An Open Letter to US Policymakers

by Ray Gillenwater, SSC | April 22, 2020

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Legislation is a blunt force instrument. Once enacted it operates like an algorithm, indiscriminately enforcing its edicts, whether or not they are justified. This is the reason why my grandmother can’t bring her own water on an airplane.

As policymakers, you are aware of this fact. Some percentage of you, as hard as it is for us to imagine in recent years, have a genuine interest in upholding our constitutional rights. You understand that the US Constitution is a document that guarantees its citizens freedom from tyranny and oppression, and that it is your job as an elected official to uphold those rights. 

Over the past several weeks, rash and reactionary measures have been put in place, in a sweeping and indiscriminate way, which have erased individual freedom. It is possible for us to forgive a well-intentioned lawmaker that merely neglected to consider the implications of ordering American Citizens to not leave their homes and stop going to work, and the implications of shutting down parts of the economy. 

But I hope it’s now clear to you that when you shut down companies indiscriminately, you’re also shutting down the production of food, energy, and economic continuity – all things that are crucial for every citizen in this country to survive and thrive. Our economy is not centrally planned, and that’s by design. 

The Other Model? 

How many people will suffer and die as a result of these decrees? Do you have a model for that? If so, what are the projections for the worst-case scenario from this self-imposed economic recession which may well lead to a full economic depression? These are questions we expected you to ask prior to deciding our fates. If you’ve asked them, please share the answers so that we can better understand your thinking. If you haven’t, please share what calculations, if any, you used to justify the current measures. Hopefully we agree that only weighing the potential deaths from COVID-19 makes it impossible to make a rational decision about our response to it. 

If you were taking a purely pragmatic approach and trying to reduce overall harm, without thinking through the macro implications and the unintended consequences, that also might be forgivable. Or if you genuinely weren’t sure what to do but were afraid of being responsible for millions of deaths, so you decided to buy some time with these orders, fine. These mistakes can be excused, but only if you’ve since realized that you do not have the legal authority to indiscriminately restrict the movement and commerce of innocent American Citizens. 

You know as well as anyone with a basic understanding of economics that you cannot have a functioning society with 300M+ people to feed unless those people are productive. A production shortage means fewer things have been made, which then results in a supply shortage, including things that people in this country need to survive. We also trust that you understand what it means to be in a business that’s just been deemed “non-essential.” If my business wasn’t essential, I wouldn’t have bet my previous career, my savings, and years of work-without-pay on it. 

All of this can be forgiven, as long as you immediately withdraw your support for any legislation or orders that violate our constitutional rights, including our ability to make a living for ourselves, and in doing so, provide each other with the goods and services we need to operate as a society. We cannot rely on the government for this task because central planning of supply and demand results in massive death and suffering. 

It is impossible accurately to predict what products and services a society will need and in what quantities. Every Communist nation in history has proven this conclusively, and that experiment has been run repeatedly over the past 150 years. We don’t need to do it again here. 

A Better Idea 

In the spirit of being constructive, here are a few recommendations. Consider this input from a middle-aged small business owner that employs people who employ other people and all of whom transact with thousands of others. My small network of economic activity is one of the millions in this country that, by the forces of supply and demand, are able to adequately fulfill the needs of our society. But remember, this extraordinarily efficient production mechanism happens bottom-up and not top-down. 

First, acknowledge that home confinement has and will continue to cause suffering and death – destruction that will progress non-linearly, much like the virus. Also acknowledge that confining Americans to our homes violates our unalienable constitutional rights. 

Second, accept that this means people will need to decide what level of risk they’re willing to take based on their own needs and their own assessment of the risks. 

Three, leave us free to do what we have always done – choose to do what’s best for ourselves and the people we are responsible for. I am going to stay home voluntarily, because I work from home and have high risk people living in my house. Anyone is welcome to disagree with my assessment of the risk and/or the actions that I’m taking. That is their right, and I will not attempt to impose my views on them, just like they shouldn’t be able to legally impose theirs on me. 

Some people won’t see COVID-19 as an egregious threat and will go about their normal lives. Others will see it as an existential risk but will go to work anyways, because not doing so would be a greater risk to them, personally. Whatever that individual decides, it should be at the individual’s discretion. Yes, I understand the “but what about infecting others” argument, and my response to that is: if you’re going outside and are worried about getting COVID-19, you should treat everyone like they’re a carrier. The responsibility, again, is yours, not mine. 

Four, focus your energy on enabling the private sector to respond to this emergency. Yes, I’m suggesting that you allow companies to profit from COVID-19. From my layman’s point of view, it seems that the fastest way to enable a society to respond to a surge in demand is via the private sector. This assumes that businesses can respond to these needs without being hampered by onerous regulations. Prosecute any malicious activity to the fullest extent of the law, but don’t slow everyone down in an attempt to prevent it. 

Some people will need to leave their homes to survive. This means that a percentage of those people will be infected. A percentage will be hospitalized. A percentage will need intensive care. And a percentage will die. This is the cold reality of policy-making: no matter what you do, people die. 

If we are given back the freedom to decide how we want to individually respond to this threat, then there will be more COVID-19 related deaths than if people were forced to stay home indefinitely. This means a surge in demand for hospital beds, ambulance services, and a variety of other things that cannot be planned for. Instead of rationing resources and relying primarily on central planning from the government, make it extremely simple for an entrepreneur to profit from fulfilling this demand. We all must work to create the things this society needs to operate. Going back to work means we may need to treat more people simultaneously in our hospitals than ever before. We can help minimize the fallout if we are given the ability to fulfill the demand ourselves. 

Five, pass inexpensive budgets for programs that will incentivize rapid progress towards building a society that can operate around a global pandemic. Give large cash bonuses to any person or organization that makes meaningful progress towards a treatment or vaccine. These payments will be fully transparent, and any corrupt activities will be considered treason. What if the company that successfully gets their vaccine through human testing gets a $1Billion bonus? Seems cheap compared to the $3 trillion printed so far, and you get a vaccine for your money. Provide cash grants to the people that need resources in order to move quickly. Fund the publication of hard science, so that we can all learn more about the virus and how we should best respond to it, depending on our own personal situation. 

Six, don’t give into the temptation of using this as an opportunity to do anything from George Orwell's  book 1984. Orwell wrote of a futuristic dystopia run by a totalitarian regime with complete surveillance and absolute societal control as a warning to future generations. We all know what not to do here. If you vote in favor of a policy proposal that includes more surveillance or control for our own safety, you are failing in your job as our representatives. 

Seven, always remember that there are millions of Americans that would be willing to give their lives to protect our freedom. We have protection mechanisms in place just in case those that we elected to represent us fail to remember this. 

These are just suggestions. Whatever solutions you come up with, make sure they have our constitutional rights at the top of your priority list. We are looking forward to being able to assess the COVID-19 risk for ourselves, based on our own understanding of the situation. We are also looking forward to re-opening our businesses without fear of fine or imprisonment. Most importantly, we are looking forward to seeing you passionately defend our individual freedoms in all of your policy decisions. 

If this seems alarmist, it's because we are alarmed by your behavior. In the past few weeks we have witnessed public infrastructure closure, government endorsement of citizens reporting other citizens, the requirement of travel papers on American roads, and incarceration for the crime of being on public land. The repercussions from these policies are exactly what we feared they would be. We have a duty as Americans to prevent them from becoming a short-term nightmare for millions of people and/or a long-term change to how this country prioritizes personal freedom. We are counting on you to represent us correctly. 

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