May 21, 2020 Reading Time: 3 minutes

The record shows that the global economy collapsed not because of the COVID-19 pandemic but because governments around the world, through an astonishing and grossly irresponsible use of coercive power, crushed businesses and supply chains. 

Billions of people were suddenly forced into house arrest, government decided what was essential and nonessential, and gatherings of people were regulated to an extreme extent. 

Thus do we live with the catastrophic results. It’s not a great depression. It’s a great suppression. Government set out one day suddenly to demolish the very foundations of liberal modernity. And they achieved this with certainty. 

But did they save lives? Statisticians can find no difference in excess mortality between countries that locked down and those that did not – just as there is no relationship between a dance I do and whether it rains. Governments around the world embarked on a grand experiment in social control based on unproven theories and using untested methods. 

It appears as if no good was achieved by any government in terms of disease mitigation. We are left with wrecked prosperity and ruined lives — plus a massive loss in confidence in public sector solutions all over the world. 

It’s the worst policy of the modern age. And now we are hearing from pundits that the pandemic somehow shows the failure of liberalism. I find this to be a singularly bizarre conclusion. It is not markets which failed but governments. Markets, to the extent they were allowed to exist, gave us food, shelter, and medical care during the worst times. Stock markets continued to function and give us crucial information about resources and valuations. 

This is a triumph, not a failure. 

Perhaps the claim that liberalism has failed is based on the belief that a free society cannot deal with pandemics. In fact, in the course of the 20th century, we have multiple incidences in which disease was handled very well in the context of freedom. Medical professionals got to work and sheltered the vulnerable while mitigating disease through scientific methods. The state stayed out completely in 1949-52, 1957-58, 1968-69, 2006, and 2009. Why we took a different path in 2020 is a mystery. Regardless it was an enormous error. 

The great physician Donald Henderson (1928-2016) was responsible for the eradication of smallpox around the world. He was the greatest living expert on pandemics. His view toward quarantines, travel restrictions, school closures, and restrictions on freedom was 100% negative. His principle was that nothing should ever be done to disrupt normal community functioning. Anything government does to restrict people’s freedom via coercion risks turning a managed pandemic into a “catastrophe.”

That is precisely what has happened. The world will pay the price for decades. This is not the fault of liberalism. It is the fault of terrible decision-making at all levels of society all over the world, with the possible exception of South Korea, Sweden, Japan, and a handful of other countries. This is not a time for more government control. It is time to look again at the foundations of modernity and human rights and once again believe in them and practice them. 

As for disease, no one wants to be sick. No one wants to make others sick unnecessarily. If we understand those two truths, we have the basis for understanding how a free society can deal intelligently with the presence of disease. People adapt and learn. Professionals get to work with therapies and finding cures. What precisely governments can contribute to this process is unclear. 

Economist F.A. Hayek spent a lifetime showing that the essential knowledge necessary to cause society to function and thrive resides in the minds of individual actors. Government is not smarter than society. Nothing is gained by pretending otherwise. 

What is needed now more than ever is an immediate restoration of free trade, free enterprise, freedom of movement, commercial rights, and human rights. It’s a hard truth for governments to admit right now but they have failed all over the world. They need to admit it and leave us alone to restore prosperity and health. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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