THE CORONAVIRUS HAS broken everyone's windows, and the glazier cannot leave his house to fix them.
In his classic essay, "That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen," Frederic Bastiat describes a pane of glass smashed by a shopkeeper's careless son. He imagines a crowd gathered around. "It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live," the gawkers mutter comfortingly, "and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?"
Bastiat's great contribution to popular economics was to succinctly and memorably ask his readers to look beyond the obvious, or seen, economic activity--the reglazing of the broken window--and consider also what has been foregone, the unseen. "As our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing," Bastiat patiently explains, "he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library." COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, and has since swept across the globe, is the ill wind that blows nobody good. The window is broken, the glazier cannot come to fix it, and neither the cobblers nor the bookbinders have worked in weeks.
HUMAN BEINGS AND markets thrive on certainty and predictability. Rule of law is preferable to rule by men for this reason. But while rule of law has not broken down in most affected countries--at least not yet--the rule of emergency order is far from desirable.
As things stand, most people and businesses are uncertain about not only what conduct is safe if they are to protect themselves and others from sickness and death, but also what is legal as they try to protect themselves from financial ruin.
Restaurateurs in Los Angeles, for instance, were ordered to close their dining rooms in order to prevent disease transmission. Those men and women, faced with deep freezers and pantries full of food in a city where many were struggling to get groceries, saw an obvious solution--they could temporarily become grocery stores. Unfortunately, that's illegal. The city attempted to fix the problem by waiving the regulations prohibiting such storefront conversions but only managed to get halfway there, legalizing grocery delivery from those shops but not in-person purchasing.
In many places, shelter-in-place, curfew, quarantine, and lockdown orders have been difficult to interpret and spottily enforced, and the...