We need government, but we need civil society even more

03 July 2020
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I was sitting at my desk when the whole world started shaking violently.

I desperately tried to hit “save” on my computer, but the power went out before I had the chance.

It was October 17 1989, a few minutes after 5pm.

The bridge linking Oakland to San Francisco Bridge in the US collapsed and, within seconds, people and homes were crushed under tons of cement and steel.

Then hundreds of miracles started taking place.

While “first responders” squabbled about how to save people under the collapsed highway, residents of the neighbourhood built ladders to climb up and bring victims to safety.

In San Francisco, a city that ran electric buses but now had no power, a few of the old fuel driven vehicles were brought out.

Space being limited, tens of thousands of commuters had to resort to walking home.

In front of my bookstore, little blue vans ran up and down Market Street.

One thing about people and what we call “civil society”, including free markets, is they are flexible in ways the iron built structures of government are incapable of.

Legally, they were “allowed” to take people to and from the airport, but nothing more. But now flights had been cancelled, so the van drivers started going back and forth giving people free rides from one end of the city to the other.

It was illegal, but they did it anyway.

At intersections, the homeless and those deemed to be “bums” got up and directed traffic.

Around the city, civilians were putting out fires and rescuing the trapped.

One thing about people and what we call “civil society”, including free markets, is they are flexible in ways the iron built structures of government are incapable of.

I happen to think we need government, but we need civil society even more.

We need government to do what it does well, but we also need it to leave civil society to do what it can do, especially in times of crisis.

In New York, a directive said nursing homes and elderly care facilities had to accept recovering Covid-19 coronavirus patients.

The virtue of free markets is that they terrify conservatives on both the left and right – and by “conservative”, I mean those who tend to think change and evolution are evil and need to be centrally planned and controlled.

But these homes were filled with people who were prime targets for this deadly virus, and all this did was spread the virus to thousands more, killing many of them along the way.

By the time the directive was repealed, thousands had died.

The issue is one of flexibility. As reality changes – and it tends to do that – we have to change with it.

But government is slow to move even as society evolves.

Consider how major corporations in the US were offering equal benefits to same-sex couples they employed, but it took government years to catch up.

The virtue of free markets is that they terrify conservatives on both the left and right – and by “conservative”, I mean those who tend to think change and evolution are evil and need to be centrally planned and controlled.

These types of conservatives can be on either the right or the left, as neither holds a monopoly on rigid thinking.

When restaurants closed due to the virus, they started promoting drive-through options or home delivery services.

I still get my restaurant meals to go because I take the virus seriously.

The ones who adjusted are going to survive much better than those who didn’t.

Meanwhile, all these government departments are shuttered up with their employees paid to stay at home.

You can’t take a driver’s test even though law requires it, but you can get takeaway at McDonald’s.

All over, we see private industry doing dramatic about turns and changing how they operate, while government agencies lumber alone, unsure of how to change anything.

Markets adjust quickly, business practices evolve – at least they do unless or until the regulatory state comes along and shackles them.

It is one thing for government to protect the life, liberty and property of individuals – a state that puts rights first – and another thing when it is constantly overreaching and preventing the betterment of the world.

At first, Covid-19 testing was a government monopoly in the US and only a very special few could be tested.

Contrary to presidential assertions, no one was being tested. Government stood in the middle of the highway shouting: “Stop!”

Only when the federal government got out of the way did testing ability explode.

I saw the same thing decades ago when then US president Jimmy Carter started the deregulation of telephone monopolies.

Government got out of the way and dozens of new providers sprung up and new technologies were invented, enriching the entire world as a result.

It is one thing for government to protect the life, liberty and property of individuals – a state that puts rights first – and another thing when it is constantly overreaching and preventing the betterment of the world.

When it comes to Covid-19 or any other crisis, there are things markets do brilliantly and they should be allowed to do it.

I don’t think markets can solve every problem, but I do believe individuals can, or, at the very least, only individuals can solve problems when problems exist.

They may not succeed, but, ultimately, if solutions are found, individuals seeking new solutions will find them.

Freedom is important for precisely that reason.

This article was first published on City Press on 25 June 2020 


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