Government Restrictions Have Gone Too Far

The question about whether governments have been too restrictive, or not restrictive enough, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will likely never have a definitive answer. We can see what governments actually did and what actually happened, but we can only conjecture about what would have happened if governments had done things differently. In one area it is already obvious that government policy was too restrictive: the elimination of non-essential procedures at hospitals.

The logic behind that prohibition was straightforward. In anticipation of hospitals becoming overburdened with COVID-19 patients, states prohibited hospitals from performing non-essential procedures to free up beds for those with COVID-19. As it turns out, fewer people were hospitalized with COVID-19 than forecast, so many hospitals now have empty beds and are losing revenues. Rural hospitals appear hardest hit, and in the midst of a pandemic they are laying off staff because of falling revenues, as they operate well below capacity. Many may end up closing for financial reasons. It is very clear, in this case, that government restrictions went too far, to the extent that they have damaged the health care system they intended to preserve to fight the pandemic.

This is easy to see in hindsight, so I’m not saying the fears of those who promoted the prohibition on non-essential procedures were unfounded. But the policies themselves already have proven counterproductive, so states are looking to once again allow non-essential procedures–procedures like colonoscopies, mammograms, and elective surgeries. It also is now apparent that one problem with these government mandates . . . is that they are government mandates.

Because non-essential procedures are prohibited by the government, an underutilized hospital just can’t say they have the capacity and are going to start doing them again. They need the government’s permission, and governments are slow to act, and tend to be cautious. If they are too restrictive, that’s just keeping people safe, preventing dire consequences that might occur without the restrictions. If they are less restrictive and problems arise, government decision-makers take the blame. So, they err on the side of caution. Besides, people in government like to tell people what they can and cannot do.

That works for those who impose the mandates. Governors, legislators, and bureaucrats keep their jobs regardless of the economic effects on others. Meanwhile, those whose lives are being severely impacted, not by the virus but by the economic policies governments have enacted in response, suffer from those policies that, in hindsight, have been too restrictive.

Let’s look at this specific case of banning non-essential medical procedures to see what alternative policy would have worked better.

Rather than government banning non-essential procedures, it could have made the recommendation that hospitals curtail them, and left it up to the hospitals to make that decision. If that were the policy, hospitals with the capacity to do so could resume elective procedures without waiting for government permission. In hindsight, it would have been better to let the hospitals decide for themselves, informed by government recommendations.

Now let’s apply this reasoning to government restrictions more generally. Rather than shutting down restaurants, barber shops, and dentist offices, make strong recommendations but leave it up to individual businesses to decide whether to shut down, and leave it up to individual customers to decide whether to go. The government could strongly recommend against eating in restaurant dining rooms, or against visiting a dentist, but let individuals decide for themselves. Lots of people would follow the recommendations, but others could take their chances if they were so inclined.

I’m confident that restaurants, movie theaters, and dentist offices would not be overcrowded with this policy. The warnings, and the news, has scared many people to the extent that they are afraid to venture into crowds, or into situations where they are in close proximity to strangers. But for those who are ready to do so, or want to return to their jobs just to put food on the table, we claim that this is a free country.

Yes, that could allow the virus to spread more rapidly, but that is not necessarily bad. The idea behind the restrictions was to “flatten the curve” so that the health care system would not be overwhelmed, but flattening the curve means it will take longer to develop herd immunity so the “crisis” will last longer. Flattening the curve does not mean fewer people in total will catch the virus; it just spreads those cases out over more time.

The response of the media may influence policy too. In the states that have had the least restrictive policies, their governors have been criticized for being insufficiently totalitarian.

In this one instance–the prohibition on non-essential hospital procedures–it is already apparent that a better policy would have been for governments to recommend against them but leave the final decision up to hospitals. Extending this lesson to other government restrictions, a better policy might be for government to make recommendations, but allow individuals to make their own decisions.

We can see the economic damage and the loss of liberty that has resulted from government’s severe restrictions on individual freedom during the pandemic. But those who make the rules will tend to err on the side of caution, and those who have power will always be inclined to use it. We can already see the poor results in the prohibition on non-essential hospital procedures.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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