by Lowman S. Henry | March 30, 2020

There is no doubt that America and the world are in uncharted waters. The global Coronavirus pandemic has touched every life and governments at all levels are struggling to contain spread of the virus while at the same time allowing essential services to continue to function.

Even in times of crisis, however, there are timeless principles that still apply.  State government in particular has run afoul of some of those principles – with disastrous consequences – and embraced others which have proven to be effective.

Chief among the mis-steps has been Governor Tom Wolf’s “order” that all so-called non-life sustaining businesses must close their physical locations.

The “order” was handed down at the close of business on a Friday, initially to take effect almost immediately, and it unleashed mass chaos.

First and foremost that “order” is a monumental abuse of executive authority.  Wolf lacks either the constitutional or statutory power to mandate such a ban. Legal challenges have been mounted to portions of the ban, but neither the courts nor the legislature have provided the checks and balances supposedly built into our system of government.

State government’s stab at mico-managing the private sector has met with the same lack of success as every other such socialistic undertaking.  The faceless bureaucrats who developed the list delineating what businesses are essential and non-essential clearly lacked even the most basic understanding of how the economy works.

Bans on the manufacturing sector broke critical supply chains, and deprived manufacturers of the flexibility needed to shift production to items needed to sustain life. The list – developed without input from the manufacturing sector – allowed the end manufacturers of products to remain open, while mandating the closure of those companies that provided them with the necessary components to fabricate the end product.

For example a company that manufacturers carbon batteries was ordered closed even though those batteries are essential to the function of medical equipment needed to provide care to hospitalized patients.  A firm that produces auto parts was told to shutter its doors – depriving the United States Postal Services of the parts needed to keep its vehicles on the road.

Businesses on the closure list can appeal.  Thousands did so clogging the system and allowing those very same government bureaucrats who erroneously deemed them non-essential to rule on their appeal.  In other words people who don’t know what they are doing are telling those who do know what they are doing what they can and cannot do.

Worse, the wavier process is shrouded in secrecy. The Wolf Administration has not made available to the public a list of who has been granted and who has been denied waivers.  Investigative reporting also revealed that a company owned by Governor Wolf’s family, and one owned by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, were initially exempt from the shut-down order in a blatant act of political favoritism.

The governor justifies his action by the need to curtail social interaction and slow the spread of the Coronavirus.  That absolutely must take place.  But, state government is not in a position to dictate what is and is not essential and its efforts to do so have done nothing but create chaos and take away the flexibility the private sector needs to respond to the crisis.

So while government management of the economy has predictably been a dismal failure, the loosening of regulations – especially in the provision of health care services – has allowed the deployment of previously unavailable or restricted resources.

Early on, the Department of State allowed health care professionals licensed under its auspices to provide tele-medicine services.  It also now allows medical staff in other states to practice via tele-medicine.  This greatly improved flexibility and instantly made medical care available to a wider range of patients.

The state also moved to reactivate a larger number of retired doctors and nurses by temporarily waving continuing education requirements so they can immediately return to service.  Likewise cross-state border restrictions were removed to allow for pharmaceutical providers in other states to provide services in Pennsylvania.  Restrictions on nurse licensure requirements have also been relaxed to fight the Coronavirus.

Legislation, particularly authorizing the expanded use of tele-medicine, has been moving slowly through the General Assembly.  That restrictions were removed during a time of crisis has demonstrated they are unnecessary and can provide patients with a wider range of health care options even under normal circumstances.

We have now proven once again that government cannot micro-manage an economy, and that over-regulation is a barrier to the efficient deployment of essential services.  Government has often not heeded the lessons of history which teach us these truisms, but we now have real time examples of what works and what does not.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the Lincoln Radio Journal.  His e-mail address is [email protected].)

 Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.