Debate | Is Small Government Still Possible?

June, 10 2020


Russell Roberts, is the John and Jean DeNault Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Harold Meyerson, is editor-at-large of the public policy magazine The American Prospect.


Yes: Government Doesn’t Respond Nimbly to These Kinds of Challenges; it’s Not Realistic to Expect it to.

Is small government still possible?

Early in this crisis, a lot of people observed that “There are no libertarians in pandemics.” But it’s not that simple. Some people might call me a libertarian, but I think of myself as a classical liberal, and I want government to do the things that governments do well. One is to provide information so people can make decisions. Another is public health. I’m not an anarchist; I’m OK with government-built roads, water and sewage systems. But those are easy. In China, a really big government was very effective, and we know how they did it: with relentless testing, forced quarantining, use of the army, things that would have been difficult to implement in the United States. Similar methods worked in Israel, where people are used to responding to an existential crisis. But in the U.S., much of the shutdown took place before government decreed it. The NBA canceled its season. My synagogue closed. Similarly, as government relaxes the shutdown, many are still refusing, perhaps reasonably, to go about their business. I’m 65; I’m going to be more cautious than my children in their 20s, and those individual private decisions are appropriate.

Government doesn’t respond nimbly to these kinds of challenges; it’s not realistic to expect it to.

Once you decide the government’s going to enforce, not just suggest, lockdowns—as they did in school systems, restaurants and bars—how do we deal with the dislocation and emotional damage those entail? The alternative is to let people take their own chances, be aware the world is a dangerous place, teach their children about risks and not dictate choices. A nanny state doesn’t permit that. I don’t think anyone really wants to live in a nanny state, even if it works; look how masks have become a partisan issue. Some people on the right think Costco is interfering with their rights by requiring masks. I’m OK with private business requiring masks if they think that’s the right thing to do. And they get to decide what to stock and how to price it. That’s called a market.

Do we want a bigger or smaller government going forward, or more accurately, do we want government to be more aggressively involved or less in the next pandemic? I would like to see government bigger in terms of providing information. I’d also like to see testing made easier, but that would require a smaller government, with less regulation.

What have government’s failures and successes been in this crisis?

The Food and Drug Administration has done a bad job on testing. A lot of people pretend it would have been different with a more competent president, and maybe that’s true, but similar mistakes were made all over the world, by governments of varying ideologies. It’s remarkable how little we still know. In the early days, the Centers for Disease Control announced that it wasn’t good for us to wear masks; that was wrong. The government has also made it remarkably difficult to make money providing people with scarce goods.

Of course you want to reduce fatalities, but we did not do it in a thoughtful way, so we ruined huge sectors of the economy to protect elderly people, and we didn’t do a good job of that either. We didn’t just cost people money; we destroyed dreams and made it hard for people to have dignity and self-respect, and those harms are real even if they can’t be quantified.

Government doesn’t respond nimbly to these kinds of challenges; it’s not realistic to expect it to. President Trump has said a lot of things that were incorrect in the course of the pandemic. But so has Andrew Cuomo, so has Anthony Fauci—it’s hard to get it right. I’m not saying anything goes; I’m saying it’s not surprising that government has struggled.

As a matter of practical politics, with such sudden, massive government intervention and spending, is the argument about small versus large government over?

Right now, a president who ran on a traditional “free market” platform of less regulation and lower government spending wouldn’t win. This position, which used to be the rhetoric of Republican candidates (even if they rarely lived up to it), just isn’t salient; most people don’t care. Cultural issues like immigration, nationalism and identity are where we’re fighting now. Even before the pandemic, people were less interested in economic policy and more in culture. That’s part of the reason we got Trump, whom I see as more of an effect than a cause. Cultural issues don’t fit into the traditional big government versus small government debate.

Do Jews have a special interest in the size and reach of government?

Jews suffer when the world gets less civilized. I think people forget how thin the veneer of civilization is. There is always a risk of a government that overreaches and that vilifies the “Other.” In the U.S., we’ve been protected by the Constitution and by attitudes, and these attitudes are always up for grabs. Freedom of religion in the U.S. without the hand of government steering it is a very good thing, not just for Jews but for everybody.


No: It’s Clear That More Americans Understand the Need for Big Government Now.

Is small government still possible?

As a practical matter, during the pandemic, we have had small government, and it’s failing. The state unemployment agencies lack the capacity to meet the needs of tens of millions of Americans. The Small Business Administration is too small to meet the needs of American businesses. And so on. As for the ideal of small government, it was only ever an ideal for people who believed that the market could address social needs, and therefore that there wasn’t much need for a large government. That has seldom been true, and it certainly isn’t true now. It’s clear during a pandemic, it’s clear during a depression, it’s clear during wartime and it should be clear in general that mass prosperity and mass solvency needs a large, activist government to take up the considerable slack created when we leave economic solutions to the market.

What have government’s failures and successes been in this crisis?

Where programs have put real money in real people’s pockets, they’ve been successful. Others have left something to be desired. Congress created an add-on of $600 a week to unemployment insurance that has been a huge factor in keeping the economy from totally collapsing. The PPP loan program for small businesses has helped, although it’s not big enough.

In the failures, as in the struggle by 50 different state agencies for unemployment insurance to handle 38.6 million applicants in nine weeks, you can see the underfunding of state agencies generally. On the health side, we have failed for many years to build a public health infrastructure, and we’re paying the price for that now. Many nations did a better job, and unlike President Donald Trump, their leaders weren’t committed to downplaying the effects of the virus. Of course, Trump also had problems with the Centers for Disease Control. But in general, a more adequately funded public health sector would have responded better. Things would be much better if the federal government had a massive program for testing and masks and necessary equipment. Instead, states have had to scramble for these. In national emergencies, the president’s polling and power almost invariably rise. In this case, it’s been the governors’, which is a statement about Trump’s incompetence and his resistance to doing what the federal government needs to do.

As a matter of practical politics, with such sudden, massive government intervention and spending, is the argument about small versus large government over?

In a rational country, the argument would be over. But we have a system where big money has disproportionate power, in both parties but particularly in the Republican Party, so the argument goes on. Even as we speak, Republicans in Congress are questioning the need for another stimulus package, even though the polling shows that more and more people recognize the need. People who were lukewarm on this kind of intervention aren’t lukewarm anymore—they support it. But Republicans always had a double standard on this, anyway. They didn’t care about big government in the form of deficit spending when it came as a tax cut for the rich, as in 2018. They only oppose deficit spending when the money goes to the non-rich.

It’s clear that more Americans understand the need for big government now.

It’s clear that more Americans understand the need for big government now. Will this create the kind of support that existed in the 1930s, when government put several million people on the public payroll with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) building dams and so forth, a key element in building a majority for FDR? We don’t know yet, but events suggest that if Joe Biden were president, and if the Democrats were to take the Senate in November and hold the House of Representatives, you would have somewhat politically similar dynamics to those in the 1930s, when there was majority support for much more government than there had been before.

Do Jews have a special interest in the size and reach of government?

I think they do. First, when government is responding adequately to a crisis, there is less general blame-seeking and scapegoat-seeking. This is exactly the kind of event where, for whatever reason, the default position of civilization is to blame the Jews. So in a crisis, you want enough government to provide an adequate response. Second, the general Jewish commitment to equality and social justice certainly leads most American Jews to support a large-scale response to this kind of crisis. Jews are not disproportionately in front-line occupations this time—other demographic groups are—but Jews who see the entire society as a particular Jewish concern, or who historically have concern for minorities and such, see the exposure of essential workers to contagion and the treatment of them as disposable as something shameful, and something that as Jews we should be seeking to remedy.

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