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Archive for April 18th, 2020

I’ve written that policy makers need to consider both the human toll of the coronavirus and the human toll of a depressed economy.

I also discussed this tradeoff with Brian Nichols, beginning about seven minutes into this podcast.

And, as you can see from this tweet, even the United Nations has acknowledged that a weak economy leads to needless death.

Since I don’t have any expertise on epidemiology, I’m not arguing that the economy should be opened immediately. I’m simply stating that the people who do make such decisions should be guided by the unavoidable tradeoff that exists between lives lost from disease and lives lost from foregone prosperity.

Which then raises the question of who should make such decisions.

As reported by the New York Post, President Trump claims he has all the authority.

President Trump on Monday said the decision to reopen the country’s ailing economy ultimately rests with him, not state leaders, as he feuds with governors over when to allow Americans to return to work. …Trump is now looking at reopening the economy by May 1, putting him on a collision course with state leaders who are pushing back, saying it would be dangerous to “take our foot off of the accelerator” in the war against the virus. …Rebuffing the president’s claims Monday, constitutional experts say it is state leaders who have the power to police their citizens under the 10th Amendment.

Trump is wrong.

He’s wrong in part because the Constitution limits the powers of the central government.

But he’s also wrong because – as explained by scholars from the Austrian School of Economics – we’re far more likely to get better choices when they’re decentralized.

In some cases, that means allowing individuals to make informed choices about how much risk to take.

But, to the extent government must be involved, it makes more sense to have state and local officials make choices rather than the crowd in Washington.

Opining for the Wall Street Journal, Walter Olson explains why federalism is the right approach.

Public-health merits aside, the president can’t legally order the nation back to work. The lockdown and closure orders were issued by state governments, and the president doesn’t have the power to order them to reverse their policies. In America’s constitutional design, …the national government is confined to enumerated powers. It has no general authority to dictate to state governments. Many of the powers government holds, in particular the “police power” invoked to counter epidemics, are exercised by state governments and the cities to which states delegate power. …Modernizers have long scoffed at America’s federalist structure as inefficient and outdated, especially in handling emergencies. …Today you won’t find these critics scoffing at the states or overglamorizing Washington. One federal institution after another, including the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been caught flat-footed by Covid-19. …State governments, by contrast, with some exceptions here and there, have responded to the emergency more skillfully and in a way that has won more public confidence. …The record of federal systems—some of the best known are in Canada, Germany and Switzerland—suggests there’s a lot of resilience packed into the model.

Michael Brendan Dougherty elaborates in an article for National Review.

Writer Molly Jong-Fast complains, “So the states are basically governing themselves because our president doesn’t know how to president at all?” Well, no. It’s simple: Our president doesn’t have dictatorial powers, even in a national emergency. The president doesn’t have authority to shut down your local gin joint. Your state governor does have this power, in extraordinary circumstances. That so many governors have done so, often responding to popular demand for shutdowns, demonstrates America’s genuine practice of federalism — a system that is allowing us to respond to this crisis even faster than the states of Europe… One of the reasons federalism can act faster is that it allows decentralization. It is less politically risky to impose measures in one state than on an entire nation. You can respond where the hotspots are, rather than imposing costs evenly across an undifferentiated mass of the nation where the overall average risk may be low.

Professor Ilya Somin wrote on this same topic for Reason. He noted limitations on federalism in a pandemic, but also pointed out the benefits of decentralization.

The US is a large and diverse nation, and it is unlikely that a single “one-size-fits-all” set of social distancing rules can work equally well everywhere. In addition, state-by-state experimentation with different approaches can increase our still dangerously limited knowledge of which policies are the most effective. Moreover, if one policymaker screws up, his or her errors are less likely to have a catastrophic effect on the whole nation. …There is, in fact, a long history of state and local governments taking the lead in battling the spread of contagious disease. During the 1918-19 flu pandemic, state and local restrictions were the primary means of inhibiting the spread of the virus, while the federal government did very little.

John Daniel Davidson of the Federalist echoes the benefits of having choices made at the state and local level.

The founders wisely chose a federal republic for our form of government, which means sovereignty is divided between states and the federal government. The powers of the federal government are limited and enumerated, while all powers not granted to the feds are reserved for the states, including emergency police powers of the kind we’re seeing states and localities use now. …Much of the media seems wholly unaware of this basic feature of our system of government. …Trump explained that many governors might have a more direct line on this equipment and if so they should go ahead and acquire it themselves, no need to wait on Washington, D.C. This is of course exactly the way federalism is supposed to work. …We should expect the government power that’s closest to affected communities to be the most active, while Washington, D.C., concern itself with larger problems.

And those “larger problems” are the ones enumerated in Article 1, Section 8.

The bottom line is that we should always remember the Third Theorem of Government, which helps to explain one of the reasons why it’s generally a bad idea to give the folks in Washington more power and authority.

Instead, we should try to be more like Switzerland, which is one of the world’s best-governed nations in large part because of a very decentralized approach.

Which may be why economists at the (normally statist) International Monetary Fund found a clear link between federalism and quality governance.

Let’s hope Donald Trump realizes that federalism is the right approach.

P.S. My favorite example of federalism came from Vermont.

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