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Big Government, Small Government, Pandemic Government

What the COVID-19 crisis is revealing about competence and authority at both the national and state levels.
April 16, 2020
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(Collage by Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

In public discussion of the coronavirus pandemic crisis, a narrative is emerging about virtuous and wanting leadership types and styles among and within countries. In simple form, the international aspect goes like this: Authoritarian regimes can enforce draconian limitations on their populations, and so have shown themselves able to deflect the infection curve downward with greater ease than democratic regimes. See China; see Italy: QED. Conclusion: When it really counts, authoritarian government is superior to democratic government.

Meanwhile, an orthogonal argument now growing legs in the United States is not that authoritarianism bests democracy, but rather that in parlous times—increasingly thought to define most times in the post-COVID-19 era—big government is generically superior to small or “neoliberal” government. Certainly, many governments, democratic and otherwise, have been expanding executive authority as the crisis unfolds, and warnings aplenty about the dangers involved have been dutifully issued. But most people in all roiled countries seem to desire more government in the moment, whatever the longer-term consequences, because they’re afraid. As Yelena Bonner once said, “Fear gives bad advice.”

Both arguments are weak, because neither the ideological character nor the sheer size of government is ever tantamount to its strength. Other factors, like the level of social trust in a society, the competence of its governance administration, the quality of leadership, and its deep basket of cultural traits shaped by history are all more important determinants of outcomes.

It should be obvious by now that authoritarian and democratic governments on the international scene can be both competent and not, precisely because they differ in their endowments of the aforementioned factors that actually make the difference between effective and ineffective response strategies. South Korea and Taiwan are democracies that have done fine jobs; Italy and the United States are democracies that have not. Paternalistic and technocratic Singapore has done well, as has politically sui generis but not really democratic Hong Kong; autocratic Iran and, it will likely soon be clearer, oligopolistic Russia, have not. The case of China itself, the source of the COVID-19 pandemic as it was for SARS in 2003, is not yet clear one way or the other: It got a bad start, then mounted an effective comeback, but now faces a global rebound it may fail to master. Time will tell.

At the same time, competent government on the domestic scene can be large or small, just as poor government can be large or small. At the state level, just compare the governors of New York and Georgia and you’ll get the point. Andrew Cuomo knows which end is up; Brian Kemp claimed on April 1 that he didn’t realize “until the last 24 hours” that asymptomatic people could be infection vectors, something most sentient adults in the known civilized world knew two full months earlier. And here’s what’s so scary about that: I believe him.

But it’s at the federal level in the United States where things are truly interesting, and generally misunderstood.

Some observers were shocked on March 19 when President Trump suggested that the federal government should not take the lead in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. But Trump’s insistence that responsibility for responding to the pandemic rests chiefly with state governments was not entirely wrong or even without theoretical and constitutional merit; it was merely tone deaf and totally out of rhythm with recent realities. As with, for example, the Trump administration’s earlier support for skills-based as opposed to humanitarian criteria for reforming legal immigration policy, it’s not the idea that’s the problem but the toxic moral and motivational envelope surrounding it. Trump has a very occasional knack for advancing commendable ideas in the worst possible way, a way that discredits the idea before it can get an objective hearing.

Yes, arguably, state governments should take the lead in major public-health emergencies. But Americans have come to expect the federal government to do so because that’s been characteristic of recent years. Indeed, the number and swath of federal emergency powers to deal with domestic safety and security crises has grown sharply in recent decades, before but especially since 9/11. It was therefore indeed a shock to most governors when the president seemingly expected the country to turn on a dime to deal with COVID-19, especially since in recent decades many states had reacted to the expansion of the federal role in medical crisis preparedness by investing less at the state level.

Obviously, the president’s “Who me?” reaction was a bald-faced attempt at self-exculpation for having earlier consistently underplayed the threat for nakedly political reasons. He clearly saw the numbers of Americans infected not as a health issue but as a threat to his re-election campaign, so low numbers were good even if they were known to be false. Not only was this cloyingly callous, but the fact that Trump didn’t bother to make a serious effort to hide his motives was insulting. But this is how the man thinks, always, in politics now as in business before: Truth is entirely instrumental. No wonder he gets along so well with KGB-lite adept Vladimir Putin.

What is so frustrating about the emerging “debate” has been the ensuing dynamic, which can be expressed in simple syllogistic form: Trump wants the federal government to get smaller and do less; people who despise Trump react by saying, no, it should get bigger and do more; and the result is that the actual issue is obscured by the yawning simplemindedness of its articulation. We end up “discussing” the issue as though we were locked inside an old, annoying advertising campaign for a bad beer.

Our hollow binary political discourse makes it hard to discern that the initial mediocre performance of the federal government in the COVID-19 case arguably owes much to the fact that the federal role is already too large. It is too complicated and bureaucracy-bound to respond quickly and effectively to nearly anything unless skilled leadership knows how to operate the system as it has evolved. And here we come to the rub: That’s exactly the kind of leadership we do not typically have. We didn’t have it in the George W. Bush administration when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005 (a long and still incompletely told story), and we don’t have it now.

The many mistakes of recent weeks should not have surprised anyone. This is just what happens when an inexperienced populist sits atop the executive branch: No one close and loyal to him has the slightest idea how to operate the federal government in a crisis—or even knows what authorities are available to do so. That’s how we get someone like Jared Kushner inventing off the cuff a class of federal citizens unconnected to any of the fifty states. When incompetence gets this bizarre it becomes hard to explain away. Not that folks don’t try, and sometimes even succeed.

The fact is that the executive branch has all the authorities it needs to respond effectively in the COVID-19 emergency, and it should have tried to use them instead of demanding instant subsidiarity from mostly unprepared state governors. But the problem goes beyond the fact that no one in the White House understands those authorities. The prior and underlying problem is in Donald Trump’s head: Unlike Ronald Reagan, who claimed that “government is not the solution but the problem” mostly for purposes of getting elected, Trump truly believes it. Like his former close aide Steve Bannon, he sincerely wants to bring about the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

That said, the point remains that Donald Trump’s White House is not responsible for all of the screw-ups of recent weeks, merely many of them. The White House was not responsible, for example, for how the CDC botched the testing issue, which was and remains a big deal as the country struggles forward. A legacy of neglect with medical infrastructure, as with infrastructure in general, goes back many years and its shadows fall on state and federal government, on executive and legislative branch actors, and on Democrats and Republicans, alike.

Another prior problem that has nothing to do with Donald Trump may be a relatively recent cultural disinclination to plan effectively, notwithstanding the larger or smaller size of government, which has taken a toll on basic governance competence.


We’re not going to get anywhere useful playing blame games, however. We would be wiser to focus not on the size of government but on how its proper location affects its functionality. The better argument is that competent medical infrastructure needs to reflect a new balance in the federal structure altogether. Put simply, the United States should privilege selectively larger government but site it predominantly on smaller levels: states, cities, towns, and counties. Three generic reasons why stand out.

First, the most important levels of social trust left in American society exist at local levels, not the national level. That trust enables the “little platoons” of social life—civic associations, charitable organizations, church groups, and the like—to be activated side-by-side and coordinated with government to respond to pressing public health emergencies. This doesn’t work at national scale. Local communities are sociological realities; a “national community” is just a metaphor. And just by the way, that simple truth, on a slightly elevated level, goes far to explain the completely unsurprising, if embarrassing, turning inward of national governments in Europe at the expense of EU solidarity and cooperation.

Second, even as we cling to an over-centralized industrial age atavism, the strong trend of new technology both enables and imposes upon us a net-centric, distributed-systems world. Maybe deploying subsidiarity in this public-health crisis can jumpstart a more general movement in the right direction, away from over-centralization.

Third, while local government has its generic weak spots, including in many parts of the country a lingering and still malignant “Know Nothing” racism, it is far more resistant to the toxic one-stop-shopping plutocratic lobbying techniques that are corrupting our politics and contributing to widespread alienation and cynicism.

The federal government will of course still need to play an important role, a role that clearly rules out a headlong “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The current state-government bidding wars over protective equipment are crazy and self-destructive, and there is longstanding precedent for the federal government to intervene in such situations.

But it need not and should not dominate and domineer every role. We’re seeing unmistakable evidence for the wisdom of a more decentralized approach play out before our eyes in California, Washington state, Maryland, Ohio, and even New York. As Peggy Noonan put it, “Senators have never been so useless, or governors so valuable. What a status shift.”

Yes; but the shift is liable to be temporary in the absence of clear understanding, willpower, and much sustained work. So who will do that work? The Democratic party has shown no interest in subsidiarity, and its leadership is no less in thrall to plutocratic temptations than that of any other major party. The Republican party, meanwhile, no longer exists as a rational or coherent political actor, having become a cult of sycophants and scruple-free opportunists. Unless it or something more or less like what it used to be can be summoned to life, and soon, the question answers itself.

That’s not good, because an argument for planned and hence rational—as opposed to default and hence scattershot—subsidiarity would constitute a distinct agenda for reform going forward. If instead we get locked into a moronic bigger-smaller shouting match that has no potential to move us toward a genuine solution, it means that when the next pandemic crisis strikes, one that could be even deadlier than COVID-19, we will have become our own worst enemy.


If we cannot expect our major political parties to lead the way, one option would be to empanel—after November 3, obviously—a blue-ribbon national commission to examine these issues and recommend reforms. Beyond an acquired cultural allergy to planning, are we truly plagued by excessive bureaucracy and overlawyering? By crippling congressional oversight and budgeting rigidities? By excessive affluence and risk-aversion, so that the qualities of stoicism and “grit” have drained out of American culture? Partisan gridlock? Just poor leaders?

It may be that part of the inadequacy of the U.S. response at the federal level has arisen from a failure to shield emergency medical responses from politics. Consider what happens with certain other kinds of crises. Some aspects of emergency Department of Defense national security contingency responses—concerning, for instance, the continuity and integrity of the government—are shielded from politics by automatically triggering prearranged protocols. The same goes for the Department of Homeland Security and some “incidents of national significance,” such as major natural and terrorist-caused disasters. The U.S. system also insulates decisions of the Federal Reserve from politics, at least to some extent. It defies logic that it cannot, or at any rate does not, better insulate emergency public health responses from politics.

Consider that while Donald Trump is an extreme case, any president facing a pandemic will be confronted with tradeoffs between saving lives and keeping the economy from tanking. Perhaps some forms of urgent decision should be removed from the purview of presidents and their staffs—in this case from the hands of people like Jared Kushner—so that they can concentrate on a strategic response.

What we can reasonably conclude already is that whatever interagency set-up we have for dealing with pandemic crises doesn’t work well, and that some of the deficiencies are largely independent of whoever happens to be president. A major objective of a commission should be to learn from other national systems that performed better than ours.

The track record of Singapore—where I am a visiting fellow this year—may bear some basic lessons, at least some of which may be applicable to our very different circumstances. First, put policy competence ahead of partisan advantage or personal self-regard. Second, invest in capacity for emergencies instead of pretending they’ll never happen; it saves lots of money in the long run. Third, respect the people by being candid and honest with them. And fourth, try not to elect an inexperienced, narcissistic, encyclopedically ignorant buffoon as your leader. That, especially, seems to make a significant difference.

Adam Garfinkle

Adam Garfinkle is the founding editor of The American Interest. He is spending the current academic year as a distinguished visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.