If COVID-19 spreads in the United States as it has spread elsewhere, then quite soon the virus will be established within the general population. The federal response will have changed from containing isolated ‘hot spots’ to managing a national epidemic. ‘Social distancing’ and self-quarantining will be endemic, hospitals will be overloaded and the economy will have continued to contract.
This could test not just the American people — their social bonds, their sense of collective fate — but also America’s government and institutions. That testing will be far more demanding than the ‘stress tests’ faced by the banks after the financial crisis of 2007-08. America’s resolve will be challenged again. This should not be a time for petty politicking.
That is why it’s been unpleasant to witness the relish with which many of President Trump’s critics have reacted to the crisis. Many pundits seem positively desperate for the Trump administration to fumble and fail, even if this means masses of deaths, just so they can gloat about his failings.
It should be acknowledged, however, that the government’s initial response was inadequate to the point of recklessness. Despite advance warnings from China, then from elsewhere in East Asia, and then from Europe, US authorities responded slowly. These are difficult moments for any leader. But President Trump behaved erratically: tweeting, for instance, the false claims that the number of new cases was declining, that COVID-19 isn’t as bad as the flu (it’s worse) and that virus carriers should go to work as usual. That is not good leadership. The federal government was slow to stockpile and distribute testing kits and to institute the measures proven to have slowed or stopped the virus in South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The weak response to coronavirus is a symptom of a pre-existing condition: the decay of the liberal state. ‘Liberal’ comes from the Latin liber (free). Like freedom, liberalism means all things to most people, and is best defined by what it is not. The original, 18th-century sense denoted humane tolerance and liberality of interest, a freedom more social than political. In 19th-century politics, the liberal stood for free markets and free consciences and, frequently, the desire to export them. In 20th-century America, liberalism meant, successively, state intervention, anti-communism, civil rights and finally, in an Orwellian twist, the coercion and intrusion that had previously defined the enemies of liberalism.
The liberal impulse expresses itself in three ways in modern America. The first is popular: an enduring belief in individual freedom, with the Constitution as its guarantor. The second is the ruling ethos of American manners and economy: a rigid libertarianism which, refusing its responsibility for the social costs of free markets, quietly passes the tab back to the state it rejects.
The third is bureaucratic: an even more rigid belief that the answer to the failures of big government is bigger government, and that bureaucratic power, rather than protecting individual freedom, should be used to force social outcomes. This is ‘liberalism’ as we currently know it.
The modern nation-state has always offered a deal: liberty for protection. America’s liberal state frequently fails to honor its side of the bargain. Its slow and expensive bureaucracy puts its fingers into everyone’s pie when ideology suits — persecuting nuns who disagree with contraception in the courts, for example, or launching politically-motivated IRS investigations — but it often seems incapable of putting its best foot forward. The slow response to COVID-19 is not a bug in the system. It is the system itself.
The United States has more ICU beds per thousand patients than any other western state. Lying down in one, however, can cost you an arm and a leg. The country keeps its military supply chains within its borders as a matter of national security, but it has outsourced its medical supply chains to China. It’s not hyperbole to say that these are symptoms of the senescence of the liberal system — as are the doddery candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. Old party politics seems incapable of adapting to the 21st-century world.
That’s why we’ve dedicated this issue to the much-discussed but sometimes nebulous subject of ‘post-liberalism’. The Spectator has always supported liberty and will continue to, but, as Tim Stanley suggests, liberalism may now need saving from itself. Doing so without reversing human thriving or falling into authoritarian habits will be a central challenge of the coming decades.
Under this president’s leadership, some progress has been made: bureaucracy has been hacked back and foreign policy clarified. But America also needs a government that is not conducted according to the president’s interactions on social media; one that can respond swiftly and coherently to complex problems.
When a federal bureaucracy is unable to mobilize the strengths of its human and technical resources, and even actively works to frustrate them, it no longer can claim to serve the national interest. We can only hope that COVID-19 behaves according to its version of American exceptionalism, and that we get a lucky break. If we do, the president and the federal authorities must not squander it.
This article is in The Spectator’s April 2020 US edition.