The undercounted cost of the COVID pandemic is in the lives lost to despair, addiction, suicide, and other illnesses. Whether people have voluntarily cut off ties, albeit after government officials suggested shutting down for two weeks in March to “flatten the curve,” or were forced to do it by their employer or a government mandate, the lack of human contact has compounded other physical and psychological problems.
Nursing homes that have done a good job preventing COVID infections have instead had more deaths from other causes. People struggling with addiction have fewer places to find help. These are not economic problems, though they have economic effects. Although market advocates argue that businesses and consumers would generally make the right decisions to balance safety and income, or that easing health care regulations has expanded access to care in the pandemic, it is hard to demonstrate how the price mechanism yields more meaning and less despair.
Protecting the vulnerable
Ensuring free and competitive domestic markets is part of a package of protections ensuring broader freedoms — of thought, of action, and of association. These nonmarket freedoms are what make life worth living. Love and friendship, obligations and gifts, joy and pain all exist apart from markets and government, though they exist more where markets have more sway because government is more limited. Something we don’t emphasize nearly enough is that we advocate for markets, liberty, and freedom because they are markers of a healthy society where people can live with dignity, meaning, and purpose. When young people do not have rich interactions with peers and adults, they get lost.
We are all familiar with the concern that markets commoditize life, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Government has a similar but more insidious problem. It is easy see how a company values “profits over people,” as the protester says. It is harder to see the implications when government degrades life into “data and science” to guide policy.
There is a place for government action and assistance, but with caveats. Government provision of money, food, housing, undermines the market, limits the ability of people to think and act freely, and eliminates the personal dependence on others that makes possible rich interactions. It does this all in the name of protecting the most vulnerable. But if government could protect the most vulnerable among us, we would not have had slavery or Dred Scott or Plessy or Blaine amendments or forced sterilization or neighborhoods destroyed by eminent domain or Roe or school closures that close off the future for poor kids.
Connecting in community
Because government depends on a single set of rules that must be applied uniformly, it cannot account for the unique circumstances of any one person. Perversely, the more power government has to help detaches the person more from the community. Separating the individual from the community is a common thread in Brave New World and 1984.
For all the complaints through history that have been leveled at the collectivism of socialists and government-run programs and at the atomistic individualism of markets, it is in market societies that individuals can best come together in community through Edmund Burke’s “little platoons.” When we protect the right of individuals to make decisions with their own resources, that is when we protect properly functioning markets, we preserve their ability to live in solidarity with others.
Lowering the stakes, restoring trust
Through their diversity, markets reduce the stakes of any one decision. When government acts, it must decide on a single policy and implement it properly because it is the sole provider. Markets are inherently redundant. There are dozens of brands with countless varieties of bacon made from pigs, turkeys, or plants at any grocery store, not to mention bacon from local farms as well as other meats and breakfast foods. As a result, no matter how passionate a person is for or against bacon, nobody can be forced to eat or even buy any version of it. If one company has a problem, others gladly step into the breach. If tastes change, something likely already exists to meet the new demand with no need for an act of Congress, executive order, or national emergency declaration.
Best of all, with the money people earn in the market, even if they work for government, they can support causes that matter to them. They can even go without the full compensation they could earn in the market and use their time in other ways that can be fulfilling. Private actions are voluntary and mutually beneficial. Public actions entail duty and obligation at the threat of punishment.
Here’s hoping we can relearn trust in one another so we can rely on government less and on one another more, with or without markets and prices.
Joe Coletti is a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation who focuses on fiscal policy.