Prolonged crises breed clichés, as the current exceptional one amply proves. But some are no less apodictic for the tortuous repetition. For instance, I want to electrocute the next person I hear say something about “how society will never be the same after this,” yet it is as undeniably true as it was after 911.
Exactly how we change from this remains to be seen and may very well shape the greater political arguments over the next generation. One beneficial adjustment could — should — be a reordering of priorities, at all levels.
For federal and state government what would be most profitable is an examination of what government is really there to do. The first answer: not everything. The more statist-minded among us like to quip that there are no libertarians in a national emergency. They are correct to an extent, but it’s not quite that reductionist; what a national emergency does is to crystallize what exactly government ought to do, and what is best left to others.
It is a utilitarian question, as much as a philosophical one; government needs to do a few things, and be strong enough to do them well, such as defend the nation, enforce the law, and coordinate a national response to a pandemic. But if the ship of state is too dispersed over too many functions, it will unavoidably sacrifice its efficacy in those core ones it is in existence for.
For example, the CDC was established precisely for this moment; it makes sense that the agency’s vision ought always to have been far more focused on preparing for a response to an outbreak like this than on, say the school lunch menu in Poughkeepsie, NY or Evergreen, CO. Poughkeepsie and Evergreen can look after their own school lunches, they can’t coordinate a national response to a foreign-sourced pandemic.
Similarly, how much better prepared would state agencies be had more resources been directed at preparing for this sort of eventuality rather than concerning themselves with how many electric vehicles are offered for sale in the state?
Prioritization of government functions tends to devolve into a partisan battle. And that was starkly demonstrated in the convolutions surrounding the adoption of a federal COVID relief package earlier this week. The priority for that enormous piece of legislation should, of course, be on keeping business — employers — solvent until such time as commerce is permitted to resume.
This sort of level-thinking agitated the left-wing of the Democratic Party, however, which had rather different priorities. Suddenly, a new proposal emerged containing a laundry list of liberal policy dreams that requires an impressive degree of intellectual gymnastics to make the logical connection to coronavirus relief. Nancy Pelosi took to the airways to make the requisite circumlocutions but looked as though she hadn’t even convinced herself.
Given that is the nature of politics and government, it is possible, likely even, that the most permanent adjustment in prioritization will take place at the individual level. I commented last week that the “little platoons” of society, borrowing from Burke for the millionth time, would be of increasing importance — family, church, community groups, etc.
That these have been eroded by decades of displacement by government and, most recently, by the medically necessitated isolation demanded by the current reality is undeniable. And yet, they have emerged, flourishing in unexpected ways. Private companies have stepped up to fill the needs of beleaguered hospitals; families are spending the sort of time together that was a few weeks ago the nearly exclusive domain of sentimental reminiscence; pastors are finding creative ways to tend their flocks; stories abound of individual volunteer efforts and spontaneous kindnesses. Last Sunday the Colorado House majority leader, Alec Garnett, teamed up with Minority Leader Patrick Neville to spearhead a donation drive at Mile High Stadium to collect sorely needed medical PPE.
This is where society gets its strength, and it will be these elements that will deliver us from economic and social abyss.
It is sobering to realize that no one knows when or where the next crisis will hit, or even what it will be. On Dec. 15, 1924, Winston Churchill wrote a letter to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin contending that war with Japan was all but impossible: “I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in our lifetime. The Japanese are our allies … Japan is at the other end of the world. She cannot menace our vital security in any way.” Our best hope of preparation is to learn what we can from the current crisis, and pursue a thoughtful, prudent reorientation away from stifling centralization and bureaucratization, decluttering the government and allowing it the flexibility and strength to fulfill its duties. And leaving the rest to those organs of civil life which ought to make us exceedingly glad that if we are to weather such tribulations, we are fortunate enough to do so in the United States.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.