March 19, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Before the COVID-19 panic struck in March 2020, many Americans were already disgruntled with major institutions and leaders, from POTUS to SCOTUS and Congress to the value of college and healthcare. While few could articulate the problems with the nation’s healthcare, higher education, or retirement policies, many sensed they were being expropriated. Some were beginning to think seriously about secession and a few began to chronicle the “long train of abuses and usurpations” needed to justify a Lockean revolution.

Most Americans, though, were fat (literally) and happy (in the sense of being prosperous) and easily distracted by the modern circuses called sports. While palpably imperfect, life was good, or at least good enough to remain peaceful. Widely available alcohol, marijuana, opiates, and “happy pills” acted much like soma in A Brave New World, while Twitter and Facebook allowed millions to vent in ways that made them feel, if not important, at least heard by some small fraction of the herd.

In mid-March 2020, government fiat and private panic stripped away much of that status quo ante virus. Collegiate basketball March Madness gave way to a pernicious March madness devoid of beloved and distracting sports and the associated gambling, which if nothing else provided the hope of instant riches. That same misunderstanding of elementary statistics now has many fearful of early death.

Due to dramatic declines in the stock market, Americans no longer feel very wealthy and fret about their future income. After enjoying extended spring breaks, most college students find themselves thrust into sterile online classes that provide little of the social or intellectual stimulation they crave. 

Seniors wonder if standing job offers will be honored and how they will repay their student loans if they are not. Many of their parents also wonder if they will have jobs much longer. Those reliant on chemical substances, prescribed or not, wonder if they will be able to resupply.

Thankfully, the Internet fills many of those cracks in the old edifice. Many knowledge workers can maintain, and even increase, their productivity by working from home. Streaming services provide numerous distractions and diversions. As long as production and delivery services continue, food and supplies can be ordered online. Moreover, social media platforms find themselves enlivened by people who usually have better things to do.

If the Internet and essential services like electricity, water, and payments remain up and restrictions on civil liberties (travel bans, shelter in place orders, etc.) soon end the spread of the virus, Americans will simply have moved a small step closer towards revolution. 

Watergate and Vietnam will fade from collective memory, replaced by memories of the failures of 9-11, the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the financial panic of 2008, the Obamacare rollout fiasco, and the botched early reaction to COVID-19. 

Calls for a multitude of reforms will ring out Left and Right but, aside from some administrative and budget reshuffling, little of structural consequence will likely occur and the nation’s fate will rest on the timing and nature of its next crisis.

If government responses to the pandemic remain in place but fail to stop its spread, however, pre-existing doubts about the efficacy of major institutions could burgeon into a crisis of legitimacy. Dissent would start on the Internet but if it goes down, due to cyber virus, censorship, or other causes, its absence would foment acts of civil disobedience because, frankly, there would be few other ways for people to vent their anger or fill their long, lonely hours. Loss of electrical, fuel, food, or water services would compound anger with fear.

Traditional street demonstrations would spread the virus rapidly, achieving spontaneous herd immunity at the cost of overtaxing a healthcare infrastructure weakened by decades of CONs (certificates of need) and other barriers to entry. Acts of civil disobedience that adhere to the emergent norms of social distancing, by contrast, would not help to spread the virus as rapidly but would be extremely difficult to stop because they would entail geographically spread street demonstrations or acts of violence or vandalism perpetrated by small groups of insurgents or lone wolves.

The next phase would probably vary over different parts of the country. Some state and local governments would be able to reassert authority by force or moral suasion. Other areas might descend into anarchy, followed by the emergence of local strong men, likely from the ranks of “preppers” with military experience. 

Others might reestablish order by forming new governments under new constitutions. Any attempt by the federal government to use force on American citizens would strengthen their resolve to dissolve ties with Washington and could foment a partial or full coup, the nature of which would dictate the next phase of the revolution.

While such dire outcomes may seem fanciful at this point, a month ago Americans found the prospect of widespread lockdowns and economic meltdown unthinkable. It is far better to confront threats with reasonable action than to dismiss them because they seem unlikely or are unpleasant to think about. That sort of thinking is what got us into this mess in the first place!

Obviously, governments must do everything possible to keep potable water, electricity and other forms of energy, food and medicine, and information flowing, which means ensuring that the sundry private and public entities that provide those goods have sufficient liquidity to pay programmers, engineers, and other essential workers whatever it takes to induce their maximum effort. 

Foreign workers and those with relevant job experience should be allowed to work by eliminating all professional licensing or union contract barriers for the duration of the pandemic. (Unions can be cowed into temporary acceptance as they were during World War II.) 

Low central bank interest rates are meaningless if lenders are afraid to lend so governments should guarantee loans to essential entities or even pay banks a bonus for making such loans. Yes, markets will be distorted but efficiency concerns need to give way to maintenance of essential services during the crisis period. In addition, utilities like PG&E need assurances that laws, court decisions, and administrative rules that incentivize them to initiate rolling blackouts and such will be suspended for the duration.

In fact, it is an opportune time for the government to promise that economic freedom will be increased across the board once the crisis has abated. To the extent that such a promise is seen as credible, it will do wonders to restore equity valuations, much more than the decrease in interest rates did because it will raise expected future income streams instead of just adjusting the discount factor. With their balance sheets at least partially restored, Americans will be much more likely to continue support for the current regime should sporadic rioting or other forms of civil disobedience occur because they will again have “skin in the game.”

How governments can credibly commit to widespread economic “repression easing” post-crisis is a difficult problem given widespread pre-crisis mistrust combined with obvious incentives for politicians to lie at this critical juncture. 

Personal pledges not to seek re-election if specific goals, like increasing the economic freedom score of a state or the national government to at least 9.0, are not reached in a reasonable period, say 2024 or 2028, would help if many prominent politicians signed on in a solemn and non-ideological fashion. Execution of performance bonds tied to the pledge would further increase credibility.

Finally, if travel and commercial restrictions do not stop the rapid spread of the disease, at some point, sooner rather than later, the government needs to own that fact, restore civil liberties, admit that it failed to provide one of the few clear public goods entrusted to it by all (like an ample supply of accurate tests!), and suffer the political consequences from rising (or perhaps even more damaging not rising) death tolls. 

Compounding one mistake – allowing mission creep to divert resources away from the government’s presumed public health mandate – with another (unduly restricting civil liberties in a desperate attempt to make up for the first failure) is a recipe for revolution. That’s a putrid dish that nobody wants but that, like COVID-19 itself, we might get served anyway.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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