Stop Looking for 'Leadership' During the COVID-19 Outbreak

If you really want politicians to do something helpful, ask them to stop "leading" and to get out of the way.


As the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S., pundits and opposition politicians pounded President Trump for displaying a "lack of leadership" in response to the deadly virus. And it's true that, as always, the president was prone to minimizing inconvenient developments, bristling at critics, and contradicting members of his own team. Without a strong, focused figure in the White House (maybe somebody less deplorable?), we can't possibly pull through this crisis, the opponents suggested. But that's ridiculous; anybody making their responses to events contingent on political office not being held by narcissistic ass-clowns is putting their fate in the hands of circumstances they can't control. They're making a false virtue of dependency.

That's not to say we shouldn't listen to people who have expertise. Epidemiologists shared widely reported warnings in January of "the spread of 2019-nCov within and outside mainland China."

"The more we learn about it, the greater the possibility is that transmission will not be able to be controlled with public health measures," Toronto-based Allison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist, cautioned at roughly the same time.

Even China's awful political rulers, who muzzled medical whistleblowers after they warned of the disease (there's leadership!), admitted by the end of the month that the situation was out of control.

Just weeks later, the World Health Organization, as clumsy and prone to stroking authoritarian regimes as it is, said the virus had "pandemic potential," while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of "severe" disruptions to American life from "community spread" of the new virus.

Anybody paying attention had the opportunity to get ready for what was comingif they were allowed to do so by our fearless leaders.

It's worth noting that, when political officials act, their most positive efforts come from getting out of the waythat is, by undoing the "leadership" they demonstrated on earlier matters.

President Trump announced "compassionate use" easing of restrictions on patients' use of drugs that don't yet have FDA approval for treating COVID-19.

Congress extended liability protection for makers of protective N95 face masks so that hospitals can directly purchase equipment that isn't specifically approved for medical purposes under cumbersome FDA rules.

Eased regulation enforcement, announced by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), means the government won't take action against health insurers who modify their catastrophic plans to cover COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment for their customers.

Licensed physicians can also now practice across state lines, under CMS waivers that ease a host of other rules that bind the practice of medicine in red tape. The feds played catch-up on that one: states including Arizona, California, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington had already moved to ease restrictive licensing of medical providers before the feds jumped on the issue.

Even the Transportation Security Administration is joining in, modifying its insistence that doom is found in any liquid container of more than 3.4 ounce capacity so that travelers can carry 12-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer on airplanes.

"The coronavirus is forcing authorities to admit many of their regulations are unnecessary," Reason's Nick Gillespie noted.

After so much obstruction of innovation and the flexibility that individuals and organizations might have brought to situations like the current pandemic, some officials are undoing a bit of the damage they and their predecessors inflicted on us. They should be thanked for that, even as we recognize that such damage was the "leadership" they exercised in the past.

But, in response to a dependent public accustomed to wait to be told what to do, we're getting that leadership good and hard, too.

Panicky curfews and shelter-in-place orders around the country already disrupt life for millions of Americans, including their ability to make a living. But how much good can they do when researchers say "such measuresmost notably, large scale social distancing will need to be in place for many months, perhaps until a vaccine becomes available"?

There's no doubt that we need to adapt to the pandemic, but completely suspending normal interactions and economic activity might have us all starving in the dark before the end of the 18 months anticipated until we can line up for our shots. Those curfews and shelter-in-place orders are unsustainable beyond the short term and are likely to hurt worse than the disease itself (unemployment claims are already jumping).

To address shortages in medical supplies, President Trump invoked the long-dormant Defense Production Act, which gives the federal government extraordinary power to bully the private sector into accepting government contracts and "to allocate materials, services, and facilities." If the elements of the law are actually put into effect, they "amount at least in some measure to switching from a market economy to a command economy," cautioned George Washington University's Michael Abramowicz at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Why would Trump need to evoke command economy powers when companies are already responding to high demand and rising prices by "running round the clock" and "increasing capacity"? To demonstrate leadership, of course!

And if you're looking for the latest round of taxpayer-funded government goodies, Congress has a $1 trillion-dollar treat for us all. It's a measure that borrows yet again against the future to offset some of the harm government has inflicted on small businesses and individuals forcibly sidelined across the country.

Americans will be paying for the new spending spree long after we've forgotten that we were already paying off old spending sprees. There is your leadership.

"Nothing makes government grow like a crisis," as I warned last week. "Even after the public panic retreats, the politicians' calculations subside, and COVID-19 becomes more knowable and treatable, we'll be left with the permanent swelling of government."

Americans have been led to that world of ever-growing government power by our own complacency, our insistence that somebody lead us, even if it's off a cliff. We could inform ourselves, make our own decisions, and voluntarily work together, and many of us are doing just that. But too many of us depend on others to decide for us, tell us what to do, and point us in a direction, any direction.

If you really want politicians to do something helpful, ask them to stop "leading" and to get out of the way.