Congress is, at this writing, debating a bill that would direct nearly $2 trillion to individuals and businesses to provide emergency health care and mitigate the effects of the coronavirus-induced shutdown of much of the economy. While Congress and President Trump are still bickering over the details, official Washington is more or less unanimous on the need for the bill. A lot of wishful-thinking progressives, fresh from their own party’s decisive rejection of its openly socialist wing, are telling us this means “everyone’s a socialist now.” But the truth is the opposite: America does not want a permanent do-everything, be-everywhere government; it wants firefighters. And firefighters are not socialism.
The right model for understanding the proper role of government is the fire department. Why are firefighters typically among the most popular government officials? Because they show up when they are needed, they finish the job, and then they leave. There is all the difference in the world between firefighters’ running through my house when it is on fire and firefighters’ setting up permanent shop in my living room when there is no fire. There is no contradiction in Americans’ welcoming the firefighters when they arrive at the blaze but preferring that they leave when it is over. The essence of the progressive/socialist vision of government is that the firefighters never leave.
The size and powers of your local fire department can be flexible. Fire departments started as private associations: You agreed to pay for and/or participate in fighting fires, and in return, you got on the list of houses the fire company would protect. Because fires can spread from one house to the next, that arrangement eventually gave way to a more official mission to protect every home. But even today, smaller towns tend to mostly have volunteer fire departments organized like colonial militias: Though the town pays for the trucks and equipment, there are few if any permanent employees. The volunteers show up when the siren wails. Larger cities need full-time professional firefighters, given their population density. Most people, however, still deal directly with the fire department only when their place is in flames.
This is why rapidly expanding the government’s role in health care in a pandemic is not the same thing as embracing Medicare for All on a permanent basis. The government does have a role in stopping the blaze from engulfing an entire neighborhood. That role requires a more permanent infrastructure in the most densely populated areas, but it still draws significantly on the volunteer capacity of our vast and creative private sector of doctors, nurses, medical-device manufacturers, and pharmaceutical companies. Mobilizing them on a national basis in time of crisis is not the same as turning them into a standing army of civil servants. The resources they can draw on now would not exist if we attained the progressive dream of draining most or all of the profit motive and local diversity out of our health-care sector.
Thinking in terms of firefighting is also a useful model for understanding how the government should approach economic crises. Ordinarily, it is not the government’s job to keep businesses from failing, but in some cases it can step in briefly to keep the flames from spreading. The first of the bank bailouts in 2008 went to Bear Stearns — but in that case, all the government did was keep the lights on over a weekend to arrange for a solvent bank to buy Bear. That’s an eminently defensible use of government power that doesn’t require a long-term imposition.
Today, we are dealing with something unlike the purely economic crisis of 2008. Then, we had to deal with the concerns about government intervention that normally trouble conservatives: The more you pay people for not finding work, the less incentive they will have to get back to work, and if you bail out imprudent, risk-taking businesses, you increase the likelihood that more such risks will be taken in the future.
Neither of those concerns should be front and center when we are dealing with government-ordered business shutdowns resulting from a pandemic that originated outside our borders. President Trump, whom nobody would ordinarily confuse with a political philosopher, cut neatly to the core of the question in Saturday’s daily briefing:
This is the first time there’s ever been a case where you want people not to work. It’s always — you know, you want to create incentive to work. We’re creating not an incentive not to work, but the fact is we’re asking people not to work because of — we have — they have to stay away from each other.
Properly understood, the massive measures being discussed in Congress are not a stimulus, because they aren’t designed to create more economic activity. They’re not a bailout, because they’re not designed to help businesses out of their own messes. And they’re not socialism, because they’re not designed to remove either power or profit motive from businesses once the crisis passes, or to redistribute income or wealth. They are a relief package to keep people and businesses afloat in a natural disaster until they can resume doing what they were doing before.
That framework ought to govern how the relief package is shaped and our reactions to it. The goal should be to get as much money into the pockets of individuals and businesses as possible, as fast as possible, so people don’t lose their homes, and businesses are able to reopen. Means testing can wait. As Oren Cass has suggested, it would be better to simply give everyone cash and then impose a tax on that cash based on 2020 income, so that it functions only as a loan for the people who come out of this doing well at the end of the year. There are likewise fair debates to be had over how best to ensure that money given to businesses is used to avoid layoffs and/or rehire workers, rather than just passed through to shareholders on the way to downsizing or shutting down entirely.
Thinking in terms of firefighting is also an appropriate way to address concerns about civil liberties. America may not be the tiny-government utopia of libertarian dreams, and even in the 19th century, it was not always consistently so. But more than any other nation, we have an ingrained skepticism of institutionalized big government, a skepticism yet to be smothered by the age of entitlement programs, standing armies, and the welfare and surveillance states.
And that skepticism is reflected in our national impatience. Americans have a long record of eagerly supporting wars, but also of growing frustrated and weary when they drag on for years without a decisive resolution. The same goes for internal restrictions on liberty. Even now, many Americans who are accepting of citywide and statewide lockdowns are starting to get antsy. Popular resistance to widespread quarantines is likely to grow rapidly in the coming weeks. Trump’s impatience and short attention span are not assets in a leader, but they may put him in tune with the popular mood in ways that a more sober-minded chief executive wouldn’t be.
Americans are willing to temporarily surrender a lot of our liberty in a crisis, so long as we know we can get it back at a foreseeable time in the near future. But anyone who confuses that with a willingness to hand over our liberty permanently is in for a rude awakening.