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Not Bigger, But Better

If you didn’t already think government matters, the pandemic response should change your mind.
July 23, 2020
Not Bigger, But Better

A few years back there was a highfalutin’ political debate at a Washington think-tank about whether the American project could be properly construed as libertarian ab initio. Although the libertarian side of the house was loath to admit it, they found very little historical evidence to support this dubious proposition. After all, the architects of the American republic, many of whom rendered distinguished service in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, had seen the very issue of national independence stand on a razor’s edge thanks to a chronically weak and underfunded central government. Committed as they were to the cause of limited government, they understood that a government too small was no less dangerous than a government too large.

In point of fact, the American founders were consummate state-builders. They embarked on a grand experiment to establish the world’s first “extensive republic”––a continental democracy––that accorded with a philosophy of limited government. They knew the world was an inhospitable place because of the terrible flaws in human nature (“if men were angels, no government would be necessary”). This fact in turn gave abundant warrant for the creation of robust federal authority.

According to Alexander Hamilton––the first unflinching advocate of an energetic central government in the service of a commercial society and national strength––this founding generation of Americans was engaged in “the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world.”

Just as the Founding Fathers proved that the category “constitutional revolution” was not an oxymoron, so they proved that an “imperial republic” was a worthy aspiration and, in time, a noble achievement.

Scoreboard: Conservatives: 1, Libertarians: 0.

It behooves the nation to recall this history, particularly when the credibility of American government has seldom been in shorter supply. Strength and vitality have been leaking away from American government for many decades, but the woeful absence of these qualities has become palpable in our time.

Consider: A plague stemming from China’s Wuhan province has swept through the world. A global economic recession has ensued that teeters on the edge of a deeper depression. A criminal execution of a suspect by an agent of law enforcement has ignited civil unrest in American society in which many businesses have been looted and destroyed.

In this compounding crisis, American and even global society is endangered by a remarkably inept administration. The coronavirus pandemic and its attendant ills have struck at a particularly bleak moment, when American society is already reeling from a host of maladies. “Well before the horrible global pandemic reached our shores,” writes Yuval Levin, American life was marred by various forms of “social breakdown,” including economic stagnation and a loss of bourgeois norms. Predictably enough, Levin notes, “our politics has increasingly reflected these maladies.”

The maladies of this era that will detain historians in the years to come are apt to involve the failure of the government to discharge its rudimentary responsibilities: prevent or at least mitigate a widely-anticipated public health emergency; do not let spending wildly exceed revenues in time of peace and plenty, lest it constrain the federal response in an crisis; offer moral leadership paired with intelligent reform to sclerotic government agencies or practices.

In this crisis, the American government has resembled a pseudo-failed state incapable of protecting the life and property of individuals, and unable to ensure that public services actually work for the public. Many months after the outbreak, it has failed to suppress the pandemic death toll to a reasonable level at which economic life might resume. America has become one of the world’s virus hot spots, with nearly 150,000 confirmed deaths and the number still hurtling terrifyingly upward.

The list of failures would come as no surprise in a totalitarian state such as the People’s Republic of China that breeds such tremendous reserves of social distrust that the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party does not even know what to believe about the reality of their situation. The conduct of officials in America’s executive branch, it goes without saying, should not be assessed by such low and degraded standards.

By what standards should they be judged? Decision, activity, and dispatch are the watchwords of the presidency, as Hamilton argued in Federalist No. 70: The Congress sets frameworks for the future action of the government, the judiciary reviews and assesses past actions, but the president acts in the present, and in response to events.

This president’s neglect of his core duties in a time of plague and emergency has been and continues to be a standing danger to the republic. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Trump’s mismanagement has been plain for all to see. The litany of lingering resentments and lurking insecurities beneath the shell of this presidency have been exceptional. His style, as ever, has been at once indecisive, mendacious, passive, scatterbrained, self-pitying, and unaccountable. His abiding theme is now that the belated testing regime (under the inspired command of Admiral Brett Giroir), rather than revealing the extent of government’s failure, is to blame for the public’s growing lack of confidence in the government’s performance. This combination is antithetical to the qualities that go to make up elevated leadership. It helps to account for the vastly different trajectories for the United States and the European Union.

Small government may have much to recommend it, but in a crisis such as this it will always be found wanting. A better ideal lies in limited but energetic government of the sort imagined by the American founders. Take Tyler Cowen’s formulation of “state-capacity libertarianism,” which serves as a promising model for reconciling markets with a state strong enough to boost infrastructure, education, and research and development. The yawning gap in capacity in the public health system and in the domestic manufacture of pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment throughout this crisis has exposed the dangers of too inept a state. It is time not for a bigger state, but a better one.

It was the tough-minded New Yorker Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a liberal, it’s true, but not the annoying sort) who once reminded conservatives that the Constitution’s framers “had more thoughts about power than merely its limitation.”

If conservatives heeded that wisdom in 2020, they might have shown more concern not for the size of government, but for its efficiency and quality.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.