While some of us have been pleading for a long time for the most resourced and capable businesses in the world to show they care about social responsibility by bringing their workers back to the office, the topic has suddenly crossed partisan lines and gained momentum. Whether it is New York City Mayor, Eric Adams, or Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, or any number of blue state Governors, the recognition that cities cannot meet the economic needs of their service workers as long as white collar employees are working from home on zoom calls is suddenly understood on both sides of the aisle. The need to get people back into the office is not merely a “big city” issue if one believes, as this author does, that brand, collaboration, mentorship, and culture matter. Our companies perform better this way, which means our economy performs better, and this applies to suburban markets as much as it does urban ones.
But the social responsibility angle is the one where many virtue-signaling leftists have been exposed as being “all bark, no bite.” Lost in their two-year hiatus to the beach, their vacation homes, their Pelotons, and their zoom cameras, was any regard for the dry cleaners, coffee shops, restaurants, busboys, taxi drivers, dishwashers, fitness clubs, and bartenders of their communities. Company after company has bragged about record P&L’s during the pandemic for their business, but with callous disregard for the street vendor or food truck an elevator ride away for their vacated offices. For instance, over 1,000 restaurants and bars have closed down in New York City alone since the beginning of the pandemic, and over 125,000 nationwide.
Those who share a humanitarian concern for the entire ecosystem of our communities should be encouraged to see mayors and governors joining the chorus of those who want normalization across society, not just for kids and schools, but for a “return to work” as well. However, the mayors and governors are learning one of the great lessons of economics in real time – that “there’s no free lunch” – as they beg companies to re-open their offices, all the while having created the environment of mask mandates and vaccine mandates that have proven so counter-productive in getting that mission accomplished.
As I wrote in There’s No Free Lunch: 250 Economic Truths, the story of economics is a story of trade-offs. Grown-ups are supposed to know this. When you put onerous and excessive requirements and rules around a desired behavior you will limit (or perhaps eliminate) the behavior you claim to desire. Expecting companies to operate in their own self-interest, to utilize their vast resources and capabilities to provide reasonable accommodations for health and safety, and considering the cost/benefit analysis that clearly favored a return-to-work over Orwellian dystopia would have proven to be a far more rational approach to this pandemic. Instead, lawmakers pushed over the ladder that was proving a way up for businesses to provide for their workers and communities, and now are yelling at these same companies that more of their people are not congregating on the rooftop.
The time passed a long time ago for people to make their own decision about vaccines, one I freely and happily made to do early after its availability. Continuing to provide education and information about the vaccine is one thing, but making restaurants (at the threat of fine and closure) serve as sheriffs for a dubious mandate is a textbook effort to resist economic re-opening. Just as mask mandates inside well-ventilated health clubs served to keep eager exercise enthusiasts from coming in, so have restaurant regulations hurt the cause of people returning to the offices near these restaurants. The message given time and time again has been: We don’t care if life ever goes back to normal, and we will take away your freedom before allowing normalcy to re-surface. The result has been what you would expect – robust economic activity for all rungs of the economic ladder where there has been the most focus on normalcy and freedom, and continued pain and suffering for the uniformed service workers of the communities where ill-advised mandates have been implemented.
None of this is a surprise when we remember another key principle of economics – that humans act. In fact, my book argues all economics is at the end of the day is the study of human action. Humans were made in the image of God to be rational, creative, and innovative. They were made to respond to incentives. And in these fundamental truths lies the essence of the free enterprise worldview.
Sadly, these truths have not been understood by our policymakers who now need free enterprise to start working again. For a society anxious to go back to the office, and go out to lunch at the restaurant near their office, it would help if their overlords would remember that “there’s no free lunch.” Mandates and assaults on freedom undermine economic prosperity.