From 9/11 to COVID, Every Emergency Means Bigger Government

We have to stop governing by emergency.


For two decades, Americans have been governed by emergency. These emergencies have become excuses for permanent political power grabs, for restrictions on individual liberties large and small, for mass bureaucratization and mass expansion of government spending, trillions of dollars' worth of non-solutions to deep-rooted problems. With every crisis, government grows. And now the crisis is government itself. 

You can see this tendency in the response to 9/11. In 2001, terrorists perpetrated the deadliest attack on America in our history. The terrorists were nimble, small, non-state actors whose deadliness stemmed in large part from their willingness to fight outside of traditional, government-run military paradigms. After the fact analyses concluded that the security failure stemmed at least partially from the profusion of security agencies, some of which underperformed individually, and few of which communicated effectively with each other. The terrorists had slipped through the cracks of America's security bureaucracy. 

What did Congress do in response to a threat that exploited America's bureaucratic obesity and dysfunction? It created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a super-bureaucracy charged with organizing a gaggle of other bureaucracies, many of which had little or nothing to do with each other. The solution Congress proposed to the problem of too much bureaucracy and too little bureaucratic coordination was even more bureaucracy, at a higher level. And of course, it hasn't worked; DHS has been plagued by serious management and morale problems, by coordination issues stemming from the large portfolio of unrelated subagencies it oversees, and by wasteful spending. Terrorism, meanwhile, remains a real threat. It didn't solve the problem. It became the problem. And government grew and grew along the way. 

The DHS was not the only federal byproduct of 9/11. Congress also created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which proceeded to spend years harassing flyers who pose no threat, installing invasive scanners that nonetheless miss bombs shaped like pancakes, molesting children while failing to catch guns and bombs, and demanding that grandmothers strip off belts and shoes in exchange for the privilege of going from one place to another. In response to a genuine threat, Americans were treated to a new federal agency dedicated to mass groping. The emergency justified it.

The emergency also justified two new wars, one of which we're still fighting today, and thousands upon thousands of casualties, not to mention more than a trillion dollars in spending to fund the war effort. 

No one is safer because of these wars; if anything, the opposite is true. But they have helped fuel a bigger, more powerful federal government, one that is more costly, more intrusive, more bureaucratized, operating on a permanent emergency footing, despite doing little or nothing to solve the underlying issue. 

The pattern set after 9/11 repeated itself, in a variant form, during the next great emergency, the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Again, the crisis was real—a mass collapse in the economy that put millions out of work and resulted in home values collapsing. People, especially ordinary middle-class people living on tight budgets, were suffering. So Congress, in its wisdom, used emergency powers to hastily set up a system—arguably unconstitutional—to bail out big banks.

After Barack Obama became president, there was a stimulus package too, designed to fund "shovel-ready" jobs that didn't exist. Instead, Obama's stimulus ended up paying make-work projects and boosts to state budgets and official counts of jobs created or saved that made no attempt to actually count the number of jobs created or saved. Republicans opposed it, for the usual Republican reasons, but behind the scenes, they'd also crafted an alternative of nearly equal size. The debate between the parties wasn't whether or not to govern by emergency; it was who would get to be in charge. Emergency government, and all the expansions of power and spending it entailed, was a given. 

Over the last year, of course, we have encountered a new emergency, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. As before, the threat is real and grave: Some 500,000 Americans have died of COVID-19; excess mortality statistics, which show the shocking spike in deaths in 2020 compared to previous years, tell the tale. As recently as a month ago, the United States was averaging more than 3,000 COVID-19 deaths a day. 

The virus was used to justify any number of emergency measures—stay-at-home orders, forced business closures and strict capacity limits, restrictions on gatherings and personal mobility—many of which are still in place, in various forms. 

COVID-19 was, and continues to be, mysterious in many ways. Reasonable people can disagree in good faith about which precise measures were legitimate and effective, and for exactly how long they should have remained in place. Some of those measures were more defensible, or at least understandable, in the early days than others—especially because it was not initially clear how communicable the virus really was, and under what circumstances. 

In retrospect, however, it's clear that the broad-based lockdowns and shutdowns that went into effect in March and April of last year were costly, ineffective, and deeply damaging to the country's social and economic infrastructure. And the federal response, especially from agencies nominally charged with defending public health, was marked by a succession of delays and failures, ineptitude and inaction, that doubtless made the pandemic's toll worse. 

The good news is that the terrifying death, hospitalization, and infection, numbers that have defined the pandemic so far are dropping, and dropping fast. And they are likely to drop even further as summer approaches—not to zero, but to a much lower baseline. Vaccinations are proceeding, however haltingly, and vaccinated populations, like those in nursing homes, are seeing substantial reductions in mortality. The vaccines work. And within a few months, most American adults who want to be vaccinated are likely to have the opportunity to do so. The United States is projected to reach herd immunity as early as the end of April, and if not then, by later in the summer. 

Which means that the old justifications for emergency measures to fight the spread of the virus are rapidly disappearing. Yet politicians and policy makers do not seem especially ready to end emergency governing, or the general sense of alarm that has fueled so many emergency measures over the last year. As Ross Douthat argued in The New York Times this week, we are rapidly approaching something resembling normalcy, but our political and policy elites don't seem eager to embrace it. 

While some restrictions on businesses and gatherings have been inched back, Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), is cautioning that even with an array of highly effective vaccines approved, Americans might need to wear masks in public through 2022. President Joe Biden has committed only to the notion that Christmas 2021 will feel more normal than Christmas 2020, whatever that means. Movie theaters—a useful indicator for a city or state's zeal for reopening since they are widely viewed by policy makers as inessential—remain closed in most parts of California and many other major areas. (New York just announced that they could reopen at 25 percent capacity.)

Meanwhile, Biden is pursuing a massive stimulus package, framed as coronavirus relief, that has little to do with the coronavirus. Instead, much of the aid package is a wishlist of preexisting Democratic policy priorities, from bailing out pensions and padding Obamacare subsidies to raising the federal minimum wage to $15, that are either irrelevant to the crisis or would exacerbate it.

Will we emerge from this crisis safer because of these measures? More nimble? Better prepared for a novel threat? It doesn't matter. It's an emergency. 

To some extent this is just more of the same, a slow and steady expansion of the big, kludgy government we've always had. The petty authoritarianism of take-off-your-sneakers is not unlike the petty authoritarianism of you-can't-sit-at-the-bar. Taken as they come, these restrictions are irritations, not brutal new forms of tyranny. The zeal to spend ever more federal money on pet programs has long been part of American politics; the scale may be different now, but the impulse is not new.

But bit by bit, these minor irritations and expenditures add up—especially when combined with the sort of sweeping restrictions on business activity and private gatherings that were deployed last year, and remain on the table going forward. This ground may be well-trod. But we are approaching a new frontier. 

Something has changed in the relationship between the individual and the state. Something is changing. Little by little, day by day, with every new incursion on liberty, however minor, with every new support program for every business category and demographic group, always justified by extraordinary times and circumstances, the balance of power is shifting. The problem, of course, is that there is always something out of the ordinary, some crisis, some threat, that can be deployed in the name of expunging all risk and variability from daily life. Somehow, this always turns out to require an expansion of government control. 

We are witnessing this not only in the United States, but in much of the democratic world. In the United Kingdom, which is vaccinating faster than any other Western country, The Wall Street Journal reports that "advisers to the British government say that mask wearing or working from home may have to be reintroduced in winter time to curb outbreaks," and the U.K. Treasury is expected to propose continuing economic support throughout the coming year. The emergency never ends, because someone, somewhere, always needs the emergency to continue.  

Daniel Hannan, who served as a member of the European Parliament for two decades, worries that the pandemic, and the fearful political response it has engendered, will kill the liberal order. "Things won't get back to normal," he writes at the John Locke Institute. "The political and psychological impact of Covid-19 will last for decades. The world into which we emerge will be poorer, meaner, more pinched, more authoritarian." 

I hope not. I don't think it's necessarily too late. The liberal order has proven more resilient and more durable than even its supporters expect. But I am increasingly worried that COVID-19 has left the liberal order sick and wheezing, and government stronger and more powerful than ever. I would say that government by emergency cannot become normal, that we cannot let the state of exception become the normal state of affairs—but in too many ways, we already have.