There was a lot that government got right over the course of the pandemic. Most of it was what government is already good at.
Congress is very good at cutting checks, and they did a lot of that; getting money into individual pockets, state treasuries, and the institutions that would care for the sick and develop effective vaccines. Executive agencies are good at cutting red tape, and they did that, too. When speed was of the essence, the barriers that slow drug approvals were pared back, and time-consuming impediments to accessing government services were discarded. The 50 state governments did their part, as well. From halting restrictions that prevent medical professionals from practicing across state lines to allowing restaurants to deliver alcoholic beverages, the minor inconveniences that must have served some purpose at some point melted away.
And yet, government’s successes go relatively unremarked upon, in part, because the administrators and politicians in charge of that enterprise are not satisfied with them. They have established for themselves far broader objectives. And when those objectives go unmet, failure teaches its casualties no lessons. Rather, our current crisis continues to provide policymakers with the impetus to pursue even less attainable alterations to the social compact and to human nature itself.
The cycle has become familiar over the past two years. It is defined by overreach fueled by overconfidence. The result is unmet expectations, but the overconfident don’t recalibrate their ambitions when amid failure. Indeed, those ambitions only balloon with their elusive pursuit of total control.
Government was great at creating incentives for private firms to develop Covid vaccines, but it was terrible at establishing, much less implementing, an equitable distribution of those miracle drugs that would help rectify historical and economic inequalities. Why anyone would think government was capable of such a project was a mystery, but it went and attempted it anyway. Government and its preferred constituencies sought (and are still inexplicably seeking) to contain the spread of an uncontainable respiratory virus. In the process, they’re rationalizing away the immense social, psychological, and economic costs of the truncated life they have imposed on the public without providing rewards commensurate with the sacrifice.
They promised to “end the pandemic,” but no amount of technocratic acumen could ever achieve such a thing. Now that an endemic strain of this virus is providing natural immunities to just about everyone, whether they want them or not, that same class of overconfident administrators is failing in its general direction, applying all the same tools that failed to stop the spread in the past but with more vigor.
This tangible encounter with the limits of what capable public servants could achieve might have been a moment for introspection. But it was not. The effect of these shortcomings on those who suffer from an excess of ambition was to convince them to seize on the moment and attempt to reorder still more aspects of the human condition.
Rather than mitigating the worst effects of Covid infection, which is within our technological grasp to the extent the public is willing to participate in the experiment, “we should be preventing people from getting sick from COVID even if they don’t wind up in the hospital,” Dr. Anthony Fauci averred. The folly of the idea that an airborne respiratory pathogen could be neutralized so long as everyone strictly observed a series of evolving protocols at all times should be obvious. But it wasn’t.
In the pandemic’s first year, American cultural institutions were marshaled into a campaign designed to “end racism.” The extirpation of one of mankind’s more innate foibles was doomed from the start, but that didn’t stop this administration from integrating “issues of racial equity into everything it does,” per Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice. The perversities of this imperative led its exponents to embrace, rather than discard, discrimination—so long as it was the right sort. In pursuit of “equity,” Californians were asked (but subsequently declined) to endorse discriminatory language in the state constitution, criminals are going unsentenced in the pursuit of cosmic notions of “fairness,” colleges and universities are singling out the meritorious for punishment because they’re not of the right race, and advanced-placement schools are compelled to admit students based on demography rather than achievement. The discarding of neutral mechanisms designed to produce just outcomes in favor of providing the bureaucratically inclined with control over those outcomes has led to more injustice, not less.
The Democratic Party’s failed pursuit of a “transformational” moonshot that would renovate the whole of society in one legislative swoop has likewise done nothing to convince the managerial class that its goals are unrealistic. The initial idea wasn’t just to cut checks and expand services, but to “create cultures” that override individual preferences. “I believe that we have a unique opportunity now to shape our nation’s future, to transform how we live, how we work, and how we vote for the better,” Vice President Kamala Harris said in May of the “new era” on which we had all unknowingly embarked. In the end, the White House and its allies couldn’t usher in a paradigmatic revolution in which the word “infrastructure” was redefined to include much of the human experience. They did, however, get what government does best: a massive exercise in check-writing for the development of a bunch of boring old roads, bridges, and airports. Chronic overpromising has rendered this historic achievement an unsatisfying afterthought.
In a landmark 1996 essay, David Brooks helped identify the psychosocial malady afflicting the journalists, lawmakers, and others who orbit around those with real power: He deemed it the “Status-Income Disequilibrium,” a condition that plagues those of lesser fiscal means as they spend their days surrounded by the trappings of real wealth. These people have genuine influence, and their favor must be curried if the patrician class is to thrive. But they are not of that class, and their insecurities mount over time. The effect is such that the “SID sufferers” end up seeking the favor of the moneyed interests they are tasked with governing and chronicling rather than the other way around. A related phenomenon is observable today in how the ambitions of the managerial class are becoming inversely proportional to their observable achievements.
Among the many humbling revelations of the pandemic is that human nature resists molding by the enlightened hands of social engineers. Rather than internalize this lesson, the engineers set about broadening the scope of their aspirations in the pursuit of sunk costs. The problem isn’t that competence in government is impossible, but that competence is possible within a narrow range of activities that are the proper province of government. It’s when government sets its sights higher that it so often underperforms. If only the ambitious could see it.