OPINION: Antony Davies and James R. Harrigan - Meat Supply Disruptions Are the Bitter Harvest of the 'Non-Essential Worker' Fallacy

A central theme of our recent book, Cooperation & Coercion, is that all governments are hamstrung when they attempt to fix problems.

Policymakers suffer from the knowledge problem: they don’t know enough to foresee every eventuality that will follow from what they do. Politicians see a problem, speak in sweeping statements, then declare what will happen, assuming their edicts will settle matters. But that is always just the beginning. More often than not, all manner of unintended consequences emerge, often making things worse than they were before their policies went into effect.

Consider the United States’ three high-profile wars against common nouns over the past half-century. Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in the 1960s, Richard Nixon a War on Drugs in the 1970s, and George W. Bush declared a War on Terror in the early 2000s.

How are those wars working out? Because a back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that we have spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $23 trillion in our attempt to eradicate poverty, drugs, and terror. Not only have we not won any of these wars, it is unclear that any of them can be won. These three so-called wars have managed to saddle future generations of taxpayers with unprecedented debt. And, as is the case with all coercive endeavors, policymakers ask us to imagine how bad things would have been had we not spent the trillions we did spend. And then they ask for even more money. So now we have unwinnable wars along with institutionalized boondoggles to support them. 

We see the same sort of thing happening now in the face of the COVID-19 threat that has induced the largest panic attack in world history. In the name of safety, policymakers have shut down myriad productive endeavors. And there will be a raft of unintended consequences to follow. We are already seeing them manifest, and they portend potential disaster as supply chains fail.

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Dr. Antony Davies is the Milton Friedman Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, and associate professor of economics at Duquesne University.  James R. Harrigan is managing director of the Center for Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona, and the F.A. Hayek Distinguished Fellow at FEE.  They co-host the Words & Numbers podcast.