By Alexander William Salter
The disaster that was 2020 is finally over. Now it’s time for the inevitable post-mortems.
First and foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic posed enormous challenges to American institutions, and continues to do so. Frankly, we were not prepared. We need to diagnose what went wrong, so that we are never caught unaware like this again. Fortunately, the diagnosis is straightforward. COVID-19 was going to be bad, no matter what. But the failures of big government made it much, much worse.
In particular, the Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and public teachers’ unions are the great American villains of 2020. Meanwhile, the heroes of this year are almost entirely in the private sector. From Zoom to vaccine development, Big Pharma and Big Tech—yes, you read that right—made this horrible year bearable. Even amid a crisis that led so many to cry out for vigorous government action, we saw that private markets still work best.
Left-wing and right-wing statism
For progressives and so-called “national” conservatives who support big government, 2020 represented the ultimate test for their philosophies. Although they disagree on cultural issues, they see eye-to-eye on the role of government. Both want a big, energetic state promoting what (they believe to be) the good of the nation. Well, here was their chance for the government to shine.
The result was shameful failure. The COVID-19 crisis put left-wing and right-wing statism on trial—and both were found guilty of ill-intent and gross incompetence.
After all, the CDC is the reason America lagged behind other nations for so long in terms of COVID-19 testing. We had the virus genome fully mapped in January, which enabled the rapid production of private testing kits. But the CDC forced these operations to shut down, coming up with its own test—which was flawed, and even contaminated! Testing and tracing could have stemmed the worst of the COVID-19 tide.
On this issue alone, CDC ineptitude is likely responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Its red tape and incompetence made containing the COVID-19 pandemic, like a few other countries were able to, impossible.
How about the FDA? And schools?
It is no secret that the vaccine was delayed because it needed FDA approval. Indeed, several working vaccines could have come much earlier, were it not for our bungling bureaucrat gatekeepers. (Dear FDA: Can you please speed things up a little, so people do not, you know, die? It would make us ever so happy if you did. Thanks.)
The toll on school-aged children is immense, from psychological trauma to impeded learning. Low-income families were hit especially hard. They often lacked the means to participate in distance learning, and having their kids at home made it harder for parents to earn much-needed income.
Fortunately, there seems to be some well-deserved backlash against the crony public education establishment. Hopefully a mass exodus to more effective and accountable learning platforms will follow, whether that is charter schools, private schools, or homeschooling. Even more hopefully, parents will realize public education racketeers are not their friends. They should demand loud and clear: Fund students, not systems!
The private sector did deliver
In stark contrast to these unacceptable failures by government agencies and employees, the private sector delivered.
Big Pharma and Big Tech are the winners here. Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and many other companies did amazing work getting the vaccines developed as quickly as they did. Public health “experts” repeatedly claimed a vaccine would not be available for 18 months, at the earliest. (Shows what they know!)
As for Big Tech, companies like Facebook and Twitter helped us stay connected while we were forced physically to remain apart. Amazon responded well to a huge surge in demand, stemming from the curtailment of in-person shopping. Faced with an immense logistical challenge, the online retailer surpassed expectations.
These sectors and their star performers are not perfect, of course.
In the past, Big Pharma lobbied for many of the regulatory roadblocks that made fighting COVID-19 so hard. Big Tech got egg on its face for covering up the Hunter Biden laptop story. Nevertheless, the takeaway is clear: 2020 would have been much, much more miserable without these supposedly evil big businesses in our corner. We owe them far more than we give them.
2021 is the perfect time to revisit our basic beliefs about the role of government and business in society. Both were unexpectedly challenged by the greatest public health crisis in recent memory.
Government failed. Business triumphed. Statism should be discredited, hopefully for an entire generation. Any coherent political philosophy for the 21st century must start from this basic truth.
Alexander William Salter is an associate professor of economics in the Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech University, the Comparative Economics Research Fellow at TTU’s Free Market Institute, and a senior fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research’s Sound Money Project.