The CDC Just Proved Milton Friedman Right (Again!)
I hate to say “I told you so.” Well, actually, I really enjoy saying “I told you so.” And, when it comes to the Centers for Disease Control and its pandemic power grabs, I did indeed tell you so.
In September 2020, I wrote for FEE that, “From draconian lockdown powers to taking over the rental housing market, it’s extremely unlikely our elected officials will cede all the authority they’ve seized during the pandemic.” We’re now witnessing my prediction play out in real-time.
Under the Biden administration’s purview, the CDC just unilaterally renewed its so-called “eviction moratorium.” It did so after the nationwide near-ban on eviction of non-paying tenants expired Saturday and in spite of Congress not passing legislation to renew it.
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The new CDC order is somewhat more limited than the original one, claiming to only apply to areas with “substantial and high levels of [COVID-19] community transmission.” But this reportedly applies to roughly 90 percent of the US under the CDC’s definition. The two-month extension will now run until October 3. (When, presumably, there will again be a push for its extension).
“The emergence of the delta variant has led to a rapid acceleration of community transmission in the United States, putting more Americans at increased risk, especially if they are unvaccinated,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said. “This moratorium is the right thing to do to keep people in their homes and out of congregate settings where COVID-19 spreads.”
The CDC is renewing this policy, yet again, even though the Supreme Court only narrowly upheld its last iteration. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh specifically wrote that “clear and specific congressional authorization (via new legislation) would be necessary for the CDC to extend the moratorium past July 31.”
Short version: The CDC doesn’t have the authority to do this.
And guess who agrees? The Biden administration. White House officials have repeatedly acknowledged that the federal government lacks constitutional authority to renew the order without Congress.
But this renewal is more than just an example of flagrant lawlessness and unconstitutional government overreach. It’s yet more illustration of the principle described by Milton Friedman when he said “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program.”
The Nobel-Prize-winning economist argued that we should be wary of “temporary” expansions of government power, because more often than not they become permanent, or at least part of the expansion remains. Why? Well, as Friedman explained, “temporary” programs “establish an interested constituency that… lobbie[s] for their continuation.”
Essentially, the public will acquiesce to more than it otherwise would under the promise that the infringement is temporary. But, then, the intervention will benefit some key parties so much that they will fight to keep it in place permanently after public scrutiny fades.
This is exactly what has played out with the CDC’s eviction moratorium dysfunction.
Even setting aside the fact that the first order was flagrantly unconstitutional from the get-go, it never made any sense. Ordering a halt to evictions without compensating landlords is like passing a law saying anyone may go into a grocery store, load up their carts with food, and walk out without paying. Applying this broken logic to rentals (predictably) bankrupted many middle-and-working class landlords and led to many rental properties being taken off the market altogether.
The moratorium has also created a $21 billion backlog in unpaid rent and millions of evictions that will occur when it is allowed to expire—costs that grow even bigger with every day it is left in place.
This has, as Friedman predicted, created a strong constituency demanding its extension time and time again, prompting the CDC’s latest move. But even setting aside the Constitutional questions, we can’t feasibly continue the policy forever any more than we could force grocery stores to hand out food for free into perpetuity. The shelves would run bare, and so, too, rental units will continue to evaporate from the market—ultimately leaving even renters themselves worse off.
The CDC order is essentially a ticking time bomb, bound to explode and hurt people whenever it ultimately lapses. But the government has every incentive to delay this damage as long as possible, even though it only grows more harmful with each delay. The result will likely be permanent and long-term dysfunction, all thanks to a “temporary” government measure that has proven to be anything but.
The CDC has created an absolute debacle, but there may be one small upside. Perhaps now more Americans will understand why Milton Friedman so famously warned the public to be skeptical of “temporary” government programs.
Brad Polumbo is a libertarian-conservative journalist and Policy Correspondent at the Foundation for Economic Education. Published with permission, fee.org
The Language of Liberty series is a collaborative effort of the Center for Self Governance (CSG) Administrative Team and is an outreach project of Center for Self Governance to educate citizens in principles of liberty. The authors include administrative staff, students, and guest columnists. Views expressed may not reflect the views of CSG.