Being stuck in a pandemic is bad, but what’s much worse is being stuck in a pandemic in a country whose ruling party got their ideas about economics and the role of government from Ayn Rand, C. Montgomery Burns, and the rotted brain of a long-dead Scotsman. It’s time to ditch the whole concept of small, deliberately limited government once and for all, before anyone else gets hurt.
As Americans in general and New Englanders specifically, we are in love with the idea of the small, part-time government that generally stays out of society’s affairs. After all, “The best government is that which governs least,” according to rugged individualist Henry David Thoreau, who coincidentally needed his mom to bring him food in the woods all the time.
But the ideal described by our dead Scot, Adam Smith, in which government provides only for defense, the protection of private property, and a few necessities like roads, hasn’t been realistic since industrialization threw into sharp relief the desperate inequalities between rich and poor. Any attempt to force modern government to be smaller and less responsible for social welfare and regulation of the economy inevitably leads to disaster. See, for instance, the Great Depression and the 2008 fiscal crisis, just to name a few.
We’re in the middle of another disaster right now, and while there is so, so much blame to go around for our country’s criminally incompetent response to COVID-19, a very large share can be placed at the feet of everyone who thought defunding vital government programs, cutting taxes for the rich, letting corporate titans decide their own paid sick leave policies, and blocking universal health care was a good plan.
As it turns out, being suspicious of anything the government does and trying to rely entirely on individuals to make their own choices is not a recipe for success in times like these.
To give you an idea of how this is going, Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R-South Dakota) scoffed that government efforts to mandate sensible social distancing precautions were all for just a bunch of sheeple, declared that “South Dakota is not New York City,” and left it up to the people of her state to do whatever they wanted. South Dakota is now an emerging hotspot, with 300 cases appearing at a single meat-packing plant alone.
Small government doesn’t work for this or any other crisis. It doesn’t even really work for “normal” times. How did our roads and schools get to be the way they are? Why are the rich getting so much richer while the middle class and the poor languish? Why is health care an impossible dream for so many people? Why are the streets of our richest cities full of the homeless?
Limited government has utterly failed to cope with any of those problems. There’s a toxic idea out there that deregulation and tax cuts will lead to economic growth, which through magic will benefit absolutely everyone. But that’s never been remotely true. If it were, salaries wouldn’t have been stagnating since the Reagan years, and the gap between rich and poor would have been closing instead of widening. Small government simply can’t fix modern problems.
Here’s the thing. Government isn’t just some nebulous thing that exists only to tax us and make us wait in line at the DMV. Government can and should be the expression of the will of society as a whole, as carried out by the representatives of the people. Government is the only way the entire town, the entire state, and the entire country can work together as a single unit to attack problems the private sector can’t solve, like wars, natural disasters, economic crashes, and pandemics.
This matters, because I firmly believe we’ve entered a time of ongoing global crisis. The threat of climate change was already becoming nauseatingly real before COVID-19 struck. The old American-led system of alliances is decaying, leaving power vacuums in dangerous places. The institutions of the West are struggling, and democracy itself is in retreat.
We can’t address any of these crises if our government can barely tie its own shoes. We need competent governments that can do big things. We need to buy into the idea that we’re all in this together. Connecticut’s government could start selling “Quarantine Bonds,” just like the war bonds of old, to raise money and give everyone a stake in the future.
Small government is the belief that we don’t need one another to survive and prosper. The 21st century is teaching us once again that without one another, without the whole of society working together, we’re all screwed.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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