Politics

COVID-19 and The Case for State Capacity

As the emails go out from the school district where I live that schools are closing, I can’t help but wonder if there is, or ever will be, a stronger case for state capacity as a base necessity for the protection of liberty than what we have going on right now.

While the classic view of American liberty wonders into the room from over the prairies on horseback with a Second Amendment guaranteed arsenal and a support the troops ball cap, the last few days has to make Americans ask ourselves if we’re really thanking the right things for our freedoms. Moreover, whether we’re fearing the wrong things as potential culprits to infringe upon our way of life.

It’s undeniable. My liberty has NEVER been infringed upon the way it has, in a literal sense, during this outbreak. I cannot go where I want. I cannot buy what I need. I cannot work the way I want. And my children don’t have access to education.

I am not free.

Amazingly, I actually don’t feel coerced by the government at all. Most of these limitations were things I wanted to happen. If they didn’t I might have self imposed them anyway. The scary culprit against my liberty is not government overreach or censorship or cancel culture that won’t let me speak my mind.

It’s something else. It’s a disease. And the extent that my liberty is to be infringed upon depends heavily on one thing; my government’s ability to respond effectively to an event for which only government has the resources to respond.

At present, I’m sitting in my house with my three sons, whose Little League games have all been canceled, who have no school on Monday and who cannot go to a place that holds more than 250 people. How long this lasts is the dependent variable. That variable depends mostly on my government’s capacity to respond effectively.

What’s the diagnostic plan to enable the appropriate direction of resources to the right areas?

What’s the plan to increase capacity for what is a relatively low capacity healthcare infrastructure?

These are things only the Federal Government can do. And not because we’ve surrendered our rights to something we ought to be able to do ourselves. These are focused, highly specialize, high cost, high collaboration activities. A small government plan that lets state and local authorities work the problem, with reactive support from the Federal Government is a great strategy for many things. For a viral pandemic, it’s not.

Without decisive, proactive measures, we’re all forced to move on to a fall back plan of rolling cancelations and extreme limitations of travel and social distancing that would be less sweeping and less enduring if we had more diagnostic data to confirm certain areas weren’t at risk and confidence that our healthcare system could mobilize effectively in advance of the demand of full outbreak.

These intervention activities require proactive increased investment in state capacity. The stated policy of reducing resources of federal institutions is counter to this. On a platform of increasing liberty through “draining the swamp”, the result is the opposite of the promise of more freedom. It results in everyone I know not being able to do anything; a wholesale loss of liberty.

Expanding on this idea, carefully, we can find analogs.

Nothing reduces liberty like a hurricane flattening your town with no plan to build it back. Few things reduce liberty at the source like insufficient public education. Having to depend on an employer for healthcare makes us more dependent on our current employer, less mobile and less likely to start our own business and follow the American dream.

Less liberty.

We’ve had the luxury of a debate where some could reasonably believe that draining the swamp without rebuilding something in it’s place would be a good strategy. It’s possible this shock, like the Great Depression did for the requirements of a social safety net as a foundation for an industrial economy, will drive home an important point.

There are things only our government can really help with. The conservative Reagan mantra that government IS the problem is a great bumper sticker. But it’s a deeply harmful ideology if applied too broadly. Focusing resources and insisting on excellence for certain things should be possible with $4 trillion of American budget. And insisting on leaders we can trust to be the stewards of those resources, in service to our freedom, is a zero defect requirement.

I applaud the efforts the administration has rapidly put in place in the last 48 hours. But we should take note that the current administration rode into the White House on the fervor of a 40 year myth that liberty depended on a small, ineffective government.

A few press conferences of a different tone won’t do much to change the opinion of the people who’ve heard that message their whole lives and are now deeply concerned for the future.

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