Good government and the pandemic

Governments at multiple levels are making decisions that affect all of us in ways that really matter. Our health may be protected, or we may contract a serious and life-ending illness; our jobs may be preserved, or we may be furloughed; our savings and retirement funds may be buffered, or they may be wiped out. So what do we want from government when it makes decisions of this degree of seriousness?

It is not particularly hard to answer this question. We want government to fulfill its mission of preserving the public good in the most prudent possible way. We want to see a process of reasoned decision-making, informed by honesty and integrity; full commitment to science and evidence; commitment to the common good by legislators and executives; policies that are informed by accurate knowledge of what citizens in all parts of society need and want; and effective design and administration of public policy. We want decisions that respect the laws and institutions of our democracy. And we want government fully committed to serving all the people without bias or preference. We want good government, without irrational impulsive decisions by officials, without corruption and self serving, without a craven attempt to use the tools of government for the advantage of one’s political party or one’s followers. 

Many aspects of this ideal have been challenged in our national politics for years: climate denial; disregard of racial disparities in criminal justice, education, and health; corporate capture of regulatory processes. And now in the past three years we’ve had to confront the threat posed to our democracy by right-wing extremism and hate-based political activism. We’ve had to worry about the deliberate efforts by the right to undermine voting rights, to create tax “reforms” that benefit corporations and ultra-rich individuals, and to capture the Federal court system with hacks whose only qualifications are their loyalty to the conservative agenda. We have had to ask whether our institutions of law and constitution will survive, and whether there are institutions, practices, and strategies that can make our democracy more resilient in the face of assault by right-wing populism. 

Is good government possible within a liberal democracy? Is this description a realistic expectation of the governments that serve us within liberal democracies? Or is this description simply naive idealism? 

It is certainly true that we have lost institutional capacity in government (in regulatory agencies, for example — EPA, NRC, FDA, FAA) as a result of the determined assault on government by conservatives and corporate interests. And, of course, there is the fact of corrupt and self-interested use of office by some elected officials and government officers — greatly exacerbated in the past three and a half years. But it is clear that honest, effective, and evidence-based democratic government is possible, and we need to struggle to make it a reality. The values expressed here are crucial to democracy. So it is our task as citizens to reaffirm the role that public institutions must play in a complex society like ours. 

In fact, the Covid-19 crisis has created some grounds for hope for the future of good government, as demonstrated at the level of state government. In Michigan, for example, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has followed an exemplary process in attempting to design policies and regulations that will best protect the Michigan population from the ravages of the pandemic. Her priorities have been admirable and appropriate, and her efforts to pull together the best possible advice from experts in the state, including experts in public health, workplace safety, logistics, and medicine from the state’s universities, provides a case study in prudent, forward-looking, and fact-based policy formation in a time of great uncertainty. Governors in other states have likewise shown wisdom and courage in leading their various agencies to create wise policies for public health. Governor Inslee in Washington, Governor Cuomo in New York, Governor Hogan in Maryland, Governor Newsom in California, and Governor DeWine in Ohio have all succeeded fairly well in creating rational and science-informed policies to preserve the public health of the populations of their states. (These six states represent about 29% of the whole population of the United States.) And, in the absence of effective Federal action in this crisis, governors have succeeded in creating regional partnerships with other states to coordinate their policies. Of course it is evident that there are also a handful of Republican governors who continue to deny the seriousness of the crisis and to act in flagrant disregard of the most basic public health policy recommendations. But it is clear that we have some good examples of government processes that have worked well at the state level. (At the national level, of course, it is a completely different story.) So good government is indeed possible. We must do our part by electing leaders and legislators who are committed to the principles of good government.

Can the functions of government be delegated to voluntary individual action? The pandemic sheds light on this question too. The efforts that some states pursued in February and March to beg citizens to practice voluntary social distancing were fundamentally ineffective. Spring break in Florida, crowds in California, people saying “they have faith that God will take care of them” — as a public we didn’t do very well in self-designing or self-imposing sound public health behaviors. And as epidemiologists have demonstrated throughout this crisis, it doesn’t take many non-compliant individuals to keep the exponential growth of infection going. Free-riding (“I can go to the grocery store without a mask if enough other people don’t”), failure to understand non-linear processes (“there are just a few cases in Seattle, how bad can it get”), and perverse magical thinking (“it will all blow over in a while, and I’ll probably be OK”) seem to have motivated enough people to behave badly that voluntary measures were doomed to failure. One part of the problem is the complexity of a disease epidemic. Most citizens simply could not incorporate the mathematics of an epidemic into their practical thinking. They could not accept that on this nice sunny day, devastating disaster was already unfolding. So the power and regulatory authority of the state was needed. (Even mandatory measures don’t seem to be enforceable in many places.) 

We thus have concrete illustration of the fact that good government is both necessary and possible. So a fundamental demand of citizens upon their potential leaders must be one of commitment and competence: is this candidate committed to using government for the key functions of securing the health, safety, freedoms, and wellbeing of all citizens? And does he or she have the leadership competence and skill that will be needed to marshal the organizations and agencies of government in support of these fundamental goals? 

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