Though it is taking place amid some of the most terrible circumstances imaginable, the coronavirus outbreak is also a real-world experiment. We are testing many of the assumptions shared by those who invest a lot of trust in public knowledge and government competence. The experiment isn’t going so well.
For example, the mandatory substitution of one set of economic activities with another—or, in some instances, replacing conventional economic activity with nothing at all—is increasingly at the heart of the progressive project. Americans are living through a unique circumstance: an engineered recession. The voluntary cessation of much non-essential commerce has put millions out of work or into a state of suspended animation, and the associated hardships are gradually trickling up the economic ladder. These unbearable conditions may be demanded of a nation struggling to contain a pandemic, but an engineered recession is precisely what the Green New Deal’s proponents envision.
That proposed legislation and its supporting documents do not envision an overnight conversion into a world no longer characterized by the combustion of fossil fuels. The proposal imagines an indefinite transition period in which the millions who are displaced by prohibitions on the use of conventional energy sources can take advantage of both existing and merely hypothetical social safety nets. Americans would be “guaranteed a job.” They would have access to taxpayer-backed universal health insurance. They would be able to take advantage of debt-free education programs to facilitate a “just transition” from the lives for which they’d prepared into a life that had been prepared for them. And they would have access to “basic-income programs” that would soften the blows meted out against the existing workforce.
Some might presume that America’s structure of layered governmental authority can more functionally manage a painful transition than it can navigate an unexpected crisis, but there’s little evidence of that. Managing a crisis is, after all, a core public-sector function. The federal government, in particular, has handled this one rather poorly.
When it needed to be nimble and scrap the procedural bureaucracy that limits innovation and improvisation in the medical sector, its agencies were lethargic and beholden to rigid regulations that cost the country irreplaceable time. When the government needed to hemorrhage money as fast as it could to keep Americans on existing payrolls or just make sure individual heads stayed above water, Congress did manage to secure $2.2 trillion in loans and benefits. But the banks were soon overwhelmed with small-business-loan applications, and claims are already consuming nearly all allocated funds. Americans are only just beginning to see their one-time relief payments this week. The rollout of this relief, which for individuals is about $300 more than the average Americans’ weekly income, will continue into the spring and summer. Some may not see their hardship mitigated by a check until August or September.
There is a bit of pithy conservative wisdom which holds that the federal government is only good at two things: breaking stuff and cutting checks. Well, at least they still have breaking stuff.
In the interim, the shuttering of institutions like businesses and schools has scrambled the calculations made by suppliers. Farms are destroying their stock, tilling ripe produce back into the fields from which they grew, destroying tens of thousands of eggs, and dumping millions of gallons of fresh milk. Meanwhile, astronomically long lines are now the typical scene in America’s food banks, with supplies and volunteer labor stretched to the brink.
Experts generally believe that there can be no return to something resembling normalcy until the U.S. has vastly increased its capacity to test for COVID-19 and trace individual contacts. But the pandemic has not just tested the bounds of America’s testing technology; it has subjugated the profit motive in broad swaths of the medical sector. With a dramatic decline in routine doctor visits, elective surgeries, and employee testing, labs like Quest Diagnostics are forced to furlough its employees even as more than 100,000 COVID tests languish in backlog. The story is much the same in America’s hospitals. “In a sense, we kind of sacrificed that revenue for a public-health interest,” one cardiologist told the Wall Street Journal. “The hospital systems really are facing an incredible crunch because of this—the longer the curve gets pushed out, the more they face difficult decisions about employment.”
Among those for whom the profit motive in medicine is something to be distrusted, government expenditures are always the answer. But between the Congress and the Federal Reserve, the United States has injected trillions into the economy. All told, that’s still roughly equal to just one year’s estimated costs of a Medicare-for-all program. This unprecedented response will quadruple the budget deficit from $984 billion to $3.8 trillion in 2020 and by 2023, it will send the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratio to record rates unseen since World War II. Some will say that this is proof that the only obstacle before the progressive vision is the will to pursue it. To the prudent, however, it’s evidence of how wildly unsustainable the progressive vision is, even if those prudential analysts generously assume no future crises of this magnitude.
The pandemic has secured at least one radical environmentalist goal. Around the world, carbon emissions are at or near historic lows. It only took the decimation of the economy and precarity for millions to do it. Only the most misanthropic would celebrate such an achievement.
To the extent this crisis has been witness to competency, it’s not coming from the top down but the bottom up. Americans in areas with the most infections began to limit their exposure to the outside world long before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended limiting public gatherings to 50 or fewer people on March 14. In response to that organic event, businesses large and small started closing shop. With some exceptions, states and municipalities followed suit. Some states responded to the crisis more proactively than others, but those that have enjoyed the most success in containing the contagion did not wait for federal guidance to do so. The reopening of the economy will likely follow a similar pattern. Those individuals and institutions closest to the ground will lead the way based on their assessment of the relative risk, and their municipal and state governments will follow their leads.
For those who are predisposed toward introspection, this crisis has presented several challenges that would lead any critical thinker to confront at least one of their preferred ideological convictions. Limited-government conservatives should not be immune to that condition. But it takes a special kind of stubbornness to reserve faith in the federal government to micromanage private aspects of American life after all this.