We at the Cato Institute have friends and family who have tested positive for SARS‐CoV2. We have loved ones among the most vulnerable. Our hearts go out to all patients and their families around the globe who are suffering pain and loss due to this disease. We appreciate the inspiring dedication of our health care professionals.
Policymakers must approach this pandemic head on, with calm and humility. Calm, because a virus is not the only contagion we face. Panic is its own contagion, one that impairs judgment. Humility, because even when policymakers do not act out of panic, their best laid plans often go awry. To cite one salient example, a law to protect consumers from low‐quality diagnostic tests created a shortage of tests that allowed COVID-19 to spread unchecked across the United States for two months.
In that vein, policymakers must first discard laws that are preventing health professionals from responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Containing the pandemic first requires gathering information about its prevalence. Such efforts cannot occur under the current policy‐induced shortage of tests. We urge Congress to enact legislation affirming the right of laboratories, health systems, and individual consumers to purchase diagnostic tests that have been available in other countries since January.
Policymakers must next remove obstacles that are preventing health professionals from caring for the sick. We urge state officials to enact legislation eliminating regulations such as clinician licensing rules, “certificate of need” laws, and restrictions on telemedicine that prevent medical resources from getting to the patients who need them. We applaud state officials who have already done so. We urge Congress to use its constitutional power to eliminate regulatory restrictions on interstate telemedicine.
Containment efforts present federal, state, and local officials with difficult tradeoffs. Government‐imposed controls are not the only source of containment; they merely add to the impact of steps that individuals and private businesses have already taken to protect themselves, their employees, and their customers.
Humility counsels policymakers not to assume in every case that they can better assess the benefits and costs of shutdowns or lockdowns than private citizens, nor that federal policymakers can do so better than states or localities. On the contrary, policy elites with significant savings, who can do their jobs from home without fear of lost income, may suffer from blind spots that accompany such privilege. To ensure containment efforts are proportionate and do minimal damage to the American people, policymakers must base them on solid epidemiological information and commit to lifting them upon reaching prespecified targets.
Efforts to provide financial assistance to those who lose jobs or income should work within existing aid programs, rather than creating new ones, and should target assistance to the most vulnerable individuals. Economic stimulus should come in the form of removing regulatory barriers to economic activity, not deficit‐financed bailouts.
Under no circumstances should policymakers use this challenge as an excuse to set aside the Constitution, to weaken the rule of law, or to suspend Americans’ civil liberties.
With the need for urgency, calm, and humility in mind, we offer the following principles to help policymakers meet this challenge in a manner that saves human lives and preserves human dignity.
We at the Cato Institute face this challenge with both trepidation and a firm belief in the creative capacities of human beings. We urge policymakers in the United States and around the world not to let fear and hubris lead them to prescribe cures that are worse than the disease.