Variations | ‘We need a reality check’

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IN his 1884 book, “The Man Versus the State,” Herbert Spencer wrote:

“A druggist’s assistant who, after listening to the description of pains which he mistakes for those of colic, but which are really caused by inflammation of the caecum, prescribes a sharp purgative and kills the patient, is found guilty of manslaughter. He is not allowed to excuse himself on the ground that he did not intend harm but hoped for good. The plea that he simply made a mistake in his diagnosis is not entertained. He is told that he had no right to risk disastrous consequences by meddling in a matter concerning which his knowledge was so inadequate.”

And yet when “we measure the responsibilities of [legislators/policy-makers] for mischiefs they may do,” we tend to be more lenient. “In most cases, so far from thinking of them as deserving punishment for causing disasters by laws ignorantly enacted, we scarcely think of them as deserving reprobation.”

It is held, Spencer said, “that common experience should have taught the druggist’s assistant, untrained as he is, not to interfere; but it is not held that common experience should have taught the legislator not to interfere till he has trained himself. Though multitudinous facts are before him in the recorded legislation of our own country and of other countries, which should impress on him the immense evils caused by wrong treatment, he is not condemned for disregarding these warnings against rash meddling.”

No. Far from it. Today, in many democracies all over the world, many members of the public — that is, those who would be harmed by (more) bad pieces of legislation — are insisting that their legislators ought to pass more laws “to fix problems.” And this was before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The belief, Spencer said, “is that by due skill [of leaders and/or lawmakers] an ill-working humanity may be framed into well-working institutions. It is a delusion. The defective natures of citizens will show themselves in the bad acting of whatever social structure they are arranged into. There is no political alchemy by which you can get golden conduct out of leaden instincts.”

We don’t need to cite news from the Third World to illustrate the often disastrous results of well-meaning, well-intentioned government mandates and/or policies.

Here are some of the recent headlines and opinion pieces from The Wall Street Journal:

• FEMA Called Short on Resources, Staff

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the coordinator of the government’s coronavirus response, entered the crisis with thousands of unfilled positions and the leadership of its parent department singularly focused on immigration.”

• Auto Thefts Rise During Lockdown

“Thefts of motor vehicles have risen in New York City under emergency measures to fight the new coronavirus, according to new New York Police Department data, even as many other crimes have decreased.

“The NYPD has seen a 57% increase in thefts of cars, motorcycles and mopeds between March 16 and April 14, police officials said. The department recorded 458 such thefts during that period, compared with 291 for the same time last year, the officials said.”

• More ‘Stimulus’ Would Crush the Recovery

“A democracy’s greatest challenge arises when it confronts a major crisis during an election, since the critical need for serious debate is inevitably eclipsed by political posturing and opportunism. Less than two months since the U.S. began to reckon with the Covid-19 pandemic, Washington has already passed three stimulus packages that will increase federal spending by half, quadruple the deficit, spend twice as much as existing tax revenue, and trigger the largest monetary expansion since the Civil War. We need a reality check. New spending commitments already equal almost twice the gross domestic product loss incurred in the 2008 recession, and 20% more than all private wages and salaries paid in the last quarter of 2019. Yet only a sliver of the money has reached the intended beneficiaries. It is likely that any additional stimulus would harm the recovery more than it would help smooth the crisis.”

• Small Businesses Opt to Close Despite Aid

“The federal government is pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into saving small businesses, but the effort came too late for MoviE-Town Cinemas.

“Ticket sales had already been declining at the independent theater in Elizabethtown, Pa., when the state’s governor ordered nonessential businesses to close last month to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Less than three weeks later, the 21-year-old theater had permanently ceased operations. ‘There were so many unknowns, we decided to shut down,’ said Glen Sponaugle, vice president of Room One Corp., MoviE-Town’s owner.

• We Have a Covid Test — Let Us Use It

“Our research team used Food and Drug Administration guidelines and a scientific report from Wuhan, China, to develop a Covid-19 test in early March. It took one week. Our test doesn’t use the reagents other labs are desperately seeking, and it can identify levels of virus so low that a typical test could miss them entirely. Yet [because of federal restrictions] our lab sits idle.”

• Stimulus Checks Arrive to Relief and Surprise

“The U.S. government sent more than 80 million direct-deposited stimulus payments this week, and the amounts popping up in bank accounts are coming as a surprise to some Americans.

“Some are finding less than they expected. Others think they are getting too much. Some say money is going into bank accounts they don’t recognize. And still others are struggling to decipher error messages from an Internal Revenue Service website.”

• Export Curbs Keep Medical Supplies Stuck in China

“New Chinese export restrictions have left American companies’ U.S.-bound face masks, test kits and other medical equipment urgently needed to fight the coronavirus stranded, according to businesses and U.S. diplomatic memos.

“Large quantities of critical protective gear and other medical goods are sitting in warehouses across China unable to receive necessary official clearances, said some suppliers and brokers.”

• The Lockdown Protests Begin

In “Michigan…thousands gathered in the state capital…to protest sweeping restrictions issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Under her April 9 executive order, stores that remain open must cordon off their furniture, garden supplies and paint, and must refrain from advertising anything but groceries, medicine and basic household supplies. Ms. Whitmer permits canoeing and sailing but not motor-boating or jet-skiing. Michiganders can get their oil changed but ‘in general’ not their bikes fixed. On Wednesday thousands drove to Lansing to jam traffic, honk horns and wave posters from car windows, in what the Detroit News called “one of the largest protests at the state Capitol in a decade.”

• New Data Suggest the Coronavirus Isn’t as Deadly as We Thought

“The Covid-19 shutdowns have been based on the premise that the disease would kill more than two million Americans absent drastic actions to slow its spread. That model assumed case fatality rates — the share of infected people who die from the disease — of 1% to 3%. The World Health Organization’s estimated case-fatality rate was 3.4%....”

If “policy makers were aware from the outset that the Covid-19 death toll would be closer to that of seasonal flu than the millions of American deaths predicted by early models dependent on inputs that now look inaccurate, would they have risked tens of millions of jobs and livelihoods?”

• Why We Say “No Thanks” to a Cares Act Loan

“We recognize the legitimate and important roles of government, including protecting public health. And many libertarians accept a role for the government in relief efforts during this crisis. But the government’s missteps include playing down or disregarding early warnings, testing delays, tariffs on medical products, blanket business shutdowns (including many that can operate safely), occupational licensing restrictions, certificate-of-need requirements for medical facilities, and on and on. It should be no surprise that when we ask it to do too much, government fails in its most important responsibilities.”

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