Future

The Seen and the Unseen of COVID-19

As long as it's neither safe nor legal to conduct normal business, Bastiat's seen economic activity is beyond our reach. The unseen doubly so.

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The coronavirus has broken everyone's windows, and the glazier cannot leave his house to fix them.

In his classic essay, "That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen," Frédéric Bastiat describes a pane of glass smashed by a shopkeeper's careless son. He imagines a crowd gathered around. "It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live," the gawkers mutter comfortingly, "and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?"

Bastiat's great contribution to popular economics was to succinctly and memorably ask his readers to look beyond the obvious, or seen, economic activity—the reglazing of the broken window—and consider also what has been foregone, the unseen. "As our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing," Bastiat patiently explains, "he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library."

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, and has since swept across the globe, is the ill wind that blows nobody good. The window is broken, the glazier cannot come to fix it, and neither the cobblers nor the bookbinders have worked in weeks.

Human beings and markets thrive on certainty and predictability. Rule of law is preferable to rule by men for this reason. But while rule of law has not broken down in most affected countries—at least not yet—the rule of emergency order is far from desirable.

As things stand, most people and businesses are uncertain about not only what conduct is safe if they are to protect themselves and others from sickness and death, but also what is legal as they try to protect themselves from financial ruin.

Restaurateurs in Los Angeles, for instance, were ordered to close their dining rooms in order to prevent disease transmission. Those men and women, faced with deep freezers and pantries full of food in a city where many were struggling to get groceries, saw an obvious solution—they could temporarily become grocery stores. Unfortunately, that's illegal. The city attempted to fix the problem by waiving the regulations prohibiting such storefront conversions but only managed to get halfway there, legalizing grocery delivery from those shops but not in-person purchasing.

In many places, shelter-in-place, curfew, quarantine, and lockdown orders have been difficult to interpret and spottily enforced, and the definition of "essential workers" who can continue to move about to do their jobs has been blurry and confusing. Law enforcement is empowered far beyond what the typical officer is equipped to handle. A Pennsylvania woman driving alone in her own car was pulled over and fined at the end of March for violating social distancing orders—never mind that the only person she had contact with on her drive was the cop who flagged her down. The fine was eventually dropped, but the uncertainty remains.

Texas law enforcement charged a teenager with making a "terroristic threat" during the first week in April after she posted a Snapchat of herself suggesting she would "infest" others in a Walmart. She did not, in fact, have COVID-19, nor did she act on her ambiguously worded comments. She was nonetheless booked and then released on a $20,000 bond with a 21-day quarantine order.

Even the various stimulus, aid, and rescue packages, totaling more than $3 trillion at the time of writing, are a source of uncertainty. While some of the larger industry bailouts were negotiated upfront by folks with lawyers who have done this before, individuals have no idea if or when their checks will come. And small businesses struggle to understand the terms and availability of the billions in loans meant to keep them afloat, even as Congress squabbles over authorizing yet another tranche of loans.

And there is an inexplicable clamor, even from those who least trust or respect the president, for him to more aggressively invoke the Defense Production Act to direct certain producers to manufacture needed medical equipment. The unseen costs of handing over production decisions in crucial industries to politicians and bureaucrats would be unthinkably huge—and largely unnecessary in a scenario where the best business and philanthropic minds have already bent their considerable resources to the same task.

In March, the Department of Justice requested that Congress allow the U.S. attorney general to ask courts to suspend court proceedings. These would have included "any statutes or rules of procedure otherwise affecting pre-arrest, post-arrest, pre-trial, trial, and post-trial procedures in criminal and juvenile proceedings and all civil process and proceedings," and the move would have applied for up to a year following the end of a national emergency, Betsy Woodruff Swan reported in Politico.

Luckily, we are not yet so far gone that that seemed like a good idea. Sen. Mike Lee (R–Utah) tweeted "OVER MY DEAD BODY"; Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) wrote, "Two Words: Hell No"; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) tweeted, "Absolutely not" and was then seconded by Doug Stafford, chief strategist for Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), who quoted her and tweeted, "Agreed." For now, this much at least remains predictable.

We do not know when public life and private business will once again be functioning in a way that approximates pre-coronavirus normality. We do not know how bad it will get before then. We do know that rolling back these incursions on civil and economic liberties will be the work of a generation—and that paying for the trillions in emergency spending authorized with little oversight and even less public debate will be the work of a generation as well.

In our desperate search for certainty, we obsessively track trend lines, wondering every day if that upward curve showing new coronavirus infections might be flattening. But the truth is that we aren't even sure what happens after the curve goes flat. The nations that are ahead of the United States on this trajectory are mere weeks ahead. And the big breakthroughs may be days, weeks, or months away.

Much has been made of "deaths of despair" in recent years in the academic literature. But with the economy partially shuttered by government edict, we may well see a wave of such deaths that will make the earlier Rust Belt suicides and overdoses look like a statistical wobble.

These new deaths of despair will be in response to the windows that COVID-19 has broken—the parents and grandparents dead, the work of thousands of lives left unfinished, the educations suspended, the milestones postponed—but they will also be because the glazier cannot go to work to fix those broken windows and because the shoemaker and bookseller have no customers for their wares. As long as it is neither safe nor legal to conduct our normal business, even Bastiat's seen economic activity is beyond our reach. The unseen doubly so.

There are some, even now, who fondly anticipate a world in which the lockdowns are lifted and every glazier is working full steam, busily repairing that which was broken. But the prospect of that busy industry must fill us with equal parts of hope and despair. The window can be replaced, but the unseen economic losses cannot be undone.

For Reason's package of COVID-19 content—how red tape stymied testing efforts, the lasting effects of emergency restrictions on liberty, why the stimulus package is a gift to crony capitalists everywhere, and more—go here.

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  1. Government in all levels stepped in and overacted to do
    something . They made this much worse that is could have been. Now we’re looking at a deep recession at least. The damage to this will last years.

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  2. The seen: masks.
    The unseen: frowns behind the masks

    1. The seen: My grocery bill.
      The unseen: My feet.

      1. As long as you can still see your pecker.

        1. If he can’t see his feet, what makes you think he can see his pecker.

          Peter Piper’s doctor called Mrs Piper and advised her to stop using a vinegar douche.

          Mrs Piper asked the doctor how he even knew she used a vinegar douche.

          The doctor replied: Because, Peter Piper packed a pickled pecker.

  3. ” . . . But while rule of law has not broken down in most affected countries . . . ”

    I disagree. The rule of law is broken openly by tyrants from mayors to county administrators to governors to presidents each and every day.
    All of the ‘uncertainties’ described above are due to this lawlessness.
    So then, what is the response?

    1. Yes indeed, all these lockdowns are a classic example of rule of men in place of rule of law. Rule of law, for all its faults, does mean legislation passed in the appropriate fashion. When quarantines and lockdowns and shuttering of “non-essential” businesses are all handled by governors and mayors, without any legislative consultation, that is rule by men. A rushed voice vote, “unanimous” or not, is not rule of law.

      It’s like saying “due process” or “procedures” were followed when someone is sent to prison for 20 years for stealing a slice of pizza or a mother dies giving birth in a prison cell while the guards laughed.

    2. Agreed! One can argue whether this action or that was necessary or not, wise or not, justified or not, and legal or not. What is beyond the argument is whether it is tyranny. By the very definition, what we have in all 50 states is a level of tyranny, that being oppressive, arbitrary and cruel.

      Oppressive on its face when people are forced out of their livelihoods and into their homes under threat of fine and/or arrest. Arbitrary because many of the rules are situationally indefensible with a blanket application. Cruel when one considers that many people are now faced with a choice of punishment or ruin. It’s a matter of being forced to choose between poison A and poison B while being told that it’s necessary to save you from a minor risk.

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  4. Part of my frustration over invoking, or heck even writing and passing, the Defense Production Act, is the anti-capitalists who constantly whine about greedy capitalists who think of nothing but money, yet then whine that these same greedy capitalists are so short-sighted as to not see the money dangling right in their faces and most be coerced into making a buck.

    There was an episode of Elementary where the villain was the usual greedy corporation, in this case centered on orphan diseases, with the explicit scripted lines about corporations which have no heart and won’t produce drugs for orphan diseases because there is no money in saving only a few lives. Absolutely no recognition that the money it would take to save a few hundred lives could be better spent saving thousands of other lives in a much more mundane fashion.

    1. It’s all rule of man. There is no rule of law because lawyers and judges can interpret the same statute to mean different things, depending upon who they are trying to please and who they are trying to harm. When “innocent until proven guilty” only applies to cops and others who are connected, when cops routinely rob and assault innocent people while lying about it on their reports and on the stand, and judges and lawyers are fully aware of this behavior and just overlook it as “that’s just the way it is,” there is no rule of law.

      We live in a feudal system. Only the costumes have changed.

      1. We’ve certainly gone a long way down that path, but I don’t think we’ve gone full retard yet. It’s all done with the fig leaf of “due process”, which reminds me mostly of how even the worst dictators — Hitler, Stalin, probably Mao, Pol Pot, etc — all had rubber stamp legislatures and show trials to provide “due process” — procedures were followed, so it’s all OK.

        Or how so many work place laws and regulations specifically exempt legislators — insider trading, pensions, and no doubt a whole lot more. Police have qualified immunity, prosecutors and judges have absolute immunity. Gun regulations and traffic laws don’t apply to cops. Rule of law is meaningless when it doesn’t apply to the King’s men.

        I wish we could limit prosecution to victims and get rid of all occupational licensing, especially with respect to police and lawyers and judges. Then government police and prosecutors and judges would have to mind their manners lest they be hauled into private courts by their victims.

  5. Law enforcement is empowered far beyond what the typical officer is equipped to handle.

    Evergreen statement.

    1. The other day I said to my wife “Barney Fife was funny because his pistol wasn’t loaded and Andy was always there to keep things from getting out of hand. Imagine Barney has a loaded M-16 and Andy is nowhere to be found. Now it’s not so funny.”

  6. We see mathematical models from credentialed experts daily on the virus, where are the economic models of the shutdown? No sociologist has a model predicting suicides if this continues? No running count of businesses closed and people unemployed to go along with C19 cases and deaths on the news and government websites?

  7. Government at every level squandered these six weeks and has no plan for a gradual reopening. I’m sure we’re all shocked. The re-opening is going to have to come from the bottom up, just like the initial shutdown. Start making your own plans for what activities you’re going to resume, and practice civil disobedience if necessary.

  8. Well at least where I live building construction is still going on. The freeway was jammed up due to road expansion work but lots of cars. Parking lot in the grocery store was full. Delivery people out and about. Auto repairs shops fixing cars. Plumbers and other craft labor still doing their jobs. People may not be going back to the office yet, some businesses limiting number of people, restaurants slowly opening, some wearing masks others not.

    But yeah life in LA and NYC is not representative of the rest of the country. They are bubbles like DC that think everyone lives like them, or cares what they do. For us “flyover” states we just kept going because we have to feed the rest of you.

  9. Very nice article, have a great knowledge

  10. Good column with one exception. You’re wrong about the woman who Snapchatted that she would infect a Wal-Mart with C19. I’ve been a practicing criminal defense attorney for 30 years, and that is a crime, no two-ways about it. It’s no different than going on Snapchat and saying you’re going to plant a bomb in the Wal-Mart. You’re not allowed to intentionally threaten people with death or serous bodily injury. The fact that you don’t really have a bomb or intend to carry out the threat is irrelevant. The crime is in intentionally inducing a rational fear in other. If I were her lawyer I’d be looking too make a deal fast.

    1. Don’t the threats have to be ‘believable’, I.e. possible of being achieved, to be considered criminal?

    2. Yeah, it’s not that cut and dry, and as a 30 yr veteran of the courts, you should know that. Ambiguously worded threats are stupid and should be checked out by the police, but generally not a chargeable crime. What the hell does “infest” even mean? It’s vague and non-specific, unlike that you are going to plant a bomb in Walmart. One person’s perception and fear from a non-specific threat doesn’t make their words criminally liable.

  11. Good column with one exception. You’re wrong about the woman who Snapchatted that she would infect a Wal-Mart with C19. I’ve been a practicing criminal defense attorney for 30 years, and that is a crime, no two-ways about it. It’s no different than going on Snapchat and saying you’re going to plant a bomb in the Wal-Mart. You’re not allowed to intentionally threaten people with death or serous bodily injury. The fact that you don’t really have a bomb or intend to carry out the threat is irrelevant. The crime is in intentionally inducing a rational fear in other. If I were her lawyer I’d be looking too make a deal fast. mm

    1. Good point. If more people understood the concept of menacing and how it is correctly a part of the warp and weft of laws against aggression, we would have fewer semiliterate communist anarchist infiltrators mansplaining what the NAP “really implies”–and alienating potential LP voters.

  12. Trump will save us from the government he’s the head of.

  13. I was an athlete and had several small injuries over the years. Some of them are starting to show signs of nerve damage and inflammation and my left toe has gone numb. My neck, which I injured at age of 18, is particularly bad when it flairs up and starts to pinch the nerve.

    Of course, I can’t get them checked out because COVID-19. This is an unintended consequence that the news will not report on.

    1. There are a lot of people who can’t get their routine stuff handled and a lot of medical teams that are basically out of business. My primary physician two months ago hadn’t been taking new patients for 2 years, but is now working part time, as is his staff. Because in an effort to “SAVE” the medical system and presumption that we are all just like NYC and that we had to “flatten the curve” at all costs, we are destroying the medical system that we were supposedly trying to preserve.

      Never mind. I’m sure that there’s a plan for all these systems to be rolled up into a massive government healthcare system that will solve all the problems that it has just created.

  14. I already have people near me who’ve committed suicide. Fuck every last Pro-Shutdown shithead with a spike covered baseball bat and wash out the wound with acetone. You are not just going to kill people. You are killing people. You have killed them. You have killed people in my life.

    Do the world a favor and blow your own brains out instead of murdering everyone else.

  15. I am in the UAE and they are strict here. Not terrible but they got the job done and no one complains. America needs to chill a few more weeks and start following rules. this will be done soon .

    1. Yes, I understand from a friend in the UAE that he could only leave his place once in 3 days.

      With little ‘herd immunity’ produced the UAE may be susceptible to a vicious 2nd and even 3rd wave. The UAE may be able to re-introduce strict constraints, but in the US it’s much less likely people would stand for a second stay home order. We really need to let herd immunity develop among the young and fit to protect against a 2nd wave that could be worse.

    2. Sounds nice, but I’ve rarely found a situation where any comparison between two such diverse populations has any validity. UAE has an entirely different culture, economy, geography, government, and politics. All of these make huge differences in how things are done. Your country is about the size of New York State and with a population the size of New York City. It’s like suggesting there’s a lot of relevance between a family with one child in an apartment and a family with a group home with 40 children.

  16. Thought-provoking. The problem with Bastiat is context in an age of relative innocence. While he struggled for laissez-faire to curb excesses in tariff rates and mercantilist officiousness, a swell of altruist brigandage was growing into a tidal wave of totalitarian kleptocracies furthered, fostered and welcomed by U.S. intellectuals from Howells to Bellamy to Jack London–empowered by eugenics theory parties. Germans fled to America in terror in 1848, then 1939, and that terror still grips one of the three Chinas, half a Korea and even a Caribbean island.

  17. We do not know when public life and private business will once again be functioning in a way that approximates pre-coronavirus normality.

    It won’t and why are libertarians advocating going backward anyway? The entire decade since 2009 has been utter silence from libertarians about TARP and the bailouts of the 1% and subsidized asset prices screwing the next generation. There has been nothing remotely normal about any of that – unless libertarians view utterly corrupt as both normal and desired.

    Now there’s yet another excuse for the well-connected and the 1% and trough-snarfing assholes to once again openly steal from those who are actually hurt because of the virus. It is in the media and can get attention – and the true seen and unseen costs of that diversion provide an opportunity to get a libertarian half-loaf. OK – maybe we can’t get rid of government entirely but at least can we stop bailing out the wealthy and the connected and entitled every FUCKING time their asset portfolios take a hit?

    But no. I guess any form of libertarianism that might offend the donor class is just taboo. Guess who’s gonna be surprised when the socialist left captures that ground too. Libertarianism of the Reason variety has absolutely nothing to offer anyone who isn’t just on the payroll of plutocrats. It missed the Wall st bailout. It missed the working-class discontent that went Trump’s way. And now it’s gonna miss the biggest intergenerational screwing in history. Three strikes you’re out and you deserve to die on the ash heap of history

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