Coronavirus is exposing national weaknesses we need to address

Some years ago, the British Thatcherite historian Correlli Barnett wrote a somewhat overwrought book called The Audit of War, pointing out that the advent of World War II revealed defects in British society — the class system, the lack of technical education, overemphasis on “fair shares” at the expense of productivity, and so on. Some of the points made were good; others were less so.

But likewise, the advent of the coronavirus epidemic is revealing deficiencies in our society and government. This “audit by disease” has revealed some real defects, though not those usually commented on.

First, our schools and colleges, it turns out, are woefully unprepared to engage in distance learning thanks to restrictions on its use imposed in most states by teachers unions. There is nothing here like the Open University in Britain or the University of South Africa. Although viruses need to be carefully contained, it’s absurd that in a federal nation of continental expanse, substantially all such testing was centralized in Atlanta, Georgia.

Second, local health bureaucracies were sadly diminished as a consequence of the fiscal imbalance afflicting all of American government since the Income Tax Amendment, which produced, in the words of the late professor Paul Freund of Harvard Law School, “apoplexy at the center and anemia at the extremities.”

Third, the revenues and energies expended under Obamacare to relieve consumer grievances and reallocate insurance costs from older to younger families would have been better invested in public health properly so called. For example, we should have been spending public money to expand and upgrade laboratories, to research diet and the efficacy of naturally occurring substances, to address lead paint, to do contact tracing of venereal disease and other epidemics, to target (with taxes if need be) sugar consumption so as to reducing obesity and diabetes (which currently put many people at greater risk), to conduct more adequate medical examinations of schoolchildren, and to educate on, prevent, and treat alcohol and drug abuse.

Unfortunately, the political responses to the current situation have largely ignored such matters. Nor have they concentrated on strengthening local and state governments, whose performances have thus far surpassed that of Washington. Rather, it has involved demands from the usual suspects on the Right and the Left for new forms of centralization.

The devotees of “situation room government” and executive power as an antidote to the alleged threat of domestic terrorism have emerged from the rocks under which they have been hiding since the end of the second Bush administration to assert that the president can use the military to quarantine civilians without a request from a state governor. But this power is expressly denied to the president by the Defense Appropriation Act of 2008 thanks to protests from all 50 governors. These right-leaning advocates also celebrate the potential role of the military’s new U.S. Northern Command, an institution unwisely created during the Second Bush administration.

The usual suspects on the Left assert that a single-payer health scheme is justified to provide free virus testing for all. That is a non sequitur. It is important only in the early stage of epidemics. On the ground, single-payer nations are now rationing tests by queue. There is a case to be made for a single-payer system (with exceptions) for primary care, the need for which is predicable. (Britain originally operated this as a voucher system for a year’s concierge care.) But the case for eliminating market signals over 20% of the economy is much more doubtful.

Mayor Bill de Blasio goes even further, urging the nationalization of various medical supply industries. Others have urged the government to resort to “rated orders” under the Defense Production Act. These make sense for the building of battleships — not for ordinary civilian commodities. That’s because they leave in their wake cost-plus contracts and years of renegotiation litigation, a paradise for lawyers. Others urge that the spread of diseases in prisons should be the occasion of a general jail delivery, the abandonment of proactive policing, federal controls over state and local police, and abandoning the enforcement of laws of which they disapprove.

What the extremists on both sides share is a culture of doomsday crying. Of this, the wise World War II leader of American science, Vannevar Bush, wrote in Modern Arms and Free Men in 1949:

“There is fascination in fear. There is a vortex that surrounds the concept of doom. When there is stark terror about, men magnify it and rush toward it. Those who have lived under the shelter of a wishful idealism are most prone to rush into utter pessimism when the shelter fails. No terror is greater than the unknown, except the terror of the half-seen. Fear cannot be banished, but it can be calm and without panic, and it can be mitigated by reason and evaluation.”

As for demands for empowering the military and public health experts, Bush said, “the police power must be under the control of individuals directly responsible to the electorate, for force and intimidation must be absent and minorities protected in their rights.”

George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of numerous works on law and history, most recently America’s Political Inventors: The Lost Art of Legislation (Bloomsbury 2019).

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