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Federalism in the Coronavirus Pandemic

The uniqueness of the times is self-evident. No one alive has experienced a pandemic on this scale. The Coronavirus pandemic and the reactions to it have created unlimited opportunity for observers to weigh in on all that has been mishandled and why. Although controversial, there are some alternative viewpoints that might have merit, despite their lack of public awareness. As usual, prioritizing personal freedoms has been largely ignored, underreported, and misrepresented.  

To be fair, we should assume that politicians and policymakers of all stripes have been trying their best to produce optimal outcomes for their constituents. It would be hard to make a convincing argument that any decision-maker knowingly made public health choices that they thought were sacrificing the lives of some in order to make a point. If we then acknowledge the uniqueness of the times and that best interests have been a prime policy motivator, then perhaps we can be more objective and flexible in our analysis of the crisis’s response management than the nightly narrative that most media outlets wish to feed us.

The U.S. is a federation made up of 50 states. This structure offers up a myriad of opportunities to second guess almost anything that happens as a result of state level powers that define (in this case) health needs and policy. These powers are as they should be, as a large and diverse nation such as ours has manifestly varying needs and at differing times and circumstances. Many have argued that not having a single, national public health solution is an unfortunate truth producing near tragic results. I disagree. 

There are many advantages to having a system which offers a decentralized power framework sited at the state level. Efficiency is not meant to be one of them. However, as each state distills the growing but changing body of coronavirus data and mutable public health recommendations, we see that fifty different approaches have emerged.

In the case of the coronavirus, our system yields the benefits of the statistical advantage that 50 different trials would offer over a single trial when seeking a superior outcome. This is longer term thinking, but this is a long term game we are playing. We get to observe fifty nuanced methods instead of a primitive blunt object approach like the one seen earlier this year.

At a time when profound and fascinating leaps in technology improve our lives, it is fair to ask, “Can’t we do better than shutting in the young and healthy, just as we do the most vulnerable and the elderly?” Of course we can. We also know that when fifty states are running off in fifty different directions, there will be some setbacks.

When viewed another way, we can also ask what of the cost being borne by miscalculations on the part of some states that could have been more creative or more aggressive? What about the damage inflicted in the form of outsized social and financial damage that has gone virtually unreported by virtue of not taking advantage of what has been learned by other states? This is information that would have been impossible to glean without a federation such as ours.

From the very beginning, South Dakota, for example, has emphasized individual freedom, personal responsibility and early treatment with therapeutics as its approach. Its infection and death rates adjusted for population remain multiples lower than the big blue states with all of their curfews and lockdowns. Are there reasons that a state such as South Dakota should stray away from a New York style solution? You bet. Is there a difference in the density of South Dakota than of other states and that for that reason alone different tactics might be tried? Of course. Case made.

In some states anxious to re-open and restore maximum freedoms for their residents, we have seen new coronavirus cases soar. Instead of a simple reflex decrying failed policy, critics might be rewarded if they paused, thought and analyzed whether there might be more at work here.

Perhaps some policymakers are utilizing the data produced from fifty different approaches that have assayed different treatments producing a variety of results. Perhaps the greater number of cases was expected as greater testing regimes are put in place and returning rights to people was made a priority. 

Many leftwing observers seem thoroughly vexed by the apparent indifference of a stock market that refuses to revert to its crouched position of late-March in the face of a new surge of reported cases. Perhaps the market expected a certain amount of stubbornness in the pandemic but also is seeing the divergence in the mortality experience now versus earlier.

Unlike what we saw in March, mortality rates have been far less correlated to infection rates and healthcare systems are not being overwhelmed as they had been. Perhaps some mixture of reopening society combined with the precautions that we have learned is guiding us toward a best practice model — one where using the science as produced by a federation of fifty free states offers at least the chance of a more welcomed and sophisticated equilibrium between civil liberties and health policy.

It is time to reconsider the importance and benefits of decision-making closer to the individual. History has shown an unassailable record that eventually results from individuals acting in their collective best interests. Given time and opportunity, free people are stunningly prescient, and the COVID-19 pandemic is the latest example of this for those who care to see it.

Robert B. Chernin

Robert B. Chernin

Robert is a longtime entrepreneur, business leader, fundraiser, and former radio talk show host. He studied political science at McGill University in Montreal and has spent over 25 years deeply involved in civic affairs at all levels. Robert has consulted on a variety of federal and statewide campaigns at the gubernatorial, congressional, senatorial, and presidential level. He served in leadership roles in the presidential campaigns of President George W. Bush as well as McCain for President. He led Florida’s Victory 2004’s national Jewish outreach operations as Executive Director. In addition, he served on the President’s Committee of the Republican Jewish Coalition.