Politics & Policy

States of Emergency

President Donald Trump speaks as Vice President Mike Pence, Rear Admiral John Polowczyk and Dr. Deborah Birx look on during the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, April 5, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Emergency measures are not the right way to govern these United States in ordinary times. They aren’t even all that good in emergencies.

One way to understand socialism is that it is what happens when everybody is in the army and the army runs everything.

In such a situation, the government does not have to worry about contract negotiations when it wants some respirator masks or ventilators — command gives the order and the order is carried out. If command thinks the work at hand calls for 100,000 more truck drivers, then 100,000 workers in less-essential fields are reassigned. Ezra Pound, the American poet and fascist propagandist, marveled at the efficiency (or what he took to be the efficiency) of the collectivist economics of the Mussolini government, which, by abolishing “the middlemen’s extortion and the wiles of the monopolists,” gave the state a free hand to impose rational programs (or what he took to be rational programs) on the production and distribution of Italy’s economic output, with “the state able to use these materials as it needs them.”

Il Duce described his economic ideal — the marriage of central planning with the urgency of war-mobilization — as “the socialism of the trenches.” When the newly empowered leader of the German National Socialist Workers’ Party was asked if he planned to nationalize industries, he responded, “Why should I nationalize the industry? I shall nationalize the people.”

The urgency of war and the instinct for centralization constitute a marriage whose offspring inherit exaggerated versions of family traits. And so in response to the current epidemic’s consequent economic crisis, the Danes are “effectively nationalizing private payrolls,” as the New York Times puts it, a unified national response that stands “in contrast to the patchwork American system.” One of those American patches is the Defense Production Act, which, in theory, empowers the U.S. government to behave like Mussolini’s, ordering firms to produce what the government demands on the government’s timeline, prioritizing the government’s priorities.

President Trump being President Trump, the task of overseeing these programs has been entrusted to Peter Navarro, a former economics professor with no expertise in the relevant issues, an amateur China crank (that is his main appeal to Trump) whose area of study has been the economics of utilities companies. Trump has been tweeting orders at General Motors, but Navarro on Thursday told Politico that he has no idea whether GM has actually done anything. Portrait of administrative impotence: Navarro apparently cannot even get a meeting with the brass at GM. “I’ve talked to a number of their proxies,” he told Politico. Pardon me, but: Proxies? He went on to whimper that he had been “promised daily updates which have not materialized.” The poor lamb.

Also writing in Politico, under the headline “On the Coronavirus, the Nationalists Aren’t Nationalist Enough,” National Review editor and The Case for Nationalism author Rich Lowry lamented the early denial and slow response of the Trump administration to what should have been a “natural populist nationalist issue.” But there we see those exaggerated family traits: The Danish program of nationalization of payrolls was part of a genuinely national effort rooted in national consensus, involving many different political parties, business groups, unions, etc. The Trump administration’s nationalism is not a substantive nationalism but a nationalism of rhetoric with no strong relationship to any kind of coherent policy agenda. Trump’s nationalism is in no small part about the word “nationalism” — Trump’s fondness for it and the irritation it causes to people not well-disposed to Trump. It is what one automotive analyst called Trump’s attempts to boss around GM via the DPA: “a rhetorical flourish.”

The current state of emergency is offering a dramatic illustration of the fact that many of our self-proclaimed nationalists on the right are running into the same wall that has broken so many noses belonging to self-proclaimed socialists on the left: American culture. The vagaries of American political discourse notwithstanding, Denmark is not a socialist country, and neither are Sweden, Norway, Finland, et al. — these are liberal-democratic capitalist countries with relatively large welfare states and relatively high taxes. But whatever you wish to call them, they are the products of a culture and a politics that cannot simply be grafted onto the United States.

The Trump administration’s troubles with the DPA and GM are part of a very long America tradition. We think of World War II as “the good war” and a time of patriotic and effective national mobilization — a national effort that informs much of contemporary American progressive thinking about the possibilities of government intervention and that informs, at least in part, the Right’s nationalist fantasies. But the history to which we pay insufficient attention includes the fact that the war contracting of that era was an absolute pig-sty of “waste, inefficiency, mismanagement, and profiteering,” as Harry Truman put it at the time.

Efforts at imposing social and economic regimentation on American life are producing results that are very American, meaning that there is a relatively high level of noncompliance, not only with “social distancing” guidelines but also with heavy-handed government efforts to command and control the private economy. The Scandinavian countries are having a different experience, a more Scandinavian one. (As the Swedish journalist Lisa Bjurwald puts it, buttoned-down and emotionally remote Swedes “were practicing the coronavirus lifestyle long before the virus hit.”) Socialist or nationalist, Left or Right, the powers that be in Washington bark orders all day — but they are barking those orders at Americans. Good luck.

Emergencies, of course, eventually end. At the end of the Great War, there was an effort among progressives to keep alive the “war socialism” of the Wilson years as a new norm in American life. That was roundly rejected. A smaller version of the same story played out after World War II. Already, we are hearing from the Left and the Right a great deal of wishful thinking about maintaining certain emergency measures associated with this epidemic once the plague has passed. The Left wants to expand unemployment benefits, paid leave, and the like, while the Right is more fixated on the fact that Chinese factories make a lot of cheap paper goods and ibuprofen.

(James Pethokoukis is not alone in wondering why none of these would-be central planners on the right had the foresight to fill national reserves with the necessary goods when they could be globally sourced at low prices rather than moan about it after it was too late.)

Emergency measures are not the right way to govern these United States in ordinary times. They aren’t even all that good in emergencies.

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