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Economics of Liberty Front Page Opinions

When Atlas Is Washing His Hands

What happens when Atlas stops holding up the world? In Ayn Rand’s famous (and if I may add brilliant) novel Atlas Shrugged, the producers of the world eventually get fed up with government’s continuous strangling harassment and quit. Spoiler alert: The world doesn’t fare well without the producers who keep society moving…working…innovating…building.

Now, imagine a slightly different scenario than what Rand described. Imagine a force that brings the entire World to a terrifying halt. Everyone is scared to be productive, work, and create. We don’t have to imagine because we’re living it. Americans have been told to socially distance, stay in their homes, and in some cases – ordered to do these things under threat of force by government.

Welcome to life when we’re facing an invisible enemy: The Wuhan Coronavirus (Covid-19).

This virus is doing more to stop productive society than even the fiercest communist soldiers of the Evil Empire could have ever dreamed. Businesses are closing, restaurants can’t serve customers in their dining rooms, workers are furloughed, while only those deemed “essential” are allowed to work outside their homes.

The federal government passed a record two trillion-dollar stimulus. Yes, it’s full of frivolous spending that is unrelated to the Covid-19 pandemic. But aside from that, a government stimulus bill is never going to keep the economy going. The free market economy is something so complex that it is difficult to recognize how many components and individuals are responsible for even the simplest product – like a pencil. Thus, everyday products won’t be made if the entire workforce (i.e., the economy) is stopped. Consequently, our normal standard of living and possibly life-saving essentials are gone.

Let’s pretend that the government stimulus magically gives every American more than enough money. (It won’t – some Americans will get only a little over a thousand dollars – but we’re pretending.) If no one is working to produce goods, there will not be goods to buy. No goods to purchase will make a society as pathetic and impoverished as the poorest, most underdeveloped countries in the world. The very countries that medical and natural disasters hurt the most.

The economy is not some disconnected thing that can be put on hold while our country focuses on a medical crisis. It is not some bureaucratic model that some far-off pencil pusher can decide who is essential or not. The economy is an organically complex mess that is orchestrated by an ‘invisible hand’, which is made up of consumers’ demands and suppliers’ self-interests. And it ends with everyone’s standard of living being raised through well-supplied goods being accessible.

This is not to say that social distancing guidelines are not good. If you can, you should absolutely stay home. If you can work from your computer, then do it.

But some people can’t because of personal financial reasons (i.e., they live paycheck-to-paycheck) or they are the lifeblood of our civilization, providing basic human needs. The truck drivers who are the supply-chain of this country get your necessities to the grocery store down the street. The workers at those far off locations grow or make the food that you consume daily. The factories making that toilet paper that we all have realized is a necessary, yet all too elusive, commodity. They are everyday heroes.

This crisis should remind us of how necessary and intricate each part of our market economy is. As it is, we are getting closer and closer to knowing what happens to the world when Atlas is washing his hands.

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