President Trump has an opportunity both to defeat the novel coronavirus and to gain advantage for the United States in its struggle with China.
The competition between the U.S. and China for global influence predates both the coronavirus crisis and the Trump administration. It flared earlier in this presidency during trade negotiations. It resurfaced with Trump describing Covid-19 as the "Chinese virus.”
Now, China appears to have the upper hand. It has stopped reporting virus-related deaths, with official Chinese government numbers for Wuhan at 2,500, only a small fraction of the more than 40,000 that U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Asia says is closer to the truth.
China is also allowing medical supplies to be airlifted to New York from Shanghai. These supplies are so far being received without any questions about whether the Chinese had previously been deliberately holding them back.
An official in the George W. Bush administration, Peter Rough, warns that China "has been extremely adept at exploiting the virus for its global propaganda war against the United States."
An official in the Obama administration, Suzanne Nossel, writes that "Beijing has now mounted an aggressive domestic and global propaganda campaign to tout its draconian approach to the epidemic, downplay its role in sparking the global outbreak, and contrast its efforts favorably against those of Western governments and particularly the United States."
Unfortunately, to judge by some of the American antivirus tactics so far, it appears that the Chinese propaganda campaign has succeeded in duping at least some Americans into the false idea that centralized command-and-control authoritarianism is the best way to fight the virus. Instead of using our advantages over China — freedom, rule of law, democracy, liberty, individual choice — we’re at risk of abandoning those ideals precisely at the time that they are essential to the fight against the virus.
One of the biggest problems America faces is a mismatch between demand and supply. We need more Covid-19 tests, Covid-19 treatments, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, thermometers, and ventilators than we have. Some believe the solution to this is central planning and price controls. The New York Times editorial board proposes Chinese-style national coordination, with the federal government “tracking where needed resources are available and deciding where they should go,” thereby avoiding "a free-for-all" of buyers "bidding . . . for scarce resources," which might cause "price competition."
The attorneys general of 33 states are fighting "price gouging," instead of allowing the price mechanism to work. Experience shows, though, that the best way to summon supply to meet demand is to allow prices to rise. Preventing that is a recipe for shortages and rationing.
Another big problem facing America right now is how to balance the needs of different interest groups. Restricting the First Amendment freedom of assembly, as federal, state, and local governments have done either with “guidance” or emergency public health orders, deprives factions of the ability to organize and to advocate.
If doctors and nurses can’t rally to demand personal protective equipment, or if bar and restaurant owners and workers or airline employees can’t rally against restrictions that threaten their livelihoods, how are government officials supposed to respond to their needs? Politics with restrictions on freedom of assembly is like commerce with government-imposed price controls; it dulls the feedback mechanisms.
It’s like trying to operate a television with a remote control that is out of batteries.
Worse, imagine politics with arbitrarily postponed elections. Fourteen states and Puerto Rico have either delayed their presidential primaries or switched to vote-by-mail with extended deadlines.
That provides President Trump with bipartisan precedent to change the date of the presidential election for "public health" reasons if the virus is not defeated, or if polls well in advance of Election Day show him in jeopardy of losing. Allowing politicians the power to delay elections in a public health emergency reduces their incentives to end the emergency anytime soon.
America is even adopting Chinese-style restrictions on organized religion, with the mayor of New York City threatening fines and permanent closure of congregations that meet for worship services. How is the American spirit supposed to combat or endure this disease and the measures taken to counter it without First Amendment free-exercise rights—or, for that matter, without baseball or even Nascar racing?
Perhaps the politicians will next propose to permit only ping pong.
Some officials in the Trump administration understand these issues. The director of policy planning at the State Department, Peter Berkowitz, has a perceptive piece up at RealClear Politics under the headline "Liberal Democracy’s Advantage in Addressing Covid-19."
America’s best chance against the pandemic is allowing the American system of democratic capitalism, of freedom, to go to work. If that approach achieves victory, it won’t only defeat the virus. It will demonstrate to the rest of the world why the American way is better than the Chinese way.
Ira Stoll is author of "J.F.K. Conservative," and "Samuel Adams: A Life." Read more reports from Ira Stoll — Click Here Now.
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