The Free Market Case for Staying the Eff Home
So here I sit in government-mandated quarantine. Since I’m an unrepentant homebody anyway, my life is no different than it usually is, other than that I’m making no money and probably won’t for quite some time to come.
As some of you may recall, I’m not a super huge fan of government-mandated quarantines because I don’t trust the government to wield that kind of power and I don’t expect bureaucracies to do anything right anyway.
But I AM a huge fan of the idea of quarantine itself. I think we’re doing the right thing by staying home to slow the spread of Covid-19 and flatten that curve, and I hope everyone, even in places not under a government-mandated quarantine, embraces the idea, only by embrace I mean staying about 6 feet away from each other.
Something relatively dismaying I’ve seen this past week is some of my fellow conservative pundits being all like “we’ve got to end this quarantine now and get people back to work and into bars and restaurants because people will literally die of starvation and commit suicide if we don’t”. And I’m sorry, but that is just dumb. Worse, it’s the kind of dumb that shows absolutely no faith in the ability of the free market to endure crises and innovate through them. It’s not only dumb, but it’s against the fundamental nature of free-market conservatism, which hinges around the notion that people are clever and ingenious and can find ways to solve any problems life throws their way.
If an individual faces a personal problem that ends up with them losing their mobility for one reason or another, such as being stuck at home due to non-corona-based sickness or their cars breaking down or because they can’t afford gas (this happens every goddamn day to someone, I know this because every one of them has happened to me or to my family) a whole lot of conservatives would have responded “suck it up buttercup, shoulda planned better, find another way to provide for yourself, and save the drama for your mama”. But now that millions of us are facing that reality simultaneously these same people are rending their clothes and screaming at the sky about how precious these folks’ lives and livelihoods are and how these poor unfortunates might commit suicide from despair, while somehow at the same time saying “actually come to think about it, the lives of anyone over 50 or immunocompromised aren’t that precious, let’s sacrifice them to prevent these imaginary suicides of the young and healthy”. And I find all those opinions emanating from the exact same people’s lips both inconsistent and a-hole-ish.
If you want to talk the talk of conservatism when times are good, surely you gotta walk the walk when they aren’t, doncha?
A big part of the reason why I’m a small government fan is that I actually have faith in the free market. I think it’s inarguable that the free market can do things that are fricking magical. That invisible hand wows and amazes me constantly. 20 years ago I ordered a book I wanted, and it cost me 29.95 and took 8-10 weeks to arrive. 20 minutes ago, I ordered a book I wanted, and it flew through the sky onto my laptop in seconds and cost 99 cents. The free market can take a sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse, and then it can invent the assembly line to make thousands of silk purses from sow’s ears making silk purses affordable for everyone to enjoy. The free market has made prosperity and good health so accessible for many human beings that everyone getting a nasty bugaboo seems like a shocking and unusual event rather than the absolutely unremarkable and normal part of human experience it actually is. The free market looks at problems like quarantine and laughs because the free market is good at solving problems since it has billions of brains instead of just one collective hive mind. The free market is more than capable of swallowing the coronavirus, chewing it up, and spitting it back out again, coming out the stronger for it, if only we get the hell out of its way.
While on the one hand I completely and vigorously agree that one stumbling block we as a people toss into the free market’s way is using government too freely and relying upon it for things it’s terrible at, I also believe that another stumbling block we toss in the free market’s path are individuals acting like complete and total selfish dumbshits when they should step up and act responsibly. And thousands of college kids going to spring break in the middle of a corona outbreak was dumbshittery. Deciding you’re going to tank the economy by killing millions of people by calling for everyone to return to normalcy NOW supposedly to prevent the economy tanking by having people stay home a few weeks, is also dumbshittery and y’all don’t even have youth to excuse yourselves.
Fact is, there are real advantages, aside from curve-flattening, that come from backing the heck up on “return to normal life” like some cons are calling for. Free market advantages. Not only does quarantine keep the health care system from being overwhelmed, but it buys us time. Precious time to do things like TRAIN those unemployed massage therapists to act as health care assistants and for factories to HIRE those unemployed bartenders to make masks and sanitizer and to figure out if any of the treatments various researchers have suggested actually help and for the drug companies to EMPLOY those out-of-work baristas to make those medicines in vast quantity.
In case you’ve forgotten, the free market is absolutely boffo at directing resources towards things society needs at any given time, and if society needs health care assistants and hand sanitizer and hydroxychloroquine more than it needs massages and Mai-Tais and mochas, then it is no tragedy that the free market pushes people who used to work in one industry towards working in another.
The post-corona economy will look different than the pre-corona economy. Undoubtedly. But different doesn’t mean “millions of people will be dying of starvation and committing suicide in despair”. It just means that businesses are gonna have to find other ways of responding to people’s needs, that’s all. They’re already DOING THAT. I drove through Wilbur, WA, population 839, the other day, right after Gov. Inslee had shut all of Washington State down. All three restaurants were open doing carryout. The Napa Store was open for pickups ordered online, the dog grooming place was open for dropoff and pickup, the medical clinic was open, both gas stations were open accepting cards only, the grocery store was open – people were taking precautions, sure, but the economy was still burbling merrily along even under a mandated quarantine.
You can, if you’re in the business of being happy and hopeful and grateful rather than playing Eeyore and envisioning mass suicides, realize that the invention of the Internet means that we are better equipped than ever before to deal with this crisis WHILE preserving as much of the economy as possible.
The free market. It’s a good thing. Don’t you think, conservative chums? Cause it kinda seems like you don’t think that at all lately.
Now, of course, it will all but certainly be true that some businesses that were successful in the pre-corona economy may not be as successful in the post-corona economy. Some of them may shut down, and others may have to restructure and carry on in a different form. (please continue to support your local and online small businesses by purchasing gift cards in the interim!) And I’m sorry, but just like dudes who used to make wagon wheels, it may be that in some cases that this is an adjustment that the market requires. If you believe that under ordinary circumstances businesses need to innovate or die, well then, maybe, just maybe Carnival Cruise Lines is not exempt from having to do the same in extraordinary circumstances.
For a long time now, my husband and I have found the world to be kind of upside-down. The people who are actually out in the world doing the hard and necessary work that keeps the whole ball-o-wax running are not only NOT financially rewarded for it, but they’re actually looked down upon, disrespected, treated as less-than by people who don’t do a real whole lot of hard and necessary work and are somehow paid out the ying yang for it. In this upside-down world, there are a lot of people who have a lot of money to spend on stuff that is basically just-for-fun. Jetsetting around the world, riding on boats, going to concerts, eating at fancy restaurants every night, skiing, golfing, laying on beaches. I’m not saying these are bad things, but they are definitely things that people used to spend a lot of money on, that in the here and now they aren’t. Many of those people still have money. It’s just that what they’re spending it on now has changed. They’re spending it on groceries; they’re spending it on books and streaming services, they’re spending it ordering online, they are or will be spending it on health care. Some of them are spending it to help less fortunate relatives stay afloat or donating it to charities. Some of them are saving it for now (ME!) or even using the money they’re not spending on fun stuff to pay off debts – which they probably should have been doing anyway, amirite? This money is not lost, it’s still there in the economy (or will be in the future, at such a time that the saved money is spent). It’s just being spent, or will be spent, on other things rather than what it was being spent on before.
While the economy will certainly be diminished, this not an economic disaster, it’s a change of priorities. A pandemic can hurt some people’s bottom line, but it can help others.
Because that money is being spent in other ways, this means that the industries who are the recipients of this spending will be able to grow their own businesses and put people to work. Amazon and Walmart are actively hiring right now. As I was writing this, an ad popped up for Fred Meyer hiring. Lots of truckers are hauling freight across the country. These trucks need maintenance and repair and gas to make them go. Farmers still gotta farm, grocery stores still gotta stock them shelves, manufacturers still gotta manufacture. These are honorable jobs, even though Hollywood likes to make fun of the people doing them. You can see how honorable these jobs are now that it’s obvious how screwed we’d be without them.
Some manufacturers are even repurposing their factories to make things like face masks and hand sanitizer and ventilators and corona tests that are needed while they’re not selling a lot of whatever-it-is they normally sell. Teachers and professors and exercise instructors and therapists are setting up shop online, and some of them have had to buy computer equipment to do so. The folks who design and maintain equipment and systems to facilitate online communication are going to have full employment for quite some time.
Those in essential services like first responders and UPS guys and plumbers and the folks in charge of the grid and garbage men like my stalwart husband are still working and will keep working, God bless ‘em. And of course, as people have and recover from the disease (which is already happening) they will be able to return to life as we knew it, getting back to work and back to being good little consumers. An extended quarantine is NOT the end of the world, people.
A different economy is not a failed economy. That’s Free Market 101.
It may be that the aforementioned Carnival Cruise Lines is a loser in the post-corona economy. It very well may be that in the future people take far fewer cruises. Or it may be that Carnival is able, as has been rumored, to turn their ships into hospitals for a while, isolation units for people who are sick but not in need of medical intervention, or even low-rent housing for folks who can’t pay their rent. It may be that Carnival Cruise Lines can ride out the pandemic by being useful contributors to society, by providing a service that people need. Then when it’s over, they can go back to sailing around places letting rich folks look at stuff.
The post-corona economy may mean that there are fewer bars, fewer restaurants, fewer Maroon 5 concerts where Adam Levine shows up and bitches everyone out. It may mean Madonna has less money for rose petals to float in her bath while Mikayla, the checker at WalMart, gets a tidy sum for working overtime. It may mean that people who have worked a long time in one industry may have to seek employment in another. It may mean companies that made one thing may have to make something different for a while, or even forever. Times may be hard, people will suffer, and we all are going to have a lot to adjust to as months pass. But no one needs to commit suicide in despair over this economic upheaval and it’s IMO silly to suggest it – at least for those who purport to believe in the free market in ordinary circumstances. Weathering change by responding to it is how the free market works, and honestly, I think that it’s working impressively well.
None of this is easy or painless. I get it. Trust me, I am probably going to lose my business that I worked for the past ten years to build because of coronavirus. (Nobody wants to have a baby in a pandemic.) Or it may be that I find a way to hang on and end up, in a few months experiencing a huge boom where I make back all the money I lost out on and then some. And that may be true for Carnival Cruises and United Airlines and Las Vegas too.
There is a vast gulf of wiggle room between the government stepping in and controlling all commerce everywhere and demanding that life return to absolute normal again immediately, damn the consequences. Both positions are extreme and ridiculous. The coronavirus is here, whether we like it or not, and concessions must be made. Life is NOT going to go back to normal. We will be creating a new normal, that for all we know may end up being better than the old one was.
Instead of cutting off our collective noses to spite our faces and killing hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily in the process, let the free market work within the limits that Mother Nature has imposed upon us all. Let the best minds of capitalism come up with innovations that will get us through this pandemic without exacerbating it and killing innocent people.