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Editorial: Coronavirus Shows Virtues of Limited Government

The Wuhan coronavirus, which has consumed the lives of 7,330 people worldwide, has hundreds of millions of Americans on lockdown. If economic models prove correct, the pandemic will precipitate a contraction in the United States' economy; the Federal Reserve has responded by cutting the federal funds rate by a hundred basis points to 0-0.25%.

It is obvious that the coronavirus will come with a multitude of consequences, many of them profoundly negative. However, one positive effect of the pandemic may be a renewed commitment to the founding principle of limited government, instituted in the U.S. through federalism.

Federalism is an arrangement wherein the feds do what only the national government can do, e.g. maintaining a military, immigration standards, terms for foreign trade, tribunals for crimes committed across state borders, etc. This restriction of federal power, codified by Article One and the Bill of Rights, protects Americans from tyranny.

Obviously, if government is to protect life, liberty, and property, it cannot be restrained to functions of a strictly national nature. The Founders recognized this and empowered the states with the other functions of government: law enforcement, education, licensure, insurance regulation, and so on.

The Founders' federalist model is clearly elucidated by the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, submitted by James Madison: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

James Madison (Mental Floss)

However, as of late, the U.S. has slipped away from the premise that the national government should only handle strictly national issues. We have granted the feds the power to oversee mortgages, state educational standards, healthcare plans, and a host of other areas that are clearly not within the sphere of Washington, D.C. The expansion of the federal government's scope has greatly reduced the prerogatives of state governments, relegating them to vassals through which the feds execute their preferred policies.

Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the tables have turned. The federal government had its head in the sand until a few days ago, though it did institute international travel bans (something that is within the scope of the national government, as it is something only the national government can do).

States and municipalities, on the other hand, have been exceedingly proactive within their sphere of influence -- just as the Constitution allows. States initiated bans on public gatherings, with Ohio decreeing "that NCAA basketball tournament games scheduled for his state would have to be played without fans in the stands." In a picture-perfect demonstration of state prerogatives, the "NCAA followed by canceling the entire tournament." Multiple states have effectively banned eating out and schools are being shuttered from coast to coast.

President Donald Trump recommended yesterday that gatherings be limited to less than ten people, but the state governments were clearly ten steps ahead of the feds: They recognized the severity of the coronavirus and exercised their prerogatives accordingly. That is no indictment of the president, but instead an affirmation of the legitimate, constitutionally-mandated balance of power between the local and the federal governments.


The coronavirus pandemic also demonstrates the virtue of a limited federal footprint. The U.S. has trailed other developed nations in testing for the coronavirus, leading to a frank admission from Dr. Anthony Fauci: "The [testing] system is not really geared to what we need right now. That is a failing. Let's admit it." The consensus is that the U.S. is behind the ball because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) originally developed a test that yielded false results. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) compounded the problem by suppressing private innovation.

Regarding the first point, the New York Times reports,

The C.D.C. had designed its own test as it typically does during an outbreak. Several other countries also developed their own tests. But when the C.D.C. shipped test kits to public labs across the country, some local health officials began reporting that the test was producing invalid results. The C.D.C. promised that replacement kits would be distributed within days, but the problem stretched on for over two weeks.

Bureaucratic failure is hardly a surprise, but more bewildering is the federal government's restriction of private-sector research. The Atlantic, hardly a bastion of libertarianism, observes,

The Food and Drug Administration has a protocol called emergency use authorization, or EUA, through which it clears tests from labs around the country for use in an outbreak. ... [D]uring past outbreaks, EUAs could be granted in just a couple of days. But this time, the requirements for getting an EUA were so complicated that it would have taken weeks to receive one, says Alex Greninger, the assistant director of the virology division at the University of Washington Medical Center...

The New York Times describes a similar scenario:

New tests typically require validation — running the test on known positive samples from a patient or a copy of the virus genome. The F.D.A.’s process called for five. Obtaining such samples has been hard because most hospital labs have not seen coronavirus cases yet, said Dr. Karen Kaul, chair of the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem in Illinois.

The Atlantic concludes, "Dozens of labs in the U.S. were eager to make tests and willing to test patients, but they were hamstrung by regulations for most of February, even as the virus crept silently across the nation" (emphasis mine).

It is usually difficult to demonstrate the veracity of theoretical premises, but in this case, the failures of big government are manifest. Lives have been lost because of Washington, D.C.'s draconian restrictions on innovation, implemented through the FDA, and the feds have apparently accepted responsibility. The Wall Street Journal reports,

The [FDA] said late Monday that it will allow private companies to begin marketing coronavirus test kits directly to the public, in a new initiative to ease a chronic shortage of test kits. ... The FDA said it will review the accuracy of test data submitted by the manufacturers retroactively—a decision that FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn acknowledged had risks, but was warranted by the severity of the pandemic.

The FDA is also seeing the virtues of federalism, albeit belatedly: "Dr. Hahn said the FDA said also will allow individual states to approve new diagnostic tests, as it already has done for New York. He said that the state initiative is designed to make state authorities act as a surrogate to the FDA during the current epidemic" (emphasis mine).

Dr. Hahn understands that in the absence of federal wherewithal, the state governments can pick up the slack (just as the Founders intended). Hopefully, the American people come to the same conclusion and recognize that the coronavirus pandemic is an affirmation of our constitutional order: limited government made possible by federalism.