What is the cost of freedom and liberty in the era of coronavirus?

What is the cost of freedom and liberty in the era of coronavirus?
© Getty Images

To reassure concerned Americans about the coronavirus, President Trump held a press conference with the heads of some of the largest companies in the country. One of the messages he was clearly hoping to convey was that, however feckless the federal response had been to that point, he is now harnessing the skills and innovative approaches of business leaders. Any enthusiasm that might have been generated for relying on the forces of capitalism to protect us, however, quickly disappeared as the national struggle to address the spreading pandemic has now been more urgent.

Since the 1980s, we have lost sight of the notion that our country must have a mix of government and markets to keep us safe and prosperous. Americans rightly value individualism, but that is not enough to protect our liberty. The history of the United States is one that has relied on both government and markets to ensure that liberty. It is certainly easy to see how markets promote liberty, since individuals are free to make whatever choices they deem appropriate. But the government is also necessary to promote liberty. This is because the market system, when left to its own devices, creates risks for individuals that push far beyond their control. When this happens, the government can and must act to keep us safer.

Americans should of course welcome help from the largest companies in the country. It is not the market system and individualism, however, that will save the day. To get through this, we need a collective and organized response, led by competent and prepared government leaders with the foresight to plan before the problem turns from a crisis to a catastrophe.


The focus right now is on the lack of coronavirus testing kits, emergency planning, and so on, but the lack of federal government preparation runs much deeper. With our emphasis on individualism rather than smart and effective governance, we have created a level of economic inequality that will harm all of us by leading to a wider outbreak and even more financial dislocation. The inequities hardwired into our economy, such as jobs that do not pay a living wage and the lack of health insurance for millions of workers, leave many of our fellow men and women at far greater risks.

Even if testing kits are available, people without health insurance would avoid them because of the cost of supportive care following a diagnosis. People will go to work even if they think they might be sick because they need to earn the money to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Any time that we are not able to heed the public guidance to stay at home and avoid personal interaction, we increase the danger that our hospitals will become overwhelmed, unable to care for the elderly and vulnerable who are seriously ill, or anyone else suffering from a medical emergency.

The United States has greatly benefited from a robust market system, but sensible public policy can ensure that its prosperity reaches everyone and that we work together to protect each other from harm. In the short term, we should make emergency aid available for those millions of Americans who will be staying home without pay. We cannot let people starve, suffer from malnutrition, or be thrown out of their homes when they lose work.

The government must do all this and much more to reduce the severity of the incoming recession. In the long term, our elected leaders should pass and effectively implement health care and economic measures to ensure that there is no “next time” of facing a pandemic unprepared. A new mix of government and markets is necessary both today and into the future.

Sidney Shapiro is the Fletcher Chair in Administrative Law at Wake Forest University and is a board member with the Center for Progressive Reform.