by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
Defeating a virus.
This isn’t a fight we expected, but know this: it’s a war a free society is uniquely geared to win. That’s because, as Ronald Reagan put it in his first inaugural address, “we as Americans have the capacity now, as we’ve had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.”
In the fight against COVID-19, as in other things, the more people engaged in tackling a problem, the better. The more people we have working independently on aspects of the coronavirus, the more solutions we’ll see generated and the better off we’ll all be, sooner.
What makes a free society so formidable is that it lets more people in on the fight. It doesn’t wait for the central government to move, and it certainly doesn’t lock the private sector out.
This is not at all to downplay the role of government, but remember, politicians and bureaucrats are just a tiny subset of people in society. They represent only a small slice of all the knowledge and ingenuity we can draw upon in this fight. The more of this greater, societywide knowledge that gets devoted to addressing a societal problem, the faster solutions will be found, big and small.
This prediction is based on the insights of the late, great economist Julian Simon. He saw people as the “Ultimate Resource,” thanks to the power of human imagination. The more minds, the better. He wrote:
The main fuel to speed the world’s progress is our stock of knowledge, and the brake is our lack of imagination. … The ultimate resource is people — skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.
Knowing this, one of the best things government leaders can do is to enable, not discourage, and not get in the way of all the other knowledgeable and ingenious people out there thinking about how to deal with COVID-19 issues. Recognize as Simon did that sometimes their helpful choices come about as unintended consequences of doing what they think would help themselves, their business, or family first. That’s a key economic insight that goes all the way back to Adam Smith:
… he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it.
By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. (Wealth of Nations, Book Four, Chapter II)
The flip side of that insight is why putting too much responsibility on government officials can backfire. As we know, sometimes when policymakers make laws with the express purpose of doing actual good for society, they unwittingly cause more harm than good.
Intentions don’t matter as much as results. Leaders in a state like North Carolina, whose motto, Esse Quam Videri, means “To be rather than to seem,” should always bear that in mind.
The good news is, North Carolina has deep resources of human ingenuity in our present fight. We’ve already witnessed several examples. Here’s a handful:
And try this one, which doesn’t address a pressing need, but it does fill a sentimental hole. The loss of “March Madness” (the NCAA men’s basketball tournament) was a shocking blow to sports fans across the country. An N.C. State student with a modest social media following has managed to cushion some of this. How?
It’s tradition now, at the end of the championship game, to play David Barrett’s “One Shining Moment” with a montage of scenes from the tournament games: the highs, the lows, the great plays, the buzzer-beaters, all the pageantry and pomp. It’s the last hurrah of college basketball season, and fans didn’t get it this year.
And the best part? Goren told The Athletic why he did it: “I just did it for myself, really.”
I bet Simon would’ve loved that. I know I do.
Carolina Journal is compiling an ongoing series of articles about how imaginations across North Carolina are battling this virus from China. If you find yourself feeling discouraged, check it from time to time. Look for other examples, too: like Goren’s.
See them and be encouraged that we can call upon, as Reagan said, “our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God’s help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.”
With prescient optimism, he added: “And after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”