If it isn’t coronavirus, it is going to be something else. Are we going to be ready for it?
When Governor George W. Bush of Texas decided to run for president, he had some big ideas about education and entitlement reform, about encouraging Americans to invest and build an “ownership society” in which not just the affluent investing classes would have a substantial personal stake in the economy.
While he was planning to build his “ownership society,” Osama bin Laden was planning 9/11.
And so George W. Bush, the would-be “education president” who had made noninterventionist noises about those entangling foreign alliances and “nation-building” abroad that so trouble some of our paleoconservative friends, became a “wartime president,” as we used to say before they were all wartime presidents. Like his father before him, Bush came into the presidency with very pronounced small-r republican inclinations and brought to his public career a very old-fashioned sense of modesty. (Borrowing from Churchill, Bush’s opponents would insist that his modesty came from having so much to be modest about.) He ended up transforming the presidency into something more imperial (from imperator, “commander-in-chief”) than any chief executive since Franklin Roosevelt might even have dreamt of.
When he was asked about the greatest challenge facing a statesman, Harold MacMillan is said to have answered, “Events, dear boy, events.” Bush’s presidency was bookended by 9/11 and the financial crisis. Neither of those was exactly his administration’s fault — there is a good argument that the events of September 11, 2001, were set in motion in 1979 and that the United States had been an undercard contender in them until 9/11, while the subprime meltdown and financial crisis resulted from a string of policy errors extending all the way back to the 1930s. Bush might have had better or worse policies when dealing with these events, but dealing with them was not what he had in mind when he ran for president.
Donald Trump’s conception of the presidency is, to put it generously, peculiar and unique to him. Trump was quite the Twitter warrior when it came to the Obama administration’s handling of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 and, as a Howard Hughes-class germophobe, he ought to be pretty well positioned to bring some energy and focus to the coronavirus. Maybe he will, or maybe Captain Chaos will keep letting his freak flag fly — who knows?
Donald Trump is not the only American with a distorted view of what the presidency is and what the president ought to be expected to do and to be able to do. The American president is not a prince, potentate, or pope, not an ersatz emperor or a democratic demi-monarch. He is the chief administrator of the national state. “State” is a word that has a whiff of evil attached to it: Trump and his cheerleaders bawl about a conspiratorial “deep state” that opposes him, libertarians warn against statism and statists, progressives whimper about “state violence” and the like. And students of American history know that the scope and character of the national state was the defining issue of post-revolutionary politics: Under the Articles of Confederation, there was hardly any national state at all; Antifederalists and Jeffersonian democrats were suspicious of giving the state too much power, while Alexander Hamilton and likeminded nation-builders (nationalists, Rich Lowry would say) set about building a powerful state.
Francis Fukuyama, in his magisterial Origins of Political Order, outlines three contributors to political stability: accountable government, the rule of law, and state-building. State-building is at heart a risk-mitigation project, something that is implicit in theories of government going back to Thomas Hobbes and explicit in the modern “social insurance” model of the welfare state, in which the state takes a prominent role in “providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision,” as F. A. Hayek put it. The rule of law makes relations among citizens and between citizen and state predictable, creating procedures for justice that supplant clientelism and vendetta. Accountability in the democratic West normally is ensured by elections, but Fukuyama argues, not unpersuasively, that there is a kind of accountability at work even in stable autocratic regimes such as the one in Beijing, which is being tested by the coronavirus, just as we are likely to be tested.
None of this is a brief for limited government or for expansive government — for a small state or for a large one. It is, rather, a brief for a state with well-defined roles and responsibilities, one that has adequate resources and authority to execute its duties in relation to these. It is in no way contradictory or inconsistent to advocate a settlement under which the national government has no role whatsoever in, say, K–12 education or the management of churches or newspapers, and in which it is very limited in its role in building highways or regulating trade — but at the same time has a great deal of power and authority when dealing with an epidemic or other public-health crisis and a relatively free hand in matters of national security. (This strikes many people as obviously reasonable and unobjectionable, which is why our reflexively sneaky progressive friends are always trying to redefine gun control or climate change as public-health and national-security issues.) It is perfectly defensible to favor a smaller welfare state and a bigger budget for the Centers for Disease Control.
But our heroic, god-emperor conception of the presidency prevents the emergence of that understanding of the state. If the presidency is a kind of sacral kingship and the state is mainly a vehicle for the apotheosis of our national demigod, then it must be very difficult to achieve a schematic reimagining of the state as a series of discrete means directed at a series of discrete ends. Barack Obama promised to “fundamentally change” the country, and Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.” But these are slogans, not a program for responding to unpredictable epidemics.
And epidemics are unpredictable — as are the most important things for which we rely on the state for mitigation. Perhaps there is a straight line (an almost straight line) leading from the Mosaddegh coup d’état to 9/11, but if there is one, the dots can only be connected retrospectively. We cannot know what is coming in any specific way. But we know trouble is coming, because trouble is always coming. Winter is always coming, which is why it is better to have a government of Aesop’s thrifty ants rather than one of spendthrift, deficit-happy grasshoppers. Maybe we dodge a bullet on coronavirus. Maybe we don’t.
But we are not likely to dodge every bullet. The world of November 7, 2000, was radically different from the world of September 11, 2001. That was not the first time our world has been suddenly reordered by unforeseen events. It will not be the last. We have literal and metaphorical viruses — a world full of them.
Being lucky is not the same thing as being smart. And there is a kind of compound interest on being smart: It is good to do the smart thing today, but it is better to have done it ten years ago.