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Industrial Planning Did Not Deliver the COVID Vaccines

Advocates of active government regard the development of effective COVID-19 vaccines as a case of successful “industrial planning.” But the vaccines are a triumph not of state direction but of “innovism” – a private-sector-led, trial-and-error search for good things for which consumers are willing to pay.

CHICAGO/MILAN – As COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out, only some parts of the world can breathe a sigh of relief. In most of the world, scarce or nonexistent doses recall the product shortages in communist Eastern Europe in the 1980s. If we allocated food in the statist, non-commercial way that the vaccines are being distributed, we would all lose a good deal of weight.

Yet, some regard the successful development of the vaccines as evidence that, “government again works.” Once upon a time, in the list of supposed triumphs of active government, the United States built transcontinental railroads, the Grand Coulee Dam, interstate highways, and the space program. Now, we get a vaccine whose formula was inferred by the biotechnology firm Moderna in Massachusetts literally the week after Chinese researchers released the genetic sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Active-government enthusiasts see this achievement as a case of successful “industrial planning,” a promising-sounding phrase that has recently attracted a broad spectrum of adherents, ranging from US Senator Marco Rubio on the right to the radical Keynesian economist Mariana Mazzucato on the left.