On June 18, 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill steeled his people for the Battle of Britain with a stirring speech in the House of Commons that concluded: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
The present coronavirus crisis calls for Churchillian statesmanship, yet few, if any, democratically elected leaders have proven equal to the task so far. This is decidedly not our finest hour.
The leaders of the world’s democracies have virtually shut down democratic capitalism in an attempt to save lives. From Hungary to Michigan, right-wing and left-wing authoritarians are ruling by decree to keep their populations under tight control. Unemployment and government debt are spiraling to levels not seen since the Great Depression and World War II. Europe is disintegrating.
The financial and political costs of this shutdown will be enormous, and it is reasonable to ask if more lives will be lost as a consequence of the shutdown than as a consequence of the coronavirus. How many lifesaving biotechnology companies could have been started with the capital now being sucked out of the economy? How many patients will die as a consequence of normal healthcare operations, such as cancer detection, being delayed or hospitals going bankrupt? How many citizens will have years cut off their lives due to limited economic opportunities? These are just some of the big questions that democratic statesmen should be weighing at this point.
The point here is not that sacrifices and adjustments to our lives are not warranted in order to fight COVID-19. We should absolutely mobilize to fight this disease, and we would do well to invest more in healthcare in the future. The point is that free markets and working economies are absolutely essential in order to effectively mobilize the resources required to take on COVID-19 and other public health problems. Without essential liberty, there is no safety, to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin.
What would courageous and prudent statesmanship look like in the present crisis? From what roots can we seek strength, wisdom, and insight to make better decisions?
If ever there was a time to revive the best of the Western heritage, now is that time. At the heart of this heritage is the humane and life-affirming worldview of enlightened Christianity, which has always placed a premium on public health. As Rev. Robert Sirico points out in Defending the Free Market (2012), “Christendom invented the hospital,” and “modern healthcare institutions originated in Christian charity.”
One might even argue that democratic capitalism itself is rooted in Christian charity and healthcare. Hospitals enabled the systematic study of medicine and human health, which in turn helped spur the innovation of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age.
Likewise, doctors played a crucial role in the advancement of political liberty led by the British and American middle classes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This movement is epitomized by figures such as British physician and philosopher John Locke and Benjamin Rush, “the father of American psychiatry,” a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a committed Christian and abolitionist.
It was Locke who first articulated the natural rights of every human being to life, liberty, and property. He wrote in his Two Treatises on Government (1689) that one “may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to be the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.”
Healthcare, of course, “tends to be the preservation of life,” and Benjamin Rush made a compelling case for the necessity of liberty to the sound practice of medicine. As noted by Lewis A. Grossman in his article The Origins of American Health Libertarianism (2013), Rush argued against at least three types of harmful interference in the free practice of medicine as outlined in a lecture to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1801:
21c. The interference of governments in prohibiting the use of certain remedies, and enforcing the use of others by law. The effects of this mistaken policy has [sic] been as hurtful to medicine, as a similar practice with respect to opinions, has been to the Christian religion.
22.d. Conferring exclusive privileges upon bodies of physicians, and forbidding men of equal talents and knowledge, under severe penalties, from practising medicine within certain districts of cities and countries. Such institutions, however sanctioned by ancient charters and names, are the bastiles [sic] of our science.
23.d. The refusal in universities to tolerate any opinions, in the private or public exercises of candidates for degrees in medicine, which are not taught nor believed by their professors, thus restraining a spirit of inquiry in that period of life which is most distinguished for ardour and invention in our science.
Interestingly, Grossman suggests that Rush’s passion for medical liberty and freedom to experiment was “at least in part” a result of Rush’s deep disagreements and policy fights with the medical establishment in Philadelphia during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic. The parallels to today’s policy debates are striking.
A visionary political program to deal with COVID-19 and future pandemics would draw on the heritage of Locke and Rush to free up healthcare innovation and point out the life-threatening effects of totalitarianism and groupthink at home and abroad. Such a program would make medical liberty a core pillar of an American-led liberal world order for the twenty-first century much like the United States organized and rallied the free world after World War II.
It is beyond the scope of this article to outline every detail of such a program, but let me suggest a few key elements:
- Make a strong moral case for medical liberty, healthcare innovation, and healthcare investment as core pillars of democratic capitalism and a culture that values every human life.
- Reopen the economies and borders of the world’s democracies immediately while closely monitoring COVID-19 hot spots and applying locally driven restrictions as necessary.
- Prioritize supply-side tax cuts and deregulation over bailouts and unemployment benefits in order to quickly get the economy back on its feet.
- Launch an ambitious free-market healthcare reform agenda, removing bureaucratic obstacles to private sector innovation and investment in healthcare.
- Create a transatlantic free trade area for healthcare, giving American healthcare innovators greater access to European and Canadian health systems and vice versa.
- Make healthcare and biotechnology integral parts of NATO doctrine and preparedness, preventing totalitarian powers and terrorist organizations from deploying biological weapons and allowing military resources such as hospital ships and field hospitals to be deployed swiftly during future pandemics.
- Convene a global health summit of the world’s democracies, calling out China and other totalitarian governments for their suppression of information and free inquiry on public health matters, including COVID-19.
- Aim to present a united front of democratic countries within the World Health Organization and build a new global health forum exclusively for democracies.
- Make medical liberty, doctors, and hospitals core pillars of a free-market development agenda for post-conflict zones, emerging democracies, and nations stuck in poverty.
These proposals might seem fanciful with long odds of success, but so did the economic liberalization and revitalization of Europe after Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945. Yet this vital development came to pass thanks to statesmen such as Ludwig Erhard. In 1948, Erhard became director of economics at the Bizonal Economic Council set up by the British and American occupation forces in Germany. Faced with a stagnant and starving postwar Germany, Erhard unilaterally abolished all food rationing and price controls, prompting the military governor of the U.S. zone, General Lucius Clay, to say, “Herr Erhard, my advisers tell me what you have done is a terrible mistake.”
“Herr General, pay no attention to them,” replied Erhard. “My advisers tell me the same thing.”
Erhard’s free-market reforms proved a success, and he went on to become Minister of Economics, Chancellor of West Germany, and “the father of the German economic miracle.” For the free world to emerge vibrant and healthy from the COVID-19 crisis, we will need similar statesmen willing to challenge “experts” who ignore the full picture of society—statesmen who would stick with the fundamental, time-tested, and life-saving principles of liberty and charity.
(Photo credit: Public domain.)