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President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa. Picture: GCIS

When you drop a rubber ball on the pavement, no-one should really be surprised when the ball bounces back towards your hand. No-one would ascribe it to your superpowers or your powers of levitation. You might have to lower your hand slightly to catch it but it will return most of the way.

In a similar way, after a brief societal lockdown, economic activity will return close to its previous levels and patterns. No-one would (or should) ascribe the rapid recovery to a government’s superpowers of “job creation” or “stimulus”. When the lockdown is brief and people expect it to be brief, social and employment relations are likely to be maintained — much as they would during a vacation, and then return to normal quickly after the break.

The longer and more intrusive the lockdown, however, the harder and more expensive it is to maintain some types of employment relations and social contact. Patterns of activity and some relationships are less likely to return to the way they were, but activity and interactions will resume nonetheless.

The pandemic of lockdowns around the world should remind us that it was not governments that created the economic activity that they chose to suppress. No centrally planned economy has ever sustained economic growth at levels exhibited in all those other countries where some modicum of market freedom has existed. The effect of the extraordinary governmental actions during the pandemic was to suppress economic and other social activity, not to enhance it or even to protect its source.

Government, by its nature, is different from the individuals that comprise it, and from the other citizens to whom they are accountable. For most of what we do in our lives, governments are not competent to make choices for us. When we go to the grocer it would be absurd to subject each of our purchases to a majority vote in the community — let alone by parliament. It is hard enough to get a family to agree on the menu, but that is as far out as such decisions should ever reach.

Governmental powers can be used to punish and deter those who would cheat us on quality, and endanger us through unclean practices. But governments are terrible at deciding which crops and livestock to supply, and of how much of each type to produce. The more governments try to do “for” us beyond their core strength of protecting our property and persons from fraud and aggression, the more obviously they do things badly and invite corruption into all their activities.

It is hard enough to get good medical advice from a doctor or other medical professional. Why would anyone ask a group of politicians to vote on one’s medical treatment or daily health regimen? Governments around the world have a history of over-regulating medical and health professionals, of creating perverse incentives for hospitals and medical schemes, and of promoting a dull uniformity of practice which, over time, slows and misdirects innovative activities.

That is perhaps too subtle a way of expressing suspicions that government medical policies might have unwittingly killed and injured more people than they have saved over the years. But future historians of the recent pandemic hysteria will not be able, in all honesty, to avoid such indictments.

The root of our problems lies not in our abilities to supply food, medical and other services to ourselves. The problem springs from the misbegotten belief that none of these activities can be conducted either safely or to an adequate level without government oversight and funding. If local criminals or foreign powers were targeting our food and medical systems for theft or destruction, we would certainly want our governments to be focused on preventing and deterring such attacks. But to achieve such focus and to be competent in those few things for which governments are suited, our governments must stay out of civil society.

How well are governments protecting the lives and property of the people in their jurisdictions? Are the police forces disciplined, well-trained, incorruptible, and effective? Are the courts impartial, fair, judicious, and protective of the righteous? If the answer is anything less than an effusive “Yes”, then our governments have their priorities wrong.

For such governments that cannot manage their own core functions, it is especially obvious that they have no business micromanaging our lives. But it is those very governments that are most likely to lack the moral grounding and intellectual coherence to resist spending other people’s money excessively, taxing the productive, subsidising the misbegotten, and regulating everything else.

It is said a government that has the power to give you everything also has the power to take away everything you have. But in real life governments are capable only of the second part. If that sounds too much like your government, the question is: who has dropped the ball?

• Grant is professor of finance & economics at Cumberland University, Tennessee, and a Free Market Foundation senior consultant. 

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