The Pandemic in Europe and America

The pandemic evolution now appears to be more worrying in Europe than in America, as illustrated by the graph below reproduced from yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (Marcus Walker, Bertrand Benoit, and Stacy Meichtry, “Europe Confronts a Covid-19 Rebound as Vaccine Hopes Recede,” March 12, 2021). In France, for example, after two very long and restrictive (even tyrannical) national lockdowns, ICUs are close to 80% capacity. The Wall Street Journal explains:

Europe’s efforts continue to suffer from the EU’s slowness in procuring and approving vaccines, production delays at vaccine makers, and bureaucratic holdups in injecting available doses.

The “production delays at vaccine makers” are most likely due to the fact that the EU government has not purchased them in time while, of course, there as in America, individuals and private organizations cannot purchase them.

Those who have read Ayn Rand’s famous novel may wonder if Atlas is shrugging more visibly in Europe than in America. As for those Europeans who put all their faith in an omniscient and all-powerful welfare state, they seem deeply disappointed (although they may be asking for more). In Germany, 30% don’t trust the competence of Angela Merkel’s center-right government and trust even less her center-left parliamentary allies.

The progression of new covid variants in Europe may be an immediate culprit, but a major reason for that is that European governments, under the punctilious EU government, have been slower than the US government in making vaccines widely available to the public.

Yet, the vaccine rollout in America has not been a marvel of federal or state planning. Four months after Pfizer announced the completion of its clinical trial, three months and a half after it started delivering doses to the United States, and three months after the vaccine was approved by the FDA, only 10% of Americans are fully vaccinated and another 10% have received a first dose (according to data from the Wall Street Journal). As far as we can see, this was, although not exactly warp speed, fast enough to prevent the variants from outrunning the building of herd immunity. This relative American success was achieved with much fewer restrictions to individual liberties than in most European countries. Federalism and popular resistance have been a big advantage.

It is notable that Pfizer and its partner BioNTech were not full-fledged participants in Operation Warp Speed. Pfizer did not accept research funding to develop its vaccine. The New York Times explained (“Was the Pfizer Vaccine Part of the Government’s Operation Warp Speed?” November 10, 2020):

In July [2020], Pfizer got a $1.95 billion deal with the government’s Operation Warp Speed, the multiagency effort to rush a vaccine to market, to deliver 100 million doses of the vaccine. The arrangement is an advance-purchase agreement, meaning that the company won’t get paid until they deliver the vaccines. Pfizer did not accept federal funding to help develop or manufacture the vaccine, unlike front-runners Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla made that clear (see “Leading Covid-9 Vaccine Makers Pfizer and Moderna Decline Invitations to White Summit ‘Vaccine Summit’,” Stat, December 7, 2020):

Bourla later defended the decision to decline federal research and development funding, citing a desire to “liberate our scientists from any bureaucracy” and “keep Pfizer out of politics.”

Except perhaps for that, the pandemic does not provide a strong confirmation of the benefits of American free enterprise. There may be more free enterprise in America than in Europe, but it’s a matter of degree. In America too, the distribution of the vaccines has been basically a governmental affair. And think about the “price-gouging” laws that have prevented market price adjustments in 42 states, not counting the Defense Production Act at the federal level. (See Rik Chakraborti and Gavin Roberts, “Anti-Gouging Laws, Shortages, and Covid-19,” Journal of Private Enterprise 35:4 (2020), pp. 1-20.)

Perhaps the administrative-welfare state, in both Europe and America, is not as good as we thought?


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Amity Shlaes and the challenges for free market scholars

In 2018, Amity Shlaes had an impressive essay in the City Journal. I’ve read it only now because it was published on the City Journal’s website. That is quite apropos, given the controversy surrounding US history at the moment.

Shlaes’s thesis is outlined in the very first lines:

Free marketeers may sometimes win elections, but they are not winning U.S. history. In recent years, the consensus regarding the American past has slipped leftward, and then leftward again.” Freedom is under appreciated in academia, equality is over appreciated: this is building a narrative that emphasizes political fights for equality at the expense of the springs of economic opportunity.

Shlaes focuses on top political figures. Her hero, to whom she devoted a splendid biography, is Calvin Coolidge, Coolidge is described in the article as a staunch fighter for economic freedom, who put “markets first,” understanding their power in creating prosperity. He reversed the quite inauspicious beginning of the 1920s through tax cuts which worked as they are supposed to, according to the supply-side playbook. A sort of anti-hero is Herbert Hoover (“Hoover thoroughly intimidated business and markets, blaming them for hogging too much of the money”) and an even bigger anti-hero is Lyndon Johnson, who simply “assumed growth”, thinking that free enterprise would produce its marvels whatever the incentives.

The essay finishes with a plea to “fostering of new institutions that will, in turn, nurture economics thinkers who dare to acknowledge the merits of markets.” I’d be interested in Shlaes’s view, two years after her piece, about how we are doing toady. Has the pandemic weakened or strengthened those institutions? Can the intellectual movement for free enterprise flourish after Covid19? Or is it substantially more feeble and less cogent now, both in the fields of history and economics?


Editor’s Note: Shlaes recorded a podcast with Law & Liberty focused on her Coolidge biography.


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Free Enterprise: A Daring New Year Wish

A December 28 report in the Wall Street Journal illustrates (again) how a wish for free enterprise in America is not like carrying coals to Newcastle (see Charles Passy, “New York to Penalize Health-Care Providers $1 Million for Covid-19 Vaccine Fraud“). For Mr. Cuomo, who drinks at the zeitgeist of our times, “fraud” simply means what the government does not like. A few excerpts:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday he will sign an executive order to penalize health-care providers that administer the Covid-19 vaccine without following state prioritization protocols. … Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said that providers that ignore this will face fines of up to $1 million and a revocation of all state licenses. …

State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said over the weekend that ParCare was being investigated by the state police for possibly obtaining the vaccine fraudulently and then transferring it to other parts of the state and administering it to the public without paying heed to the prioritization rules. …

Mr. Cuomo said he wasn’t surprised that issues are already arising with health-care providers potentially violating state mandates with vaccine prioritization.

“You’re going to see more and more of this. The vaccine is a valuable commodity,” he said.

The first two paragraphs cannot but remind us of the old USSR government, the mother of all persecut0rs of those who don’t respect “state prioritazition protocols.” Why shouldn’t groceries, say, be allowed to ignore  “state prioritazition protocols” on food allocation? But fascism may be a more relevant reference than communism since the former allowed more tightly-controlled private businesses than the latter, as Lawrence Dennis argued.

The last two paragraphs remind us that, indeed, any commodity that many people consider valuable and which the state tries to control is going soon be the object of smuggling—what statocrats call “fraud”—for the benefit of individuals who want it and are willing to pay for it.

Should vaccines first go to cops or to teachers? To the old or to the young? There is no way for a government planner to make an efficient decision on this if only because there are some among individual teachers and some among the old who would be willing to sacrifice more to be vaccinated than other members of the groups to which the state arbitrarily identifies them. What if Google wants to buy vaccines for all its employees? What if a charitable organization wants to purchase some for its poor clientèle? As my co-blogger Scott Sumner just argued, the price mechanism is more efficient and even more just (if we want to jump in the undecided philosophical debates that have been raging for 25 centuries) than decisions made by politicians and bureaucrats.

Moreover, if the available vaccines were sold to the highest bidders (like beef, cars, or shoes) noting would (or, in the current emergency, should) prohibit the government from bidding in the same market, but without prohibiting others to do the same. The market exclusion that the governor of New York advocates seems alas natural to most people. It always strikes me how inclusion-obsessed activists work to exclude so many people.

The current situation is economically inefficient, morally questionable if not absurd, and dangerous for social peace. The federal government distributes the vaccines to the state governments, with all the vagaries of state distribution systems. State governments then add another layer, albeit variable, of inefficiency and authoritarianism by deciding who among their citizens will get the vaccine and who will, in the best case, have to wait their turn. (See Dan Frosch, Elizabeth Findell, and Peter Loftus, “As Covid-19 Vaccins Roll Out, States to Determine Who Gets Shots First,” December 9, 2020.)

Yet, isn’t an emergency situation like a pandemic different? A long (classical) liberal tradition from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman would answer yes. But—and here lies the big difference—liberals would not forbid free markets and voluntary cooperation to coexist with justifiable government intervention. A free market will insure, through the profit motive, that more vaccines are available, while not banning the free expression of individual preferences according to different personal circumstances. As I just argued, the government could bid against its own citizens, as when it buys anything (including labor services) on the market, but without prohibiting them from outbidding it.

Classical liberals and many more radical libertarians share a common ideal: the presumption of liberty, which can only be overcome when restrictions are necessary to protect liberty itself, or something to that effect. In a major crisis (and Covid-19 is probably one), such restrictions may be warranted if they don’t seriously undermine liberty—for now or for the future. This being said, there is room for disagreement in the liberal-libertarian tent. (In a Café Hayek post of yesterday, Don Boudreaux articulates a libertarian position on the conditions of the presumption of liberty.)

Everybody in the tent must wish that economic freedom and free enterprise will not continue to be so tightly shackled in 2021.


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Who Owns Your Genes?

Doctor He Jiankui was sentenced to a three year prison term, fined $430,000, and fired from his academic position as Associate Professor at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China. Did he engage in groping a patient? No. Poisoning a client? Again, no. According to the official Chinese Xinhua News Agency, Dr. He and two others, Zhang Renli and Qin Jinzhou, were convicted of gene editing fetuses.

His clients were a healthy mother and a father who was HIV positive. Dr. He engineered the genes of their twin girl babies so they would be resistant to HIV..

At the outset, this appears to be an agreement between consenting adults to engage in a capitalist act. The couple knew of the risks involved in this new medical technology. According to the defense, He did not hide these from the mother and father. They agreed to the procedure since they weighed the dangers of AIDS for their daughters more heavily than the perils of the new, unproven, technique.

Why, then, were He and his two colleagues arrested and convicted? It is all too easy to surmise that this was done because it occurred in China, withits reputation as a lawless country. The fact of the matter is that if He had performed this CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing operation in the United States, a similar fate would have befallen him. This is because the Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved of this technique for human beings in terms of reproduction.

What are we to make of all of this? Let us adopt a set of private property rights economic freedom spectacles through which we can best perceive all such controversial acts. We start by asking, who were the owners of the property in question? This, presumably, would be the parents. Did they receive informed consent from the supplier of the service? Not according to the local Shenzhen court. Let us, however, abstract from this finding. Instead, we adopt a Platonic perspective. This is because although we are indeed interested in this one case, we also want to derive a principle to deal with all such violations of the law. So let us assume that there was no fraud involved here.

Should He and his colleagues have then been found guilty? Well, they did break an extant law. This leads to another question: is it a proper law that prohibits voluntary trades of this or any sort? The answer emanating from the free enterprise philosophy is a clear “No.” Rather, this would be a victimless crime, and all those even properly found guilty of violating it, should be set free.

Was there a victim here? Yes, possibly. If the dangers of this procedure were indeed of greater moment than these two children suffering from AIDS, then, yes, they might be considered victims. After all, one day that now manageable disease might be fully cured. But this is clearly a judgement call upon which reasonable people can disagree. The parents would certainly not be guilty of child abuse even were this contrary to fact conditional to come into being. They were doing what they thought best for their children.

What of the doctors involved? It is difficult to see them in any other way than as heroes. They put their careers and their freedom on the line, in order to help this mother and father be good guardians. Yes, Dr. He jumped the legal gun, whether that of the FDA in the United States, or its Chinese counterpart. But the monopoly powers of these government bodies are incompatible with the free enterprise ethic through which we are viewing their behavior. These organizations, too, can err. But when they do (thalidomide, anyone?) they carry on merrily into the sunset. They cannot be bankrupted through erroneous decisions. That is no way to run a railroad.

Walter E. Block is the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and Professor of Economics at Loyola University New Orleans.


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