The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Just Send the Checks


I am a libertarian. I'm generally supportive of a very limited government that performs a few necessary functions. Redistributing wealth and bailing out folks from their own misadventures are not among those necessary functions of a limited government. If the government is going to provide a social safety net, it should try to design it so that it does not incentivize unproductive behavior and does not waste public resources.

Those considerations do not apply to the current debate over federal appropriations to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government should just send the checks. Quickly and with minimal red tape. Means testing and complex fade outs are not what is useful in the moment. The immediate crisis calls for relief, plain and simple.

It is certainly the case that some on the left want to use the present moment to launch expansive new social programs. Those debates can wait until another day, and politicians on the left are doing no one any favors by trying to exploit the crisis by tying aid to a host of onerous restrictions or attempting to erect new permanent programs. Crises are often exploited to expand the state, and we should be vigilant in resisting such efforts.

Likewise, there are those on the right who have fallen into familiar routines of resisting any government assistance as a hand-out, packaging government assistance as a tax cut, or tying government assistance to their own favored set of conditions and exceptions. If we were discussing a new permanent social program, then such design details would matter a great deal and should be central to the debate, but we are not.

In the present moment, the government itself has ordered businesses to stop operating. The global pandemic has brought economic activity to a standstill in ways that could not have been anticipated or adequately planned for by responsible private actors. With good reason, the government has disrupted people's livelihoods and restricted individual activity for the sake of the common good. Even if we were to think the government has been misguided in some of the steps it has taken, the fact remains that the government has taken steps that have unavoidably done substantial economic damage.

In such circumstances, the government should compensate individuals for the damage it has wrought and relieve individuals from the unforeseen burdens that they have been asked to assume. What individuals earned last year has no bearing on what their current needs are given the government-ordered lockdown. The more complex and burdensome the government makes any financial assistance that it offers, the less effective it will be in mitigating the economic costs of the pandemic and relieving people of their current suffering from the effort to contain the pandemic. The more complex the policy the government attempts to design, the longer it will take to reach agreement on what to do, the more difficult and time-consuming the implementation will be, and the greater the uncertainty and economic disruption that the government will be creating. The more complex and nuanced the policy the government attempts to design, the more room there will be special-interest favoritism and rent-seeking cronyism.

The government's current efforts to lockdown social and economic activity in order to stem the spread of the disease will necessarily rely heavily on voluntary compliance. The state might be able to effectively quarantine some individuals or isolated areas, but it cannot for any extended period of time shut down the country. People will voluntarily assume some individual burdens for the collective good if the necessity of doing so is clearly explained and those burdens are not too onerous. The government cannot expect people to assume those burdens forever and cannot expect them to take truly heroic actions. The government needs an exit strategy from the current policy of containment, and that will eventually require extensive testing, tracking and individual quarantine. In the meantime, the government needs to minimize the damage and maximize the efficacy of the current containment strategy, and that requires relieving individuals from immediate financial uncertainty.

The government has instantly thrown millions of people out of work in what was previously a full-employment economy. There will be unavoidable economic consequences to that, and the government can only take steps to mitigate those consequences. It should, however, act as quickly to provide financial support for those adversely affected by the societal lockdown as it has to impose that lockdown. If the government had been more fiscally responsible in the past, we would be in a better position to take the necessary steps now. But we cannot fix past mistakes by closing our eyes to current needs.

Even a libertarian should support a simple, temporary program of massive relief to be immediately phased out as soon as the crisis has passed so as to collectivize the hardship of fighting this common foe and insure as smooth a transition as possible to the post-epidemic situation.