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The evolution of Leviathan is easiest to follow in financial terms, because those are quantifiable and published. But the growth of state power — here at home and abroad — is more complex than that, and more invasive — and it is in very many cases popular, even when it is nakedly self-interested.
The epidemic shows the immediate need for such mandates in practically all government purchases and for other forms of trade protectionism. In the most recent Gallup poll, nearly 80 percent of respondents endorsed anti-outsourcing measures. Elizabeth Warren, who has long advocated laws mandating higher wages, says the epidemic shows the need for such laws, which generally enjoy broad support. The same goes for other tangential issues opportunistically attached to the epidemic response.
There is an emotional payoff to crisis solidarity — and a big political payoff, too, which is why Donald Trump has taken to calling himself a “wartime president,” why Emmanuel Macron has declared “We are at war!” while Queen Elizabeth II does the same. Even Angela Merkel is invoking that unpleasantness from 1939 to 1945: “Since the Second World War, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action,” she said. So the epidemic is, from that point of view, a lot like World War II, except the Germans are on our side. Perhaps most important from the politicians’ point of view, the “wartime” rallying effect seems to be in evidence: Merkel’s numbers are up and, as of this writing, so are Trump’s.
A critical difference is that the economic challenge of World War II was mobilizing resources and maximizing output for the war effort. The challenge in our time is trying to minimize the damage that will be done by forcibly idling businesses, industries, and much of the nation in the service of social isolation, the hygienic deep freeze in which the epidemic, it is hoped, will die down. And so the predictable opportunism of the political caste is, in a sense, more nefarious: Businesses and individuals find themselves in the position of needing aid not because of normal organic economic changes or unwise investments (I guess the Fortune 500 shouldn’t have spent all that money on avocado toast) but because they are (to varying degrees voluntarily) being co-opted to serve a different social end — an important one. Forcing people into the position of needing assistance and then conditioning that assistance in self-serving political ways is corrupt, and it should be understood as corruption.
For example: There might have been some pretty good “loose lips sink ships” reasons to restrict the communications of certain businesses receiving military contracts during the war against Germany and Japan (oh, all right: You, too, Italy, you, too!), but there is not much good reason for restricting the First Amendment rights of U.S. business owners and executives during this epidemic. Nonetheless, Washington is doing precisely that, for example by forbidding recipients of federal business aid to speak against unionization in their firms. Aid is normally conditional, and there is not anything wrong with that where the conditions serve some legitimate purpose related to the intended use of the aid. This is not that. This is rank political opportunism and the diminution of basic political rights. Progressi
There are dozens of other abusive interventions of that sort written into aid packages and other coronavirus emergency measures. The temptation to maintain these abuses even after the coronavirus emergency has passed will be very powerful. And, in many cases, such proposals will be popular, though there already are pockets of resistance to the heavy-handedness of the response (e.g., police arresting a man for playing T-ball with his daughter in an otherwise empty park, prohibiting the sale of vegetable seeds at stores that are open for selling “essential” goods, prohibiting “drive-in” Easter services and other innovations in social-distancing worship, etc.), most prominently from conservative religious communities and in rural areas. But in the main, these measures have support and are widely defended in the press on “wartime” grounds. The natural inclinations of the American people are considerably more authoritarian than is the American Constitution, which is one of the things that make it so handy to have a constitution that is written down in English words and sentences that are generally understood to be binding on the government.
There are measures appropriate to wartime (this is not a war) and to other national emergencies that are not appropriate to ordinary times. That is one of the reasons why populist politicians, including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, always strive so hard to convince us that we are in the midst of an emergency, that every scraped knee calls for the moral equivalent of war. Everyone who follows public policy can think of an “emergency” measure that proved eternal: Those of you dinosaurs with landline telephones are still paying part of a small tax instituted to help offset the costs of the Spanish–American War of 1898.
The United States has changed since the end of World War I, when efforts to retain Woodrow Wilson’s authoritarian “war socialism” were swept away in Warren G. Harding’s “return to normalcy.” Returning to normalcy after the coronavirus epidemic is going to take a concerted and programmatic effort — it is going to be a political project of some consequence.
And it will be resisted.
In 1930, the federal government was spending less (in GDP terms) in total than today it spends on Social Security alone — and it was a good deal less presumptuous. Today, the federal government is faced with a genuine emergency. Eventually, it will be the emergency, unless we see to it that it isn't.