Covid-19 vaccinations are finally happening in the United Kingdom. Presumably, they are just around the corner in the United States. With the revelation that “Moderna’s mRNA-1273, which reported a 94.5% efficacy rate on November 16, had been designed by January 13,” I find myself wondering: why, if Moderna designed it eleven months ago, is the vaccine not yet widely available?
The answer: we embraced the Bureaucratic Deal, and all we have to show for it is a million and a half deaths worldwide, a wrecked global economy, surging suicidal ideation, fraying social fabric as friends and family members scream at each other about masking protocols, a literal police state, and further collateral damage. These things happened because we decided that drug development, certification, and quality control are “too important to leave to the market.” As John Cochrane points out in an excellent recent post, “All of this cost stems from one thing–the ban on using any medicine before the FDA approves it.” The Bureaucratic Deal, in other words.
What, exactly, is the Bureaucratic Deal? In our book Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich: How the Bourgeois Deal Enriched the World, Deirdre McCloskey and I compare the Bourgeois Deal, which effectively says, “Leave me alone to buy low, sell high, and innovate, and in the end, I will have made you rich” to several other deals, one of which is the Bureaucratic Deal “offered by the administrative state–betterment by permission, in contrast to the permissionless betterment of the Bourgeois Deal.” The Bureaucratic Deal says
“Honor me, an expert by possession of a master’s degree, and give me the power to tax and regulate you in the first act, and also in the second, and all subsequent acts. I forbid you under penalty of laws (which we experts write) from seeking a better deal, such as moving your factory to Mexico, shifting your money to the Cayman Islands, operating your business without a governmental license (which I give out), or working for less than a decreed minimum (which I determine). If you follow my orders and keep paying your taxes, then by the third and subsequent acts I will at least not have jailed you.”
The Bureaucratic Deal, in short, means rule by credentialed technocrats who know better than you what is good for you.
“Some people will make bad choices, though.” No doubt. I make many poor choices myself. However, I don’t think we can prohibit people from making good choices because some people will make bad ones. Alex Tabarrok writes that he is “getting very angry” at the actors in the hygiene theater. They delay vaccine approval so that the general public will feel like it is safe. As he writes, “We should not let public policy be guided by the most risk-averse, fearful, and scientifically illiterate among us. Letting the fearful lead is a recipe for stagnation, mediocrity, and eventual collapse.” I agree.
“Well, hindsight is 20/20,” you might say. That’s true, and the “right” answers weren’t apparent in January, February, or March. However, the regulatory regime deliberately obstructed people’s ability to exercise foresight by putting barriers in the way of experimentation and medical progress. Experts can advise, but it is a mistake to think they can control.
One of my favorite passages in The Wealth of Nations speaks to this. Adam Smith’s criticism of the presumptuous statesman who is loading himself with most unnecessary attention:
“The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.” (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, IV.2.10)
The Covid-Industrial bureaucratic state is doing just that. It is assembling statesmen who think themselves fit and able to direct private people how they ought to employ their capitals. That the attention is most unnecessary is precisely why freedom matters so much. Moreover, by loading themselves with a most unnecessary attention, these statesmen are slowing things down rather than speeding things up, as David Henderson explains in a recent article for Defining Ideas. They do so intentionally by putting, as California has done, another expert approval committee between the vaccine and those who want it. They do it unintentionally by taking the response to the most critical public health emergency of the century and making it move at the speed of bureaucracy. Every stage in the planning-and-distribution process is wide open for corruption, rent-seeking, and politically-motivated distribution. The Bureaucratic Deal has created a public health debacle.
So what is to be done? Enter the Bourgeois Deal: “Leave me alone and I’ll make you rich”–or in this case, leave me alone, and I’ll protect you from Covid-19 when you’re ready for it.” “The free-market way,” Cochrane notes, would be “A drug company can sell a vaccine on January 14, and you can buy it, without fear of going to jail.” Would it have gone flawlessly? No, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation and a world, no matter how free. However, drug certification and quality control are too important to leave to the Bureaucratic-Dealing administrative state.
When our children and grandchildren look back on 2020, I hope they see how much of it probably could have been avoided had we embraced the Bourgeois Deal rather than the Bureaucratic Deal in the face of Covid-19. A lot more people probably would have lived to tell about it. Or better yet, had vaccines been distributed earlier, they might not have a pandemic to look back on.