No one should be happy about the shortage of infant formula. There is no good in watching families scrambling to meet the life and death needs of the most vulnerable members of society.
This is why this observer remains reluctant to declare any piece of history a proverbial silver lining.
Nevertheless, it is possible that a good result emerges from undeniable bad news. The much-publicized shortage of such a basic family necessity may cause more people to rethink the value of government restrictions.
This thought came to my mind after reading the script for a June 3 WUNC radio report.
“North Carolina is making it easier for people who have nutritional benefits to purchase different types of formula,” the story began.
The state now contracts with just one company, Gerber, to supply formula milk to the government’s program for women, infants and children. “Before the nationwide shortage, WIC recipients were limited to certain types and sizes,” WUNC reported.
Now, the state Department of Health and Human Services has decided to waive the limits. “The agency says it is also working to purchase formula in bulk and is asking the federal government to ease further restrictions on the types of formula available to WIC recipients,” according to the report from public radio.
The story highlights Governor Roy Cooper’s endorsement. He credited his administration with “taking steps to create more options” for WIC families. “Removing restrictions on the formula options WIC families can purchase will make it easier to get the formula they need,” Cooper said.
Health Secretary Kody Kinsley also praised the government for giving WIC families “shelf-level flexibility to select product sizes that are not usually covered by the scheme”.
Nothing in the report struck a bad note with this drive. But all of the talk of waivers, relaxed restrictions, and flexibility has prompted follow-up questions: Why did the state enact these limits in the first place? Why would a government waiver be required for families to have access to such an essential product?
Perhaps the most important question that persists: is there a good reason to reinstate these restrictions? Once infant formula becomes available again, it’s not clear that the state government should reimpose limits on the types, sizes, and brands available to parents in need.
I claim zero expertise in the field of infant nutrition. It would be possible to convince me that the temporarily lifted restrictions might have some health and safety value.
But I’ve also observed enough government regulation to know that the rules might be unnecessary. State authorities have expressed a willingness to waive restrictions in the event of an emergency. If periods cause more costs than benefits now, in a time when infant formula is scarce, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which periods would be beneficial.
It’s possible these rules were never needed, or #NeverNeeded, as the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute might put it.
Like the baby formula shortage, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a terrible story. There was no upside to the shutdowns, shutdowns, and drastic changes to people’s lives because of the coronavirus.
Yet early in the pandemic’s grip on American society, the IEC launched its #NeverNeeded social media campaign. He highlighted federal and state government regulations that have hampered Americans’ response to COVID. As of March 18, 2020, CEI’s Ryan Young had already documented a significant number of reform opportunities.
Tariffs and supply chain barriers prevented health care supplies from reaching where they were needed most, Young reported. (That should sound familiar to those who follow the details of infant formula history.) The standard Food and Drug Administration approval process seemed too strict for vaccines, treatments and tests. (The Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed helped solve this problem.)
Securities and Exchange Commission accounting rules discouraged the stockpiling of useful medical supplies. Attempts to reclassify self-employed delivery drivers as employees have limited these jobs, just when people forced by the government to stay at home had an increased demand for deliveries.
The #NeverNeeded campaign has had positive impacts. It opened my eyes. People have learned that government rules offer dubious benefits at the best of times, while proving counterproductive or even harmful in the midst of an emergency.
But the return to a degree of “normalcy” after a few years of COVID has had the opposite effect. It has diverted attention from the real problems created by overly burdensome regulations.
Perhaps the shortage of formulas can rekindle interest in removing unnecessary government rules. If not a silver lining of the scarcity story, at least this result would amount to a useful by-product.
Mitch Kokai is senior polishtechnical analyst for the John Locke Foundation.