In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, everyone should read Robert Higgs' economic classic "Crisis and Leviathan." The critical warning of this masterpiece is that government always uses a crisis — from the Civil War to the Great Depression to World War II — to expand power, not only during the emergency but also afterward. Emergencies tend to ratchet up the cost and power of government permanently.
That expansion of government authority is especially unwise now, given that when this coronavirus fiasco is finally over, it may go down in history as one of the greatest government screwups in American history. That's saying a lot.
As a nation, we spend just short of $5 trillion a year in Washington and at least another $1 trillion at the state and local level. Our government spends 1 of every 3 dollars that passes through the U.S. economy. It is the largest enterprise in the history of the world.
You don't have to be an Ayn Rand devotee to see how the government has stumbled in its primary function: protecting the health and security of the public. Every citizen should ask elected officials: How was the health security system in America, with $1 trillion of federal tax dollars spent, so radically unprepared and ill-equipped?
As an aside, it is astonishing that even after the government collapse, we still have politicians who are peddling "Medicare for All." Is there any sane person who wants to expand the state's control of the medical care system after this?
At the center of this calamity is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a $10-billion agency that did not have a screen or easily administered test to find out whether citizens had contracted the virus. My Heritage Foundation colleague Robert Moffit, a health care expert, recently explained the problems at the CDC. He said, "Germany and Japan quickly developed diagnostic testing for the new virus, and South Korea was soon testing large numbers of patients quickly. By comparison, the American performance was subpar." He says that private pharmaceutical companies were developing tests, but "public health authorities were restricted to using the failed CDC test."
These failures wound up costing the U.S. economy at least $1 trillion of lost output. How is it that Korea had more effective screening than we did?
President Donald Trump's adversaries blame this mess on his proposed cuts in funding at the National Institutes of Health and the CDC. But those cuts never happened. Trump must take some of the blame because he was president when the CDC failed us. But it's doubtful more money would have averted this crisis. The CDC was too preoccupied looking into gun control, climate change, and gay and transgender issues.
Despite this epic failure, few, if any, will be fired at the CDC, the NIH or the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump can't fire the incompetents because a corrupt civil service system protects almost all government workers.
The politicians say that no one saw the coronavirus coming, but this, too, is a cop-out. We have confronted killer viruses since the Middle Ages and the days of the bubonic plague. A century ago, we had influenza, which killed more than half a million Americans, and yet 100 years later, the government is less prepared for a pandemic than they were then.
How indefensible that in this advanced technological age — more than 50 years after we put a man on the moon and a time when we have cellphones for less than $100 with the computing power of all the computers used during the World War-era — the central government planners had no contingency plan to deal with a pandemic? So, we have been stuck with a Soviet-style shutdown of the entire American economy with curfews, food rationing and the equivalent of martial law in major cities such as San Francisco.
The most bizarre outcome of all of this is we now have politicians telling us that to solve the destruction that the government failed to prevent, we need more governmental authority and bigger budgets — more programs, more bureaucrats and more giveaways. Estimates are now $2 trillion to $3 trillion of new government spending. The "stimulus" plans have never worked and may even cause more long-term damage to the economy than this mendacious, microscopic virus. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants not just temporary but permanent paid sick leave for workers, underwritten by financially strapped businesses. Just as Higgs warned, she sees this crisis as something that must not go to waste in advancing a liberal agenda.
Perhaps if any good comes out of this dismal performance by the political class, it is that we will have more Americans who have learned that, as Ronald Reagan put it, "government is not the solution; government is the problem." There must be some better way for the folks in Washington to waste $5 trillion a year.
Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an economic consultant with FreedomWorks. He is the co-author of "Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive the American Economy."