America is in crisis. Government has failed, utterly. This shouldn’t surprise anyone: This is what happens when an uninformed, unequipped, unprepared, unqualified, uncurious, unrelentingly insecure, unmitigated and thoroughly dishonest attention whore is elected to high public office. (It would happen if he’d been elected to low public office, such as city dogcatcher or village mayor; but the consequences would not be so deadly.) Eventually the luck runs out.

A hundred days ago Donald Trump told us all there was nothing to worry about, and that the novel coronavirus would be gone by April. He promised that the fifteen cases “will soon go down to zero” and that his administration had things “totally under control.” It was obvious then (if only because Trump has never in his adult life told the truth when a lie would do) that things were not under control; because we don’t have access to the intelligence briefings we didn’t know at the time just how much things were not under control. But we do now.

Nearly 70,000 known deaths in the United States from Covid-19; that number is underreported as is the well over 1 million known cases. Every day another 2,000 Americans perish. Why? Because the administration has it under control, well-contained, completely shut down. Pick your figure of speech — it makes no difference when containment doesn’t exist, control is illusory, and “shut down” is synonymous with “click your heels together three times.”

This isn’t just a failure of government, though it is that. It is a bigger failure than Katrina, bigger than Maria, because the pandemic is bigger than any storm or earthquake or tsunami in living memory. And it was predicted. Like all such predictions it was impossible to pinpoint the event in future time; it was possible only to identify the kind of disaster that would occur, within what window it was likely to occur, and to prepare for its eventual arrival.  

No, this is not simply a failure of government; if it were that it would be catastrophic but recoverable. This is much more. It is an unprecedented cascade failure whose inception can be traced back through the many unheeded warnings, through the decision to dismantle the pandemic response unit of the security apparatus, to the noxious attitude of this president and his minions: we know best, we are smarter than anyone who has ever come before, we have nothing to learn from the past or from our predecessors.  Make no mistake: when Donald Trump says, “Nobody has ever done what I have done!” it is a rare moment of accidental truth-telling and one more example of his cluelessness.

Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics

Though the phrase survival of the fittest is often used to convey the gist of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution, it was Herbert Spencer who first coined the phrase; and by it he intended the kind of winner-take-all mentality that seems embodied in today’s GOP: in a word, social Darwinism.

In the context of civil society the idea that the strong should clamber over the weak is repugnant. It is not even a sound economic and business principle, for if competition ensures innovation and lower prices (both good for society), then in any given market — let us say, for example, for widgets — the logical and eventual outcome of unfettered cutthroat competition will be monopoly or, at best, a duopoly.  Competition of the kind pro-business politicians usually say they mean cannot exist without strong antitrust enforcement; it should be noted, then, that these same politicians usually want to weaken the antitrust laws.

But in a civil — and civilized — society, the notion that the fittest will survive and the weaker elements of society will wither, fall away, and die, is as morally repellent as it is antithetical to the foundational belief that all men are created equal.  “The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics,” wrote Justice Holmes, dissenting in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), a case decided upon the — ahem — libertarian notion, resurgent in our era, that government has no authority to interfere in any economic aspect of the individual citizen’s life.

It is settled by various decisions of this court that state constitutions and state laws may regulate life in many ways which we, as legislators, might think as injudicious, or, if you like, as tyrannical, as this, and which, equally with this, interfere with the liberty to contract…. The liberty of the citizen to do as he likes so long as he does not interfere with the liberty of others to do the same, which has been a shibboleth for some well known writers, is interfered with by school laws, by the Post Office, by every state or municipal institution which takes his money for purposes thought desirable, whether he likes it or not.

198 U.S. at 75

More recently it was argued that government cannot compel the purchase of health insurance, that individuals should be permitted to decide how to spend each of their hard-earned dollars. Freedom! Freedom of contract, in Lochner; or the “freedom” to self-insure against catastrophic illness.

Very well; we will grant you the right to refuse health insurance if you will permit us to refuse you entrance to the Emergency Room when your appendix bursts, or when you suffer a heart attack, or when your carelessness in the kitchen threatens a digit. After all, you took the risk and assumed that you would not need health insurance; now you want the rest of us to pay for your ER visit, your cardiologist, your orthopedic surgery. In fact you assumed no risk at all, betting that the rest of us would backstop your bad decision. This is freedom defined through a looking-glass and exercised at the expense of others: exactly what laws and government are intended to prevent.

If you find this line of argument — you decided to roll the dice so man up and take your lumps — offensive: you should. But it is not the inverse of the libertarian freedom-of-contract, freedom-to-self-insure argument; it is the identical logic applied and imposed from the other direction.

The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics, and the Constitution and the laws and social structures that rest on it do not constitute a suicide pact. So, please, Michigan militiamen: your desire to “liberate” your state from “tyrannical” social-distancing orders is an unconstitutional affront to your neighbors’ desire, their right, to continue living without the unnecessary threat of disease and death that your liberation would impose on them.

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.