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What’s Essential Is to Come to Grips with Reality’s Stupendous Complexity

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Here’s a reply to Ron Warrick, a frequent and valued commenter at Café Hayek:

Mr. Warrick:

In response to questions that I pose [2] to people who demand that America be made self-sufficient in medical supplies, you write [3] that such people “are primarily talking about medical supplies that might be needed in a pandemic emergency.” Perhaps you’re largely correct (although not fully [4]). But I stick to my position that attempts to satisfy any even this more limited demand would confront unforeseen confusions, as well as create problems that would leave us Americans much worse off than we would be without any such policy.

The first glitch with today’s demand that we be made self-sufficient in supplies needed in pandemic emergencies is that it reflects presentism – a focus on the pandemic of today. But not all medical supplies plausibly thought ‘essential’ to deal with viral pandemics are ‘essential’ to deal with bacterial ones, and vice-versa.

And what if our next big emergency is no pandemic at all, but instead a major earthquake in California or a nuclear attack on the northeast? Many supplies that would then become ‘essential’ differ from those deemed ‘essential’ for dealing with pandemics.

Might success at making us self-sufficient in supplies that are ‘essential’ for dealing with pandemics reduce our inventories of – and shrink our capacity to produce and to import – supplies that are ‘essential’ for dealing with other emergencies?

More generally, even if defining “essential medical supplies for pandemics” were easy, ensuring self-sufficiency in them still requires answers to most of the questions asked in my article.

If, for example, Congress decided that America should be self-sufficient in all personal-protective equipment, our cost of supplying ourselves with such equipment would rise. We would obviously deny ourselves the opportunity to purchase – including for stockpiling – any of these goods from foreign producers who have comparative advantages at producing them. In addition, protecting American producers of these goods from foreign competition would eliminate these producers’ need to surpass, or even to match, whatever innovative improvements in these products are made by foreign producers. Over time the quality of the goods in which we are self-sufficient would fall, and the costs of these goods would rise, relative to what this quality and these costs would otherwise have been.

Is there a maximum price, in terms of reduced quality and higher costs, that Americans should be forced to pay for such self-sufficiency?

Do individuals who advocate any sort of self-sufficiency realize that these and many similar questions must be asked and reasonably answered? Frankly, it seems not. These self-sufficiency advocates simply blurt out demands for outcomes that sound good without giving any evidence of understanding reality’s inescapable practical challenges, political constraints, and economic trade-offs – some potentially tragic.

Sincerely,
Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
and
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030

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