In Crisis, Free Enterprise Works Better

It has been interesting in recent weeks to see the renewed faith some people have in government’s capabilities. To be helpful, I’ve compiled a partial list of recent headlines:

“Desperate Americans ask government vaccine coordinators to fix Chick-fil-A’s drive-thrus”
“Why the U.S. Postal Service should acquire Amazon and fix its money-bleeding operations”
“Opinion poll: Majority says the Apple Store would work better if the DMV were in charge”

OK, OK: Those were “fake news,” not real headlines. You may have even recognized that, in some cases, I turned reality on its head.
For example, the mayor of Mount Pleasant, S.C., asked the manager of his local Chick-fil-A for help with improving the traffic flow at a drive-thru vaccine clinic. As you’d expect, the wait times were reduced from one hour to just 15 minutes.

But let’s look at that example more broadly. The most successful part of the COVID-19 vaccine story is the development of the inoculations themselves, led by private companies. The easier task of distributing the vaccine – logistics being comparatively easier than rush-ordering a scientific breakthrough – has been handled by government, and botched in too many instances.
Still, our free enterprise system is under attack from an unprecedented barrage of executive actions the new Biden administration has taken to bring private business to heel. The unmistakable premise is that government knows better.
Relatedly, socialism is rising in popularity. But we can find some contradictions when we ask exactly what people mean by “socialism.”
A Gallup poll from October 2018 found the most common answer for Americans’ understanding of “socialism” was the following: “Equality – equal standing for everybody, all equal in rights, equal in distribution.” But only that last part about distribution relates to the more traditional definition of socialism, which poll respondents described variously as: “Government ownership or control, government ownership of utilities, everything controlled by the government, or state control of business.”
In 1949, at the onset of the Cold War, Americans were three times as likely to define socialism in that latter, more traditional way than the one concerning equality. A close third in 2018 was “Benefits and services – social services free, medicine for all”; hardly anyone defined it that way in the late 1940s.
But the more specific pollsters get in asking about the implications of socialism, the less appealing it seems to be. In a different Gallup poll from 2019, there were only two areas in which majorities favored the government being primarily responsible: environmental protection, and protecting consumers’ privacy online. When asked about technological innovation, the distribution of wealth, the economy overall, wages, higher education and even healthcare, majorities favored the free market taking the lead instead.
What’s going on here? This may give us a clue: The Pew Research Center in 2019 found that one-quarter of Americans have a positive view of both socialism and capitalism. In fact, those respondents who told Pew they viewed socialism favorably were more likely to also view capitalism favorably than to view it negatively.
That’s probably easier to believe in broad, theoretical terms than in practice. I suspect not many people working in the private sector would like government to regulate their business or industry more heavily, or to start redistributing their own company’s revenues to others. It’s similar to the dichotomy between Congress’ low approval ratings, and the high re-election rates for members of Congress. Everyone thinks the problem is with other people’s representatives, or industries, not their own.
But even that’s not entirely the case; recall my “fake news” headlines earlier. If most of us realize implicitly that private companies are more likely to provide the efficiency, value and customer experience we want in some industries, why would we expect it to be different for, say, a government-run health insurance plan?
Our free-enterprise system often comes under scrutiny during times of crisis. But crises should remind us that, for all the shortcomings we might find with it, free enterprise works much better than the alternative.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation:
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