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Reblogged:How NOT to Learn From Overseas

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"Taiwan, which has nearly 24 million citizens, has had only 451 cases and seven deaths." (Image by Vernon Raineil Cenzon, via Unsplash, license.)
The good news is that some media outlets, like CNBC, are finally beginning to report on how some countries have successfully dealt with the corona pandemic. The bad news, as far as I can tell from this report on Taiwan, is that the way these stories are covered will affect both what data are deemed relevant and what big picture lessons are learned.

Two examples of the latter are (1) how the government dealt with demand for face masks, and (2) a baseless and wrong criticism of an aspect of American culture as exacerbating the epidemic here.

Regarding face masks, the article takes for granted that it is the government's job to procure and distribute face masks. As is well known in economics, this results in shortages, which do not exist in free markets. So, without a free market to signal supply levels, both prompting conservation and incentivizing production, the Taiwanese found themselves standing in lines or shopping at strange hours to procure face masks. (The article does note that foreigners had trouble getting masks for a time, but does not speak of a freer market as a solution.) And so, a major shortcoming of that nation's otherwise better response went unnoticed, and could even be wrongly taken as something for us to emulate in the future by implication.

As for the opportunity, so frequently taken by American journalists these days, to castigate their customers, we have the following:
n Taiwan, there's a strong feeling that sometimes people have to give up their "individual desires and benefits" for the sake of their community -- a mindset that [Harvard professor William] Hsiao contrasts to Americans' tendency to be more individualistic, based on his experience living in this country. That community-oriented mentality helped Taiwan come together to tackle the threat in a more unified way, and it meant that very few people declined to follow the public health recommendations.
Taiwan also has a saying that roughly means, "This is your country, and it's up to you to save it." This bears a remarkable resemblance to our, "A republic, if you can keep it," which was popular shortly after America gained independence. Plainly, it is wrong to breezily imply that individualism is incompatible with long-range thinking, coordinated effort, and patriotism. Better than slamming Americans for not following orders would be to ask whether health policies and recommendations could have been formulated and communicated better in such a way as to be (1) genuinely conducive to our welfare and (2) more clearly in our best interests as individuals to comply with.

Fortunately, we do not have to rely on journalists to put all these pieces together. The Ayn Rand Institute recently published a white paper on the very subject of how a government should best respond to an epidemic. This news story reminded me of the piece and caused me to realize -- as soon as I looked at the white paper -- that the table of contents, having been written in complete sentences, itself just about stands alone as a general overview of the subject.

I'll excerpt it here:
I. WE MUST DEMAND BETTER FROM GOVERNMENT.

Our response to SARS-CoV-2 was un-American.
The alternative to coercive, statewide lockdowns was not two million dead.
A truly American response requires new laws.

II. THE LAW SHOULD FOCUS GOVERNMENT ON STOPPING THE THREAT POSED BY CARRIERS OF INFECTIOUS DISEASE.

We need to legally specify a threshold for when infectious diseases qualify as active threats.
We need to legally delimit appropriate coercive interventions.
Proper laws would focus government on one task: to test, isolate and track carriers of infectious disease.

III. IN PRACTICE, PROPER LAWS WOULD HAVE ENSURED GOVERNMENT WAS PREPARED TO TEST AND ISOLATE CARRIERS OF SARS-CoV-2.

With better laws we would have had Taiwan's level of readiness.
With better laws we would have had South Korea's widespread, strategic ability to test.

IV. WHEN GOVERNMENT IS UNABLE TO ISOLATE MOST CARRIERS OF AN INFECTIOUS DISEASE, THE LAW MUST LEAVE US FREE TO ACT.

If government is unable to isolate most of the infected, the law should grant it few additional powers.
An improper public health goal led to coercive statewide lockdowns.
The proper public health goal is for government to protect our right to the pursuit of health.
This means government's public health goal is not to coercively "flatten the curve."
But during a pandemic, government must be transparent and explain how government-controlled healthcare will be rationed.
The law should prohibit statewide lockdowns and require governmental transparency.

V. IN PRACTICE, IF GOVERNMENT HAD NOT POSSESSED THE POWER OF STATEWIDE LOCKDOWNS, THE RESPONSE TO THE UNCONTAINED SPREAD OF SARS-CoV-2 WOULD HAVE BEEN FAR BETTER.

Governmental action would have been more strategic, targeted and effective.
Private action would have been more strategic, targeted and effective.

VI. WHAT YOU CAN DO

Write your representatives in government.
I'll note further that the white paper, although it is available as a PDF, is reproduced in full as a web page at the above link, which will make it much easier for many people to read. At the site, the outline headings link to the relevant portions of the paper.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing and being ready to recommend it to others.

-- CAV

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