By John Hood
RALEIGH – I’m a freedom-minded conservative, not an anarchist. I think government is inevitable and necessary, but its legitimate scope and practical powers are rather limited. The many public policy failures during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrate this point well.
For the most part, these failures were about competence, not legitimacy. As I argued when the COVID crisis began, addressing communicable diseases has always been an appropriate exercise of the police power enjoyed by states and localities. And reacting to genuine national emergencies is one of the few powers the federal government rightfully enjoys.
Alas, when it came time to deploy those powers cautiously, public officials mostly missed it. In Washington, the Food and Drug Administration banned private companies from offering rapid tests, then bungled the release of its own test kits. Congress and the executive branch (under Donald Trump and Joe Biden) have run huge budget deficits to fund massive expansions in cash assistance, unemployment insurance, business grants, Medicaid, and health care. assistance to state and local governments.
While some of this largesse might have been justified if it had been wisely spent, that is not how it turned out. Billions of dollars have been paid out to households and businesses that have never been exposed to significant financial risk. A large portion of unemployment insurance payments, up to half in some places, turned out to be fraudulent.
Many states and localities emerged from the pandemic with stacks of (borrowed) federal money that they were unwilling or unable to spend for the originally stated purpose of keeping schools open and avoiding mass layoffs. Indeed, a new study by Jeffrey Clemmens and Philip Hoxie of UC-San Diego and Stan Veuger of the American Enterprise Institute estimated that federal aid amounted to $855,000 per job saved in the governments of the States and locals.
Speaking of school closures, officials in North Carolina and most other places have also misunderstood this policy. Perhaps it was justified to close schools and other essential services during the first weeks of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Much was then unknown about the severity and transmissibility of the coronavirus. But at the start of the 2020-21 school year, it was clear that the costs of the closure, both educationally and economically, far outweighed the health and safety benefits.
As a longtime advocate for restoring the constraints of the federal constitution on Washington and decentralizing power and responsibility to states and localities, I readily admit that the greatest public policy success during the pandemic has been federal: Operation Warp Speed, which used a combination of financial rewards and regulatory relief to encourage the rapid development of effective vaccines by private companies. To the extent that states and localities have facilitated the rapid deployment of vaccines, they too deserve credit.
If you look at COVID death rates adjusted for age, obesity, and other risk factors — and you should only look at the data this way – the statistical relationship between vaccination rates and mortality is unambiguously negative. That is, the vaccines clearly reduced the severity of the disease and somewhat reduced the risk of catching it.
On the other hand, when researchers study state and local policies such as school closures, shutdowns, and limits on public gatherings, they typically find little or no relationship between the stringency of state and local restrictions and the health outcomes. What they tend to find is that places with stricter regulations saw greater job losses during the height of the COVID recession.
While North Carolina and other states have largely recovered from the economic costs of the 2020 and 2021 shutdowns, the same cannot be said for the economic costs of federal government policy mistakes during the pandemic. By adding trillions of dollars to the federal debt while dramatically increasing the money supply, Washington has set the stage for our current inflation crisis as well as the recession that may well follow.
Government coercion is a blunt instrument, best used sparingly. We have just relearned this timeless lesson.
John Hood is a board member of the John Locke Foundation and an author.