that public-health experts like Adams wanted to preserve the supply of N95 masks for health-care providers. He could have said as much: “You can wear a kerchief if you want, but please leave the heavy-duty masks to the frontline workers.” Instead, public-health experts insisted that masks were ineffective, then revised their position, and have since called for double masking.
When experts invoke their status to coerce people into ignoring common sense and embracing counterintuitive positions (“masks don’t help,” “suspending international travel won’t slow transmission”), they slip from expertise into manipulation. That’s why, to many people, masking is no longer a question of knowledge versus ignorance; it’s a question of belief.
Experts are nothing without regulations, many of which arrested the country’s early pandemic response. As early as May 2020, the New York Times reported that “existing regulations and red tape . . . impeded the rapid rollout of testing nationally.” The CDC and FDA ordered researchers at the Washington State Department of Health who wanted to begin testing for Covid-19 in January 2020 to stop. The reason? They were not operating in certified “clinical” laboratories, and the FDA had not approved their Covid test. That they were credentialed doctors conducting an ongoing flu study was not enough to appease state officials. Meantime, the CDC struggled to roll out a test of its own as the FDA dragged its feet on approving privately manufactured tests. The CDC finally released its tests two months later, only to recall them shortly thereafter when labs around the country found them inaccurate. The FDA concluded that the CDC repeatedly violated its own quality protocols, as researchers moved between labs without changing their coats and assembled test components in the same rooms where people were handling virus samples. Seven months after the recall, it was reported that CDC officials knew the tests were faulty, but chose to release them anyway.
One struggles to identify the worst aspect of this saga. Is it that federal agencies stymied efforts to test and trace the coronavirus, or that bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. exert such control over doctors in Washington State? Perhaps it’s that federal agencies commanded the rest of the country to “leave it to the experts,” only to deliver too little, too late. Fortunately, the government left a crucial part of the pandemic response to the private sector. The rapid development of effective vaccines shows what happens when the state doesn’t interfere unduly in private affairs.
To its credit, the FDA helped drug companies move quickly through the agency’s burdensome approval process. It allowed emergency use of remdesivir, Gilead’s antiretroviral, which has proved effective in mitigating Covid-19 symptoms. The FDA does not frequently grant “emergency use authorizations,” which let drugmakers sidestep the traditional approval process and give patients access to unapproved drugs shown to be effective in treating a disease.
The FDA also expedited the review of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, demonstrating a swiftness that would have previously seemed impossible for the notoriously sluggish agency. Moderna’s vaccine went from the lab to clinical trials in a record 69 days. That’s because the FDA allowed the companies to move through all three phases of clinical trials simultaneously, rather than sequentially. This process ordinarily takes around six years, and experts who believe the process is overly cautious have frequently criticized it.
The government did partner with drug companies through Operation Warp Speed, but more important is what it didn’t do. It didn’t impose new regulations or try to seize drug companies’ patents, it didn’t hold hearings on drug prices, and it didn’t interfere with the FDA’s expedited approval processes. It didn’t penalize Pfizer for not taking government money. It simply let the companies do what they do best. Left to their own devices, Sanofi and Novartis agreed to help produce the Pfizer vaccine in their facilities—refuting a common refrain among would-be regulators that drug companies act only out of self-interest and never for the common good. Now, about a year since the pandemic began, we have three viable vaccines and more on the way.
If vaccine manufacturing shows the potential in private industry, vaccine distribution shows the importance of private individuals. So far, it’s been a mixed bag. The country is administering about 2 million vaccines per day, an inoculation rate that has some experts predicting a return to normalcy by summer. But distribution has been stymied by everything from technical problems to unprecedented weather events.
No matter how much we prepare, we will always face what Hayek called the knowledge problem: the dispersal of “incomplete and frequently contradictory” information among individuals in a complex society that renders top-down planning inefficient. To the extent that we can solve it, the solution lies not in a denser central plan but in trusting the actions of individuals.
Consider just a few of the enterprising Americans who have filled the gaps in vaccine-distribution plans. Hugh Ma, a software engineer, built a site that tracks available vaccine appointments in New York City for just $50 after he struggled to get his mother an appointment. His site, TurboVax, collects information from multiple databases and posts appointment availability to Twitter in real time. Said Ma: “This wasn’t a priority for governments, which was unfortunate. But everyone has a role to play in the pandemic, and I’m just doing the very little that I can to make it a little bit easier.” Jerry Walkowiak, a Chick-fil-A manager in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, helped eliminate the backlog at a local drive-thru vaccine center at the behest of the town’s mayor. After identifying the problem, Walkowiak reorganized the system and reduced an hours-long wait to just 15 minutes. More than 1,000 people received their vaccine in a single day, thanks to Walkowiak’s efforts.
The point here is not that Chick-fil-A should take over the government. It’s that the government isn’t infallible, and that the bureaucracy often delays and distorts otherwise helpful initiatives. Even when top-down solutions are necessary, individual and local action can play an invaluable role.
Considering the many examples over the past year of the weaknesses of government, one would suspect that we would emerge from the pandemic with a new appreciation for limited government and free markets. Instead, a majority of liberals and some conservatives have soured on capitalism and begun calling for a more robust, interventionist federal state. If these trends continue, we may soon find that the real era of big government is yet to come.
The federal government and state governments alike have poured time, money, and manpower into fighting the coronavirus—often admirably, and sometimes successfully. But on balance, the government response to Covid reminds us that government is too often the problem, not the solution. This was true nearly a century ago, when Hayek warned of the problems with central planning in The Road to Serfdom, and it’s true now. Our pandemic response depended on liberty; so, too, does our future.