In my December 16th, 2008, column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review I argued against the conventional wisdom that, back during that crisis, insisted on the necessity of a government bailout of U.S. automakers. You can read my column beneath the fold.

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George Will rightly laments the turbo-charging that crises give to the collectivist temptation. A slice:

Today’s pandemic has simultaneously inflicted the isolation of “social distancing” and the social solidarity of shared anxiety. In tandem, these have exacerbated a tendency that was already infecting America’s body politic before the virus insinuated itself into many bodies and every consciousness.

It is the recurring longing for escape from individualism, with its burden of personal responsibility. It includes a concomitant desire for immersive politics, whereby people infuse their lives with synthetic meaning by enlisting in mass movements or collective efforts. These usually derive their unity from a clear and present danger or, when that is lacking, from national, ethnic, racial or class resentments (e.g., Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s not-so-very-different populisms of those who feel victimized).

Iain Murray explains that regulations by government, not offshoring by businesses, is the real obstacle today to directing more economic activity to meet the demands created by the spread of COVID-19.

Joakim Book explains that pandemics do not spread exponentially.

Jeffrey Tucker injects relevant information into the chaos of confusion regarding the coronavirus.

Scott Sumner argues that humanity’s experience with COVID-19 could be a boost for libertarianism. (I’m less optimistic on this front than is Scott, but I do hope that he’s correct.)

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… is from pages 134-135 of Matt Ridley’s excellent 2015 volume, The Evolution of Everything:

Again and again, once you examine the history of innovation, you find scientific breakthroughs as the effect, not the cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam engine. The flowering of chemistry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was driven by the needs of dye-makers. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

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… is from page 248 of George Will’s 2019 volume, The Conservative Sensibility:

Most of what makes up society, and most of what is most important in society, is the result of choices too numerous to count, not the planned intention of any individual or group of individuals. Hence the law postulated by Robert Conquest, the historian and poet: Everyone is conservative about that which he or she knows the most about. This is so because when one knows something well, one knows its complex antecedents and evolution.

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Trump: Too Easy an Excuse and Target

by Don Boudreaux on April 4, 2020

in Current Affairs, Media

Even only-occasional readers of this blog know that I am no fan of Donald Trump. I never have been a fan. I never will be a fan. Quite the opposite. And at the risk of appearing arrogant, I doubt that many people have been more harshly and consistently – indeed, obsessively, repetitively, tiresomely – critical of his trade policies than I have been. Trump’s ignorance (not least of, but not exclusively of, economics) is bottomless and his economic nationalism is disgraceful.

And yet I disapprove of, and fear, the anti-Trumpism that is now stampeding madly throughout the news media and punditry-land. Every real or imagined failure of government to prepare for, to anticipate, to warn of, and to deal with the spread both of COVID-19 and of the resulting public fear is conveniently blamed on Trump. Too conveniently, I’ve become convinced.

“Things would be much better now if only we’d had a better person as president,” the lazy thinking seems to be.

One major danger of this particular blame-game is that it creates the impression that little or no deep thinking about this crisis need be done. All or most problems are caused by Trump’s incompetence, megalomania, and evil mien. End of story. There’s no need, therefore, to question objectively the incentive structures within government agencies and within legislatures. Also, there’s no need to investigate carefully whatever changes in incentives and constraints are created in private markets by taxes and government spending, proscriptions, and prescriptions.

There’s no need for any such hard-nosed analysis because we all know the chief reason for any and all problems: President Donald J. Trump.

Would matters be better today if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election? Or if Barack Obama had been anointed to serve a third term? Or if Ronald Reagan or George Washington had been resurrected and ensconced in the Oval Office? Maybe. But if so the improvement would have been small. We Americans would still be in a heap of trouble.

Trump did not create the FDA, the CDC, or any of the countless occupational-licensing and certificate-of-need restrictions. Trump, being governor of no state, has imposed no stay-at-home diktats on private Americans. Trump isn’t the author of federalism. Trump did not create COVID-19. Nor did he bring this virus to the U.S.

As best as I can judge, a Pres. Clinton (H. or B.) or Pres. Obama or Pres. Biden or Sanders or Warren or Klobuchar in this moment would likely have done some things better than Trump, but also would likely have done some things worse. The social-engineering itch of modern-day Democrats would have prevented any of them from easing some of the regulations that Trump justifiably eased, and would perhaps have, in addition, moved them to impose restraints and restrictions that Trump never dreamed of and which – although surely these would have been greeted with “Oooohs” and “Ahhhs” from the intellectual and entertainment-world elite – would perhaps have inflicted even graver damage on the economy than that which we are enduring now.

As matters stand, however, Trump is the excuse. It’s lazy. It’s largely mistaken. And, as such, it’s dangerous. But it’s oh-so convenient and cool.

……

The above post is not a defense of Trump. I have no interest in defending the man, for I dislike him thoroughly. It is, instead, a criticism of the media. It’s a lament of the media’s laziness and mindlessness – of their reversion to the path-of-least resistance of blaming Trump – of the media’s habit of following the popular practice of explaining outcomes as being exclusively the results of the personalities of relevant actors and of those actors’ intentions. Members of the media should practice what they preach and be more mindful, more thoughtful, more analytical, more rational than Trump. It’s a shame that so many people in the media now are, at bottom, akin to him in their enthusiastic embrace of thoughtless prejudices.

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… is from the third entry of Roger Koppl’s important EconLog series titled “Pandemics and the Problem of Expert Failure” (link original):

But questioning is precisely what we need in crises. In his essay, “What is Science?” Richard Feynman remarked “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” When we give experts power, including the power to decide who the experts are, we choke off science. The premise of a rigid hierarchy of knowers is mistaken. The knowledge we need in normal times and crisis times alike is distributed. It’s out there in thee and me and in all our habits practices and experience. It is not a set of instructions and doctrines coming from on high. It arises of its own from our many decentralized interactions. 

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… how many more hospital beds would there be in America today if hospitals were free to open without first having to meet certificate-of-need (CON) requirements? Asked differently, how much potential hospital-bed capacity in the United States was destroyed by CON restrictions?

And how much blame for concerns about hospital-bed shortages will be aimed by politicians and the media at Certificate-of-Need restrictions?

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Peter Hitchens makes the case that the cure is worse than the disease. A slice:

What I have been surprised by is how little examination there has been to whether there is any logic to this. It is as if you went to the doctor with measles and the doctor said that this was serious measles and the only treatment for it is to cut off your left leg. And he cuts off your left leg and then later on, you recover from the measles and he says, ‘This is fantastic. I’ve cured you of the measles, sorry about your leg.’ That is more or less what is going on now.

My intrepid Mercatus Center colleague Veronique de Rugy is justifiably displeased with the power still exercised by freedom-exorcising bureaucrats. A slice:

Just a few weeks ago, a Springfield, Virginia, woman who ran an internet clothing business from her home was forced by the city to shut down because the local zoning doesn’t permit “retail sales establishments” in people’s homes—even if those sales only occur online. She’s already lost $30,000 of her income. In these times of great uncertainty, we should be doing everything we can to make it easier for people to find and sustain work—not turning honest, hardworking people into outlaws.

The lesson of the story is that during a pandemic life as we knew it is gone, but bureaucrats as we know them stay annoyingly the same.

Here’s Dan Mitchell on the importance of keeping airlines and other businesses from falling yet further under the control of government.

John Tamny argues that governments’ actions during the coronavirus crisis should turn everyone into a libertarian.

Here’s part 3 of Roger Koppl’s important series of posts at EconLog, “Pandemics and the Problem of Expert Failure.”

Among the still-too-small but hearty band of people who write sensibly, soberly, clearly, and wisely about the COVID-19 panic is Arnold Kling. Don’t miss – truly, do not miss – for example, here and here and here and here.

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… is from page 183 of Arthur Diamond, Jr.’s excellent 2019 book, Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism (footnote deleted):

Steve Wozniak was one of the best inventors of our time. But he candidly admitted that even the best cannot see out beyond two years. The problem is that innovators cannot fully predict which of their own current innovations will pan out, and they cannot predict what new innovations they will come up with in the future. And even less can they predict the new innovations of others.

What we do know is that in the past, open institutions and policies have resulted in wonderful new goods and services. Based on that, we can predict with a high degree of confidence that if open institutions and policies continue, we will continue to benefit from wonderful new goods and services.

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In my current column for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (which will be my final one for that splendid publication) I challenge the popular notion – one unsurprisingly pushed by Trump’s trade advisors – that the U.S. government should restrict Americans’ trade to ensure that we Americans produce all of our “essential medicines.” A slice:

Consider a drug with no substitutes and a 90% chance of working. Is this drug sufficiently essential to justify government preventing Americans from importing lower-cost versions of it? Many people will answer “yes.” But what if this drug’s chances of working are only 50%? Or a paltry 5%?

If you encounter difficulty answering such questions, the reason is not just that there’s no objective point at which a drug’s success rate transforms it from inessential to essential. Any such question is difficult to answer because a “correct” answer depends also upon just what illness a particular drug treats.

Which of the following four drugs, if any, would you classify as essential: one with a 0.1% chance of curing covid-19; one with a 10% chance of curing covid-19; one with a 40% chance of curing leukemia; one with a 100% chance of curing toenail fungus?

You’re more astute than me if you have a sure answer to this question.

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