As it has now approached Memorial Day weekend many localities are either starting to loosen or lift their shelter-in-place orders. Even in regulation heavy Massachusetts beaches have been reopened in commemoration of the holiday. The beaches were reopened with specified safety restrictions . Even though states are starting to slowly reopen it is hard to say whether or not we are out of the woods. There is still the potential of a second wave resurgence in COVID-19 cases.
The economic turmoil that has been spurred by state-mandated shelter-in-place orders has been well documented. Approximately 38.6 million American workers have applied for unemployment benefits within the past couple of months . Per the National Bureau of Labor Statics unemployment rate increased to 14.7% in April . The recent surge in high profile companies filing for bankruptcy could be seen as another oblique consequence of COVID-19 lockdowns . Painting a very bleak economic picture for the United States.
Despite the financial carnage caused by government-mandated shelter-in-place orders some businesses are thriving. Certain sectors such as cleaning and delivery services have experienced relative success in light of the pandemic . It could even be fair to argue that some businesses have prospered due to the virus-related restrictions. Reminding us that there the unseen beneficiaries of many regulatory proposals. Even those implemented in the name of public health and safety. Regulation cuts both ways. It may benefit some while being a detriment for others.
This odd phenomenon is punctuated by economic Bruce Yandle’s concept of Baptists and Bootleggers. The formation of coalitions with seemingly opposing factions coming together for a common goal (Munger, 2020, P.513) . The Baptists being individuals who support the regulation on moral grounds such as public safety or common decency. The bootleggers are proponents of such measures due to the financial benefits they stand to gain. The example Yandle uses is the prohibition of alcohol sales on Sundays (Yandle, 1983, P.2) . This regulation satisfies the moral concerns of the Baptists. The Bootleggers effectively have no competition on Sundays.
Yandle came to this counterintuitive realization while serving on Council on Wage and Price Stability back in the 1970s. Yandle was surprised to find out that many industry lobbyists opposed deregulation (Yandle, 1983, p.2) . To a certain extent, there is a demand for regulation (Yandle, 1983, p.3) . Commodifying the legislative process due to the benefit of reducing competition. Smaller companies may not have the resources to adapt to the new regulations effectively making continued operation illegal. Effectively putting them out of business. Creating barriers to entry without even requiring an antitrust exemption such as those allotted to agricultural collectives and Major League Baseball.
The Baptists of the shelter-in-place orders would have to be healthcare professionals. Coast to coast doctors and nurses on the frontlines have expressed their concerns about the spread of the virus. Back in March, an Arizona doctor started a petition urging the state to impose a statewide lockdown order . Motived by the laudable goal of stifling the spread of the disease or in the vernacular of epidemiologists “flattening the curve”. Certainly well-intentioned from the standpoint of point of public health. Especially considering the death count from COVID-19 in the United States is presently estimated at 73,639 . One unfortunate side-effect that good intentions have not accounted for was the “temporary” suspension of civil liberties. Such as the freedom of mobility and property rights issues (F.E. Guerra-Pujol, 2020, P.2-4) . That is a separate issue.
Some states have loosened lockdown orders and have even allowed for dine-in services . However, many healthcare professionals are slow to even reconvene business due to concern about the spread of COVID-19 . Many health care professionals have urged states to reopen slowly to veer away from a secondary spike in cases . Clearly demonstrating lingering worries for the spread of COVID-19. Also, strongly demonstrating a moral dimension of lockdown orders. These appeals for cautious relinquishment of restrictions has been framed in the context of harm reduction. Have been centered around the moral imperative of saving lives. Providing the moral smokescreen for anyone with products or services that will increase in demand due to the lockdown.
One of the quiet beneficiaries of shelter-in-place orders has been streaming services, particularly Netflix. Any company with a business model that requires little interaction with customers has the advantage. Entertainment venues such as movie theaters, restaurants, bars, clubs, etc. were closed due to government decree. Effectively narrowing the array of entertainment options to activities that involve minimal social interaction. The top contenders being social media, television, and video games. Netflix was already an established fixture in television streaming services. As well as one of the earliest entrants to the market. Over the past couple of years. television viewers swapping out cable boxes for stream services has secured Netflix’s foothold on the market . Even though Netflix has not openly petitioned for any “lockdown” legislation they are clearly the Bootleggers in this situation.
The spike in Netflix subscriptions within the past couple of months is clearly correlated with the shelter-in-place orders nationwide. Back in April the company reported a 28 % increase in revenue . The rabid success of Nexflix exclusive content such as the docuseries Tiger King is undeniable. This documentary mini-series become a cultural phenomenon. Solidifying itself as a distraction from the uncertainty we face in a COVID-19 impacted America. While such programming may serve as an entertaining diversion it also has helped Netflix excel and emerge as the dominant form of entertainment. It certainly helps to have a captive audience with a limited number of alternatives when faced with various restrictions. Per consumer surveys, Netflix has been voted the most reliable streaming service . Regardless of the conditions of the pandemic is merely another feather in their entrepreneurial hat.
This is not an indictment of the success of companies that have prospered in the COVID-19 economy. Rather an observation of how the regulatory sword slices both ways. The “quiet beneficiaries” such as Netflix may not have openly called for shelter-in-place orders, but they without a doubt have seen increases in revenue due to such laws. In part, this surge in business has been facilitated by the Baptists in the health care industry. Putting pressure on state governments to shut down all nonessential businesses. Creating clear winners and losers in the COVID-19 economy. Some companies are thriving will others are dying.
Extrapolating the lessons from Richard Cantillon concerning the non-neutrality of money is very much applicable to regulation. Much like how increasing the money supply impacts factor other than nominal prices (Thornton, 2006, p.6) . Regulation isn’t regulated to the narrow window of the issue that it is intended to solve. It can possess loopholes that can be exploited. By design can create unintended anticompetitive features. Demonstrating the non-neutrality of regulations. They have downstream consequences that often are overlooked by the Baptists and are well known to the Bootleggers.