Does America need more government or less during the Coronavirus crisis?
In the face of the challenges of the coronavirus crisis, it is an awkward question. Without quick action, people could lose their homes. Healthy companies could go bankrupt. A strong case exists for government aid.
On the other hand, governments often use emergencies to gain power. In response to the Great Depression, for example, the federal government expanded its authority and reach.
This article will tell two stories related to the coronavirus crisis that take place in Pennsylvania. Although anecdotal, they illustrate lessons about big government and free markets.
Brookville Glove is a small manufacturer in Western Pennsylvania that makes work gloves. When Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf closed non-life essential businesses, the company’s employees faced unemployment and hopes of government largesse.
Simultaneously, the nation faced a shortage of protective masks. The news media covered the story in detail. “How the World’s Richest Country Ran Out of a 75-Cent Face Mask” was the title of one sensational New York Timesstory. Most masks consist of thin disposable paper. Many masks come from China – which stopped shipping them.
Quick and Creative Action
The managers at Brookville Glove saw they had everything to make high-quality masks that could be laundered and re-used. Their thick fabrics were vastly superior to paper. They already had spools of durable elastic. They owned dozens of industrial-grade sewing machines and employed skilled operators.
On March 23, they announced a new product. “Brookville Glove is currently producing and selling protective masks for many health care facilities. Our main priority is the safety of our customers and the people that they come in contact with. Our reusable masks are high quality and made of soft material that lasts longer than generic masks.”
Four hours after the announcement, the company sent out another message. The demand was so high that they needed to add a second shift. Not only did their workers continue to work, but many others in the small town would also be employed.
Twenty-five hours after the initial announcement, Brookville Glove was filling orders.
Pennsylvania Department of Transportation
The second story involves the massive numbers of large trucks use Pennsylvania’s highway system. Any breakdown of the system could jeopardize supplies and foodstuffs.
At midnight on March 17, Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation (Penn DOT) closed all expressway rest areas. The harsh decision was based on the idea that such places would be congregating points. Rest stop employees would mix with people from all over the country and help spread the virus.
Unfortunately, those rest areas are vital to truckers. They serve as safe and comfortable places for truckers to use sanitary facilities. Weary drivers find safe places to sleep, rest or stretch their legs.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are not enough places for truckers to park even in regular times. The new regulations now took away everything when truckers needed them the most.
A Tardy and Insufficient Response
The situation soon became critical. Penn DOT’s bureaucracy sprang into action. Its Acting Secretary, Yassmin Gramian, released a statement on March 18. “Every decision made has been in the interest of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and we are constantly reevaluating our response. That said, we also recognize the importance of freight movement and that drivers need access to rest areas.”
Thus, Pennsylvania reopened thirteen of its thirty rest areas. Buildings would remain closed, but there would be “at least five portable toilets” in each area.
It took almost a week to see that this action was insufficient. A March 24 statement announced that ten more facilities would reopen. Acting Secretary Gramian reassured the public. “While unnecessary travel is discouraged as we all do our part to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we understand that some trips are necessary and that access to rest areas is important. We are constantly evaluating our actions and services in responding to this emergency and will make adjustments where we can safely do so.”
A More Important Lesson?
These two stories show how the nation can come to grips with a crisis. One way is efficient and innovative, and the other is awkward and insufficient. The conclusions are simple, even if the left might not want to hear them.
Conclusion number one is that decisions should take place at the lowest possible level. This is called the principle of subsidiarity. PennDOT has nearly 11,375 employees. They maintain 120,000 miles of state roads – about half of the total roadway in the state. They directly control over 25,000 bridges and assist with the maintenance of about 7,000 more. It is a huge job.
This enormous responsibility often leads to very poor decision making. Philadelphia is home to 11,749 people per acre. Jefferson County, home of Brookville Glove, has one person for every ten acres. A decision that makes perfect sense in population-dense Philadelphia is absurd in Jefferson County. At the same time, laws and regulations that work in Jefferson County could mean anarchy in Philadelphia.
The second conclusion is that private enterprise is more efficient than public bureaucracy.
The owners and managers of Brookville Glove could instantly activate their employees, inventories, equipment, and capacities. The government bureaucracy would have to spend hours to find out that Brookville Glove exists. If the National Institute of Health tried to co-ordinate mask production, they would need to study the problem for months before acting. Their engineers would spend weeks drawing up specifications. They would never think that a glove manufacturer in Western Pennsylvania might have part of the answer. Brookville Glove was able to figure it out in an hour and produce finished masks within a day.
On March 24, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota sent out the statement, “All private hospitals should be made public for the duration of the virus.”
She does not consider Brookville Glove and the thousands of people who have stepped up to the plate to do what they can to alleviate the crisis. Each of their actions exposes Rep. Omar’s massive error. The spirit of innovation must not fall victim to the coronavirus.