Politics & Policy

The Coronavirus Pandemic Doesn’t Discredit Small-Government Conservatism

Empty chairs at the deck of a local restaurant that is closed due to the outbreak of coronavirus in Hoboken, N.J., March 16, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
Unforeseen existential threats sometimes require extraordinary temporary measures. But in normal times, the same measures would be terrible policy.

There are no libertarians during a pandemic, they tell me. Everyone is a Keynesian these days, apparently. It’s not just socialism that leads to shortages and empty shelves, fans of socialism point out. (They neglect to mention that, unlike the grocery shelves in socialistic nations, ours will be restocked as soon as the worst passes — and probably sooner.)

Yet the coronavirus crisis has only strengthened my belief in limited-government conservatism — classical liberalism, libertarianism, whatever you want to call it. Years of government spending and expanding regulation have done nothing to make us safer during this emergency; in fact, our profligate spending during years of prosperity has probably constrained our ability to borrow now.

Yes, unforeseen existential threats to America sometimes require extraordinary temporary measures that would normally be considered terrible policy. Asking most of the United States to self-quarantine during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic makes some sense, but asking 350 million people to self-quarantine when there’s no unique health risk would be ruinous, not to mention utterly insane. Perhaps sending Americans $1000 government-stimulus checks, instituting temporary sick- and family-leave pay as an emergency measure to keep families afloat, and bailing out our hardest-hit industries makes some sense, too, but not all ideas are equally beneficial in all situations.

This pandemic also shows us that government does far too much of what it shouldn’t, and is far too incompetent at doing what it should.

The CDC, an agency specifically created to prevent the spread of dangerous communicable diseases, has failed. Almost everyone would agree that its core mission should be under the bailiwick of government. Yet, for the past 40 years, its mission kept expanding as it spent billions of dollars and tons of manpower worrying about how much salt you put on your steaks and imploring you to do more jumping jacks.

The CDC’s funding was tripled from 2001 to 2010, with big spikes in spending after the 2001 anthrax attacks and then again in 2005 as another zoonotic infectious disease — the avian flu — hit our shores, killing thousands. Yet it still flubbed the Ebola scare of 2014; it couldn’t even afford to keep an aerial “bio-containment unit” on retainer, so Congress gave it another big funding bump through the Global Health Security Agenda, a one-time $600 million funding appropriation by Congress. The GHSA ended in September of 2019, a year in which the CDC devoted $509 million to emerging and zoonotic infectious diseases, but $951 million to educational efforts to “promote” good health and $629 million to injury prevention and control.

So here we are. The CDC — and other federal agencies such as the FDA — haven’t just moved too slowly in tapping the expertise of our academic and private sectors to fight COVID-19; they’ve actively impeded such private efforts. An infectious-disease expert in Seattle confirmed, very early on, that the coronavirus had hit the United States. She wanted to use her existing flu study to help start mapping the virus’s genome, but instead she had to navigate a bunch of ridiculous federal regulations. The CDC didn’t merely botch the creation of a COVID-19 test, it failed to turn to private companies that could have created a test faster and better. Washington has belatedly begun to roll back some of the regulations that have impeded the private sector from acting, offering waivers to allow doctors to practice in federal health-care programs across state lines. But we remain behind because of the government’s early failures.

There is, of course, no magic solution to this kind of crisis. Not even the most hardcore small-government conservative can pretend that a state isn’t needed to help combat coronavirus or that we don’t need healthy institutions that guarantee the efficacy of capitalism. Yet the caricature of small-government conservatives that liberals have created requires a refutation, most especially now.

Just because I oppose Washington’s efforts to dictate what light bulbs we’re allowed to buy or what health-care schemes we’re allowed to join, that doesn’t mean I want us to be Somalia. Just because I worry about the moral hazards of federally guaranteed student-loan programs or the wastefulness of solar-panel subsidies or our debt-generating entitlement programs doesn’t mean I want to role-play Mad Max. And just because I oppose the top-down economic planning schemes of technocrats left and right, believing that they will inhibit the dynamism of American society, doesn’t make me an anarchist. I’d simply like government to do much less much better.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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