The Chilling Effect of Confiscation

April 24th, 2020
covid-19
The federal government has been seizing mask imports:

  • Three million, on arrival at the Port of New York and New Jersey on 2020-03-18 (Boston Globe)

  • Four hundred thousand, on arrival at JFK airport; 100k on 2020-04-06 and 300k on 2020-04-16 (USA Today, NY Daily News)

  • One million, while in transit to South Florida firefighters last week (The Miami Times, 2020-04-24)

Some states have responded by importing masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) outside of standard channels:

  • Massachusetts asked the owners of the New England Patriots to import masks on the team plane (Wall Street Journal, Time, 2020-04-02)

  • Illinois chartered multiple FedEx flights (Chicago Sun-Times 2020-04-14, 2020-04-19)

And there's an article in the New England Journal of Medicine about a hospital administrator working to line up a shipment and narrowly avoiding confiscation.

Much more impactful than what these seizures are pushing people to do, however, is what they're pushing people not to do. A hospital administrator or governor who could be prioritizing sourcing PPE has many other things they could focus on, and if the PPE they import has a large chance of getting seized they're going to prioritize those other things on the margin. Independent importers likewise can't risk having their goods seized without payment, as Indutex reported ("Let's not forget I paid $4 million for this product on March 18. I don't have any money and I don't have any product and there's people that are asking for it.") Making deals with factories and prepaying so they can ramp up production is super valuable, and we'll see less of it the more risk there is of having your goods taken.

So much of this crisis has been poorly handled that any individual bit I pick to look at seems like it's not worth focusing on, but this policy is not just foolish, it's foolish in a way that you might have thought conservatives might have avoided? Like, conservatives saying we should avoid lockdowns and let people decide risk for themselves is the sort of policy disagreement I'd expect to have, but using the federal government to grab things, discouraging private initiative and investment, really?

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