OPINION | During a pandemic, who will keep us fed?

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I WAS chatting with a doctor friend currently in the Philippines, wanting his take on measures to limit the contagion of Covid-19.

“What do you think of all this craziness?” I asked. “The medical side of me thinks it almost makes sense to try and flatten the epidemic curve, but I feel non-medical people are making the decisions and a lot of it doesn’t make sense.” Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte has imposed a draconian quarantine there, first in Manila, and now on the entire island of Luzon, home to some 57 million people. It’s total chaos.

And it is safe to say that “non-medical people” are calling the shots, making political decisions that may or may not be in the best interest of public safety. But I’m neither a doctor nor a scientist specializing in infectious disease, so I’m not particularly qualified to discuss the best precautionary measures to minimize the human toll of the pandemic.

I do think it makes sense to isolate yourself as much as possible, if you can afford to do so. Don’t take unnecessary risks, and be super-cautious to not expose others to any threat of the virus. Read up on the best medical advice available, and do everything you can. This is what responsible folks do.

I may not be a doctor, but I do know something about economics. I know that there is a link, globally, between economic prosperity and health. And I also know that non-economists with lots of discretionary authority are making monumental economic decisions that will cause tremendous supply disruptions. Unintentionally, these top-down directives will also do harm to our health by undermining our ability to deal with Covid-19 and the many other challenges we will face because of it. Consider, for instance, the creation of new and needed medical innovations, like tests and treatments, and whether or not the government allows them to be available. What about the supply of hospital beds for patients, and the health care professionals and trained staff to treat them? These are ultimately questions about available resources, costs, competitive prices based on demand, supply chains, regulatory barriers, and the labor market for doctors, nurses, and technicians.

Which gets us back to curfews, quarantines, and other forms of government-mandated social isolation. Even people with the means and the flexibility to work from home and fully isolate still need to find ways to provide food and other essential goods and services for their families. And, if they’re unlucky despite the best of precautions, emergency medical services. In other words, like it or not, we are all interdependent on other people still willing, able, and allowed, to do their jobs. That means the entire global supply chain; a distributed network of farmers, ranchers, pickers, packers, truck drivers, shippers, distribution centers, grocery stores, delivery services, and the thousands of other functions I don’t even know about, and untold millions of people with special skills you don’t have.

So when I see politicians mandating, or regular people demanding, as a moral imperative, that all human interaction cease immediately until the risk of infection ends, I know that they are probably not considering the consequences of such a policy. They are likely not thinking about, or are totally unaware of, the incredibly complex division of labor and distributed responsibilities that drive our prosperous modern economy. Millions, even billions of people you don’t know, are all working together constantly to ensure that each of us gets what we want and need to sustain our lives. We all contribute to this beautiful process, each of us deciding for our own selves, who does what best.

Something I read about all of the proposed measures to battle Covid-19 reminded me of a favorite passage from the book Economic Sophisms, by French economist Frédéric Bastiat. Here, writing in the mid 1800’s, he asks: Who keeps Paris fed? And why is it that so few Parisians seem a bit concerned about the process that keeps them fed?

“On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if provisions of every kind ceased to flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of commodities that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage. And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect. On the other hand, eighty departments have worked today, without cooperative planning or mutual arrangements, to keep Paris supplied. How does each succeeding day manage to bring to this gigantic market just what is necessary—neither too much nor too little? What, then, is the ingenious and secret power which governs the astonishing regularity of movements so complicated, a regularity in which everybody has implicit faith, although happiness and life itself are at stake?”

One of the many reasons people don’t like economists is that we are always going on about the importance of free exchange, the profound benefits of the division of labor, economic tradeoffs and the unintended problems created by actions motivated, perhaps, by the best of intentions. There is a cost and a benefit to everything, and sometime we are forced to choose. “You can do that, but did you consider that this other thing might happen as a consequence?” In a social media driven society that seems to hunger for quick fixes to complex problems, economic realities can be a real downer. Why, a hashtag trending on Twitter asks, can’t everyone just #StayTheF***Home? But in a society that depends on the distributed expertise of each and every one of us, I’m willing to be that guy, the one offering unsolicited economic advice: There are unseen, unintended consequences of the currently proposed public policies intended to keep us safe, policies that will make us less safe and less able to take care of ourselves and others that need help.

Be safe out there. And try to stay calm. We can do this, together, provided that we are free, not just the doctors and economists, but all of us, doing what we can, each doing our part.

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