Surgical mask with American flag print

What went wrong, what we’ve learned, and how to prepare for the next time

The third great crisis of the 21st century has already inflicted a greater toll in lives lost and economic hardship than 9/11 and the 2008 financial collapse combined. And just as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our daily lives, it has transformed the political landscape, with governments at all levels exercising emergency powers rarely seen outside the context of total war. With so much at risk, what’s needed now is sober, realistic assessment of the choices ahead—a guide to policies that can stem the damage while avoiding permanent transformation of American life and law. The Cato Institute aims to meet that need with its new series, Pandemics and Policy.

Of course, there are those who see the current crisis as an opportunity for radical change to American institutions. They insist that “there are no libertarians in a pandemic” and that there shouldn’t be.

We beg to differ. While a once‐​in‐​a‐​century pandemic presents challenges for any political philosophy, the botched response to COVID-19 hardly represents an indictment of the American heritage of limited government. From the massive regulatory failures that stifled test provision to archaic restrictions that kept caregivers from patients, government overreach has compounded this disaster. Where they were left free to do so, the institutions of civil society have met the COVID-19 challenge with resilience, adaptability, and old‐​fashioned American ingenuity.

In the coming months, the Pandemics and Policy series will provide policymakers with an actionable guide to policies that can harness that ingenuity and foster a resilient society capable of meeting the challenges ahead.

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Case Study of Government Failure

Rather than give the federal government more things to do, we should ask it to do fewer things better. A good start would be to improve the federal government’s ability to respond to epidemics and pandemics.

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Line of professionally dressed people sitting with folders in their laps waiting

Whatever one’s opinion of the federal and state government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus and associated “shelter at home” orders clearly had a devastating impact on the U.S. economy.

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State capitol building with a flag and the constitution in the background

State and local officials have broad power to govern for public health and safety, but there are limits—for example, on the powers themselves and who exercises them.

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Stock market chart with animated bull and bear

Economists tend to oppose price controls at the best of times, but the public’s willingness to allow market‐​set prices appears to diminish when emergencies hit.

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Decentralize K-12 Education

As COVID-19 cases—and fears—spread in March 2020, schools across the country increasingly faced a problem: how, if at all, would they deliver education if children could not physically attend?

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Reform Regulation of Health Care Providers

The COVID-19 pandemic made state and federal lawmakers acutely aware of how state‐​based regulation of clinicians contributes to the overall shortage of health care providers and obstructs their rapid response to public health emergencies.

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Scientist in lab coat using petri dishes and beakers

The essential problem with the role of science in public policy is that some scientists, most politicians, and the public want science to do more than it can.

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American hundred dollar bill, with chess pawns and an american flag

International trade and cross‐​border investment produce some degree of reliance and risk, but in policymakers’ rush to indict trade and globalization, they dismiss the enormous benefits that Americans get from participating in the global economy as workers, consumers, producers, and investors.

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Person holding a cell phone with a COVID-19 contact tracing app open

Because contact tracing technologies analyze sensitive information about citizens’ locations, they raise civil liberties concerns. Here’s how lawmakers can make them effective and protective of sensitive data.

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Hospital patient in gown with IV bag

Society faces a tradeoff between greater health versus higher gross domestic product and greater freedom in choosing how much, and what kind of, social distancing policies to impose.

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Hundred dollar bills carried by the wind into the sky

“Helicopter money” is a fascinating theoretical construct that has proven useful in advancing economists’ understanding of various subtle points of monetary theory. But it risks undermining both Congress’s power of the purse and the Federal Reserve System’s already tenuous independence.

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The Federal Reserve building with stock charts in the background

Adopting a rules‐​based approach to the conduct of monetary policy would help safeguard central bank independence and promote both monetary and financial stability.

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American flag with fence and hand in front of it

The new immigration system has eliminated the core principles of immigration law and replaced them with the current president’s own preferences. It’s time for Congress to rectify it.

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A computer with an open book and glasses on a desk

Being present on a college campus was once inevitably part of obtaining a college education. COVID-19 has helped demonstrate that instruction and tutoring can be provided online.

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Face masks and hand sanitizer on a desk

Both age and disability discrimination laws are full of unintended effects, including the hindering of safe reopening of workplaces during the pandemic.

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Cato’s Work on COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic presents the United States and the world with a challenge it has not seen in generations. Advances in public health and medicine have given many in the developed world a sense that we are invulnerable. Of course, we are not.

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