Calvin Coolidge and The Business of Government

“The business of government is business.” Coolidge didn’t say that, exactly: what he said was, “The business of the American people is business.” In today’s Republican Party (indeed, the Republican Party of the last half-century at least) that is a distinction without a difference. We have, in this country — in the world — an awful lot of people who have taken much too literally the adage that “the government that governs least, governs best.” The GOP has, since that day in 1986 when Ronald Reagan — President of the United States, leader of the free world, and his own government’s Chief Executive Officer — declared war on the idea that government had anything useful to offer. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he declared to a cheering crowd, “are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help!’” It was a great applause line, and it certainly caught on. But it begs the question which too few thought to ask at the time: If you don’t believe in government, why are you in it? And, mightn’t the energy and effort required to dismantle government be better spent improving it?

I have always understood Coolidge’s line — even, or maybe especially in its misquoted form — to mean that government, to be successful, must create and preserve the conditions that allow and enable its citizens (and their businesses) to thrive. Government’s role is to build out and maintain essential infrastructure: good roads, clean water, adequate sewerage, excellent schools. This infrastructure must be available to all regardless of station or stature. Established firms will rely on it; entrepreneurs will leverage it.

And when there is a disaster — a 100-year storm, say — government has to step in to provide emergency assistance to those suddenly in need: a roof, a meal, a helping hand with cleanup and rebuilding. Floods, being local matters, are generally left to the state governments; the federal government, with its wider reach and greater resources, provides a backstop whenever necessary.

Well, now it is necessary: we have a global pandemic that in three months has infected over 1 million Americans and killed over 56,000; to say nothing of the millions of other people around the world. And where is the federal government, whose coordinating role is essential to preventing the spread, mitigating the damage, and developing a vaccine? “I take no responsibility at all,” says Donald Trump. And, “It is up to the governors to decide when to reopen their states.” Reopen?? We’ve barely begun to understand how this new virus spreads let alone its mechanisms for ravaging the body; a speedy return to business as usual almost certainly will mean a second wave of infections and another tsunami of job losses and economic devastation. The “cure” of reopening will surely be worse than the disease of stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and social distancing.

Instead of a single, coordinated, and effective response to this crisis we have fifty separate jurisdictions each managing its own response; they have given up pleading with the federal government for leadership or even a single supply chain for essential medical equipment like protective gear and ventilators.  A crisis response regime under which the states must compete against each other in a world market for scarce resources while FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — sits back or, worse, seizes shipments arriving in New York for domestic redistribution by well-connected private companies? That’s not a system of government by and for the people, it’s kleptocracy and just one small step away from anarchy. That’s profiteering, aided and abetted by the feds.

“When you drown the government in a bathtub, people die.” That arresting headline in The Washington Post’s opinion pages got my attention a couple of weeks ago, because it is so very true. Sure, small government is great, and the government that governs least, governs best. Until there is a crisis. Until you actually need a government to step in and do what only governments can do. When that government is filled with apparatchiks and cronies, with people whose only purpose in being in government is to shrink it further, with men and women without relevant experience but who will pledge undying loyalty to the cult leader, the enormous and deadly consequences should surprise exactly nobody.

There is plenty more that big government can and should do; I hope to explore that soon. It seems I’ll have plenty of time because the governor of my state — unlike the governors of at least a few other states, and unlike the president — is proceeding with very sensible caution. He knows what he doesn’t know, and when he needs to rely on expert advice from epidemiologists and crisis managers who have spent years training themselves for this. (The day-to-day manager of the HHS coronavirus task force has also spent years training — labradoodles.)

Government exists to improve the lives of all people, not just a few. Because the business of government isn’t business: it’s governing. At the end of the day, competence and relevant experience matter.

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