A recent article by Atlantic staff writer George Packer proclaims that “We Are Living In a Failed State.” (This is not to be confused with an Atlantic article last month that claimed “America Is Acting Like a Failed State.”) Coronavirus, in Packer’s view, caught America off-guard, in part because “Trump acquired a federal government crippled by years of right-wing ideological assault, politicization by both parties, and steady defunding” and then doubled down on all these things.
It turns out that “nimble” companies can’t prepare for a catastrophe or distribute lifesaving goods—only a competent federal government can do that. It turns out that everything has a cost, and years of attacking government, squeezing it dry and draining its morale, inflict a heavy cost that the public has to pay in lives. All the programs defunded, stockpiles depleted, and plans scrapped meant that we had become a second-rate nation.
Government has become subject to partisan politicization, like too much else in society. But it has not actually shrunk much recently. Even before the federal government’s coronavirus relief efforts began, not even the Right was actually doing much in the way of restraining government growth.
Packer may be relying on a claim seen floating around the Internet that Trump “defunded” the CDC. Trump budgets did call for reductions in CDC funding, but the president doesn’t set the budget, Congress does. And Packer could consult any of the various fact-checking websites to find that the budgets Congress has recently passed increased CDC funding.
It would almost be better if the only problem agencies such as the CDC had were lack of funding; that is fixed relatively easily. But David Harsanyi recently pointed out reports that painted a depressing picture of government incompetence in the CDC in the early days of the coronavirus’s spread. During the period where it was responsible for making and distributing coronavirus tests, it produced and distributed faulty ones (some of them tainted with coronavirus), then ran out. Meanwhile, FDA regulations also hamstrung efforts by private actors to make more. The government failed not for lack of resources, but for failure to direct those resources properly.
Packer remains right, in a sense: The state — i.e., the federal government — did fall down on the job. It just didn’t do so in the way he thinks.