No one ever claimed that the path to freedom was untroubled by rocks in the road, but the corona pandemic has put added potholes and big detours in freedom’s path. We need to be observant of the risks that have now been created by the massive “step-in” of Government. Perhaps, the most amazing aspect has been the willingness of so many Americans to give over their personal responsibilities and ambitions to the cabal of politicians who in recent years they had learned to distrust. This is a bi-partisan, if misguided, delusion–––by the voters. They had previously demonstrated extreme disgust with the antics in Washington (and in many State Capitols in 2016), but the virus has thrown an unexpected curve ball at that stance. Fear of the unknown is a great mobilizer for giving up one’s personal controls over the conditions of life. More problems than additional infections and deaths is the current willingness to surrender control over our lives, and this terror has not been confined to individuals. Many corporate leaders, not seeing an immediate way out of the morass that lockdowns have created, are now on a pleading platform hoping to save what is left of their companies and their own power.
Coronaviruses–––there have been more than a few–––have crippling effects precisely because developing proper pharmaceutical treatment, let alone efficacious vaccines, has been a monumental task for even the best of the “biopharmas.”1 Believers in the efficacy of Government over Markets can point to the Manhattan Project and the claims that DARPA created the Internet as evidence that a properly marshaled government can perform wonderful magic when pressed into service. But is that a question of organization or an unlimited budget, untroubled by the personal concerns of private business for an adequate return to investment capital? Surely, we should distinguish between a war mentality that pits our survival as a nation as justification for Government takeovers and what we truly face, ugly though it may be, with COVID-19? Our national survival is not at stake.
No one should ignore the deaths that the virus has caused or is likely to cause before this particularly ugly pandemic has receded. As we currently approach some 70,000 deaths in the US caused by COVID-19, we are unpleasantly reminded that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. That said, adequate preparation for rare events is not particularly a virtue that Government has demonstrated. On the contrary, Government has been caught out more frequently than not when confronted with a rapid change in geopolitics, pandemics, or rapid technological change. That is in the nature of a free state governed by modest checks and balances. There will always be new dangers and questionable responses. Freedom is not a free lunch. We pay for our freedom by allowing multiple sources of information…and the threat that is insidious is to suppress the vast amounts of information that markets provide merely by their operation. Government may be a poor example of a first responder.
There are always post event claims of the “gurudom,” voices unlistened to at an early time, but Government is always and anywhere a late starter and then an information suppressor. Risk management occurs in private business because of the necessity of a budget restraints and the claims of equity and debt holders on current earnings coupled to the limits of corporate saving. That is how it should be. Failure in corporate or personal business is a great, even if unplanned, source of innovation. Yet, innovation is the mechanism that produces a better life for our specie. We learn, often through tragic circumstances, where not to reside, which natural flora and fauna are dangerous to our health, and which devices are likely to help us when we are surrounded by dangers to our survival. We do it piecemeal, and the uphill road to knowledge and control is fraught with many setbacks. However, the human condition is built on learning and progressing diversified by our experience in many different environments. That cumulative learning curve is our human history..
In military affairs, the State is often the driver of technology change, but there too, the State stumbles and often goes down roads to dead ends. In the worst of cases, we see the State collapse when it cannot marshal sufficient technologies or manpower or bureaucratic organization to overcome its adversaries. That is an important historical marker that should caution us to rely solely on the State organization of science, technology, production, and distribution. There is simply no way centralized government planning can duplicate the massive information production and distribution that a myriad of private markets provides nor the ever-present incentives to innovate when sufficient information is available. State planning often relies on very imperfect information and then commits vast quantities of resources chasing down roads to nowhere.
While it is true that there some counterexamples to these State-generated failures, it is more often than that States bury false moves and strategies until the light of historical research finally highlights them…often generations later. Sometimes, we attribute these cover-ups as the result of poor leadership, but that is truly another kind of error. With the power to marshal State resources, most leaders that go down false paths do not willingly provide evidence of their errors and there is no market response that normally would be self-correcting when error produces loss. In the most violent examples, States that find individuals who disagree with policy or judgment calls on the direction of technology or strategy use State violence to suppress alternative interpretations of facts and policies. Stalin murdered Tukhachevsky—his erstwhile former leading general of WWI—-prior to the advent of WWII. While the US doesn’t murder dissident military leaders, it does punish those out of step leaders who want to pursue alternatives not endorsed by the current ruling military clique. Hello Billy Mitchell, and George Patton—-you have great company with Winston Churchill.
That is the nature of Government—-it severely punishes dissenters within. Furthermore, it is hard for Government to finance and nurture alternative paths under the duress of military survival—-precisely what markets do every day. Great discoveries come from mavericks who throw out conventional wisdom because their failures are personal, not societal. Government failure can be societal precisely because once we hand over markets to Government, there are few outside alternatives to the Government ”truth!”
That is where the real danger lies today. Ironically, in spite of manifold distortions of truth and information, even this much criticized Administration has created, albeit by default, some remedy to overall Government takeover. Our Federal system allows, in fact, commands, many sources of alternative information and activity. Those politicians who demand a National Policy for fighting the corona virus miss the virtue of multiple attempts by State and local leaders—-and that provides an unending stream of useful information over what works and what fails. This administration has stumbled into the virtues of multi-pronged efforts by State governments probably because of its own lack of risk management much earlier in the game. Unfortunately, the current wisdom was that Lockdown was the appropriate death-mitigation model. That may turn out to be a half-truth if we find that restarting the American economy becomes a painful experience.
In the long postmortem on failed Viet Nam strategies, many military historians concluded that the massive firepower of the Westmoreland approach was inappropriate and devastatingly counterproductive. Early attempts at small local groups invested in the local communities—-a strategy vigorously asserted by our then chief of the Marine Corp—was squelched by the Johnson administration in favor of massive aerial bombing and huge suppression of the Viet Cong by tanks and napalm.2 Protecting the people from the Viet Cong was abandoned by a fixation on body counts. That massive kill strategy ignored the politics of collateral damage.
The US has finally learned that massive power projections often have countervailing downsides. We now try with small groups of tactically distributed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, with much better results and much lower collateral costs. We do learn—-but it is a painful learning experience for both for our military forces and for the residents of countries torn apart by conflict.
Somehow, whether because of crony capitalism or national leadership failure, it seems there are now prospects of utilizing markets to deal with the treatment and vaccine development to fight COVID-19. By default, we are unleashing many non-governmental firms to search out the myriad of possible pharmaceutical answers to this pandemic. It is highly probable that we will learn more quickly with less direct expense than by a massive single effort by our national government agencies. That is what markets are good at. They sort out multiple paths. They follow small bits of information that possibly can be profitable as well as efficacious.
Sadly, some of the current drift toward collectivization is suffused with claims that profits will interfere with efficacy—-nothing is further from the truth than this canard. Bureaucratic collectivization is the long trod path of singular direction. The next battle will be the socially powerful claim to controlling the profits of the pharmaceuticals taking the risks ancillary to developing treatment and vaccines. This is the old story of Government trying to control the distribution of outcomes (income and wealth) through mechanisms with massive dis-incentives. When it comes to profits, politicians invariably forget old lessons. Killing the goose doesn’t produce new eggs. If the Government wishes to subsidize the cost of treatment or vaccine, it must do it in a way that does not punish the creators of these silver bullets. We don’t need to provide more examples of the Bourbons “learning nothing and forgetting nothing.”
Sadly, the talk in Washington has a punitive theme: “don’t let the drug companies profit from our misery.” Will politicians ever learn how disastrous such a policy can be? Subsidies for use of a drug are one thing. Suppression of pharmaceutical pricing is quite another. This is not a panegyric for unlimited monopoly pricing power. We should expect that private pharma will have a number of remedies for treatment. We want many approaches. Hopefully each will be thoughtfully vetted by good statistical practices and early use limited to medical emergencies until suitable validation is obtained. We will make mistakes. Drugs with subtle contraindications will occur and we will never be perfect in eliminating hard to discover side effects. We can take reasonable precautions, but we should not promote the illusion that there are risk-free treatments or perfect vaccines. In medicine, it is also true that perfect is the enemy of good. To offer such false illusions—-even by well-meant Governmental health officials—-is another road to nowhere.
Ultimately, herd immunity must be the outcome or we will have to live with future episodes of corona virus emergence. What we should demand of Government is rapid response to local upsurges and a willingness to allow multiple paths in emergency situations. We will not be perfect. We never are. But we can do much better than we have done, as long as the learning path is not so obstructed by the “good intentions” of politicians who fail to make necessary cost-benefit calculations. Doing better is a worthwhile goal. Doing it perfectly is an errand for fools.