The pandemic is shaking up everything. Government shouldn’t be an exception

Last week, I wrote about how the pandemic-induced experiment in home schooling will shake up our system of education. By unleashing the creativity of great teachers, the next wave of innovations will give teachers and parents more control over how and what their students learn.

This week, I’ll focus on a similar change coming to the larger political realm.

In Federalist 8, Alexander Hamilton wrote that “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. … To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.”

Hamilton’s clear appreciation of human nature is now visible in every day’s news coverage during the pandemic. There is broad public support for lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and other measures that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago. Who could have conceived of a scenario where political leaders would be allowed to define which businesses are essential and which are not?

However, when the crisis is over, many politicians will resist giving up the emergency powers they enjoyed exercising. Even worse, some will see the pandemic as a breakthrough moment when voters finally appreciate the value of a powerful government.

For example, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio has expressed his preference for a system where “the city government would determine (for) every single plot of land, how development would proceed.” He thought most voters “would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be.”

When the pandemic is over, these attitudes will pit citizens who want a restoration of freedom against politicians who don’t want to give up their newfound powers.

In the larger sense, though, the pandemic is merely bringing to a head a battle that has been brewing for decades. Since the 1970s, our political system has been growing more centralized with ever increasing authority being vested in a regulatory state. The regulators are treated as experts — many are — and are generally unaccountable to any external checks and balances.

The regulatory state promised to make our society safer, but it required giving up individual freedoms and our commitment to self-governance.

Additionally, while the political system has been growing more centralized, America’s culture has been moving in the opposite direction. Following the invention of the microchip and what I call the Great Turnaround, everything in America has been decentralizing —everything that is except our political system.

The disconnect between a decentralizing society and a centralizing government is simply not sustainable. It’s also the reason that so much of our political dialogue seems so irrelevant or toxic. Twenty-first century politics is simply out of synch with twenty-first century America.

How did we get to this point? How did this disconnect come to be? How did the American people come to accept a regulatory state that is at odds with our founding ideals of freedom, equality, and self-governance?

The short answer is that, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the American people trusted their government as never before or since. Not only did the government win the war, a long economic boom followed. The trust faded quickly, but not before the Nixon administration put in place the foundations of today’s regulatory state.

The imposition of the regulatory state created the central political conflict of our time. It’s a conflict between our nation’s founding ideals and our current form of governance.

The pandemic is highlighting this disconnect. People see governments exercising draconian power, but they do not trust the governments. They are willing to accept and support such decisions during an emergency but can’t wait for the emergency to end.

When the pandemic is defeated, the defeat of the regulatory state will follow. Hamilton’s words of warning are certainly appropriate, but the American people are not yet ready to give up their freedom for promises of security.

Posted in Scott's Columns

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