The virus of the bureaucratic mind
By Alberto Mingardi
I lack the necessary imagination to say what Italy should do in the Coronavirus crisis which has been going on for the last two weeks. Now the government has locked the country down, most likely because they fear the epidemic reaching the South. Closing the schools down, which was done last week, is a measure that signals a great danger (it never happened, after WWII) and that should have affected individual behavior, producing those habits that apparently could contain the spread of the virus (wash your hands repeatedly, cough in your elbow, stay one meter away from any stranger…). Yet that did not happen, people did not change their behaviour and so we ended up with a national lockdown.
The demand for intensive care beds in hospitals is growing and putting under stress the healthcare system of Lombardy (the region of Milan), which is considered a very good one. The healthcare system in the south has a far lesser reputation and people are pessimistic about its ability to cope to a spiral of contagions. This is why the government is trying desperately to slow the spread of the contagion.
I don’t envy the position of those in government. But having said that I do not know what should be done, I am pretty sure about what should not be done. The extent of economic damage will be assessed when the epidemic calms down, but it is certainly VERY significant. Those who work in the services, events and tourism industries are hit very hard. There will be a huge demand for subsidies, bailouts, etc., and some will be unavoidable.
Yet I think that to have a comeback after a war you would need basically one thing: a certain amount of benign neglect. Let people be. Particularly those young people who, lacking any more certain and more established alternatives, will have to be self-employed, to give entrepreneurship a go. Alas, this is at odds with the mentality of our political and bureaucratic elites.
A small example. The Italian Privacy authority has prohibited businesses to “collect, in a pre-emptive, systematic and generalized fashion (including by way of specific requests to individual employees or non-consensual investigations) information on the existence of flu-like symptoms in the employee himself and in his closest relations, or at any rate in his acquaintances not pertaining to the employee’s working environment.” This ruling was occasioned by the fact that a number of businesses were measuring the temperature of their employees upon entrance in their buildings, and quizzing them (have you been in any of the “red areas”? Have you been exposed to sick people? And similar questions). Now, as a libertarian, I care about privacy as much as anybody else, but what these businesses were doing was not playing the doctors or the healthcare experts, but rather to put in place some practices in order to reduce the fears of other employees and thus, somehow, keep going on. It’s life: when bad things happen, people try to adjust, experiment, and cope. Will prohibiting them from doing so help anybody?
I hope the contagion is at a certain point kept under control, and Italy can go back to normal life. Then we will have the deal with all the economic damage. Whatever economic “stimulus” government will put in place, I think reconstruction will be tremendously hard, if we don’t start to allow people to try their way. But this ruling of the Privacy authority tells me that I belong to a very small minority in thinking so.