Getting government out of the way to fight the coronavirus

In 2019, Federal Net Outlays came to 21.7% of Gross Domestic Product. That was $4.4 trillion, more in real inflation adjusted terms than the federal government has ever spent before. Even so, some think that the federal government’s response to the coronavirus has been constrained by a lack of resources. I offer, as just one example, Binyamin Applebaum, New York Times writer and author of the exceptionally poor recent book, The Economists’ Hour:

In fact, across the country, we have seen policymakers facing the coronavirus desperately trying to get government out of the way.


On Sunday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott waived state laws that prohibit alcohol industry trucks from delivering supplies to grocery stores, offering grocers another way to keep shelves stocked. “This is yet another example of the private sector stepping up and Texans helping Texans as we all work to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in our state,” Gov. Abbott said. “I thank the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission for its assistance in this effort. By waiving these regulations, we are streamlining the process to replenish the shelves in grocery stores across the state.”

KVUE reports that the regulations in question were:

  • The oversize and overweight permitting requirements under Transportation Code, Chapters 621 through 623, as well as Title 43, Chapter 219 of the Texas Administrative Code, for all divisible and non-divisible vehicles and loads.

  • The International Registration Plan (IRP) vehicle registration under Transportation Code § 502.091 and 43 Tex. Admin. Code § 217.56, as long as the vehicle is registered in one of the 48 contiguous states of the United States.

  • The 72-hour and 144-hour temporary registration permits under Transportation Code § 502.094 and 43 Tex. Admin. Code § 217.40(b)(3), as long as the vehicle is registered in one of the states of the United States.

You might be asking yourself: “Why do we have those regulations in the first place?”


In Colorado, it was announced this week that state regulators will allow medical professionals licensed in other states to start practicing immediately. The state plans to bring in contract nurses from out of state to help the hardest hit communities, and it will tap into students and faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Again, you might be asking yourself: “Why do we have those regulations in the first place?” Driver’s licenses issued by one state are accepted in all others, why not licenses for medical practitioners (and other professions)? Is there anywhere in the United States where medicine is practiced in such a horrific fashion that you wouldn’t want doctors or nurses licensed there to treat you?

Washington D.C.

A major problem in dealing with the coronavirus has been a shortage of testing kits. Earlier this week, the first commercial tests for the disease, which could dramatically increase the number of people who can be screened, have received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Wired reports:

Both tests received approval on Friday, less than 24 hours after the companies submitted their applications to the FDA. “This action today shows our agency’s dedication to working around the clock to review and authorize diagnostics during this public health emergency,” FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement.

This rapid action was possible beause of the FDA’s ability to expedite approval. This allows faster approval of treatments for serious conditions that fill an unmet medical need. Indeed, after the FDA announced that they would  expedite approval for tests validated by approved labs, more research groups have stepped up efforts to design them.

And again, you might be asking yourself: “Why don’t we do this anyway?”

The most terrifying words in the English language

In each case we have asked: “Why do we have those regulations in the first place?” In each case, the answer, ostensibly, at any rate, wold be “To protect public health”. But we can be skeptical of such an answer when, in the face of a genuine public health crisis like the coronavirus, we find them hampering our response and rush to get rid of them as quickly as we can. This is not to say that we should ditch all such regulations: as I’ll explain tomorrow, this would be a bad idea. But let us take that skepticism away from this.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.