Political mavens on both sides of the aisle have reached the same conclusion: Rahm Emanuel asserts, “The era of Ronald Reagan, that said basically the government is the enemy, is over,” while Steve Bannon notes that “limited-government conservatism … [is] just not relevant.” Author Zachary Karabell writes that after politicians as conservative such as Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) have given voice to the idea “that government is responsible for the health and well-being of all citizens, it will be hard to put that communitarian genie back in a free-market, libertarian bottle.” The Economist suggests that five hundred years of history have shown that crises lead to increases in the power of the state (at least in Europe and America), and, despite initial claims to the contrary, these increases are rarely temporary. One of the reasons the new powers of the state tend to become permanent fixtures is that they raise people’s expectations regarding what the government will do and provide.
There is an old saying that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. First of all, President Donald Trump’s “big government” is very different from the one President Franklin Roosevelt ushered in during the Great Depression and from President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Trump’s government is largely streaming billions of dollars to the private sector, to be distributed by businesses, rather than forming new government agencies or programs, or safety nets. Thus, when the Trump administration finally got some medical supplies from overseas, it did not let FEMA hand them out according to need, but turned most over to businesses, which sold them to the highest bidder. And much of the money to support small businesses was not handed out by the Small Business Administration but turned over to banks, which took a cut and added requirements. The pandemic did not stop Trump from introducing one deregulation after another, much reducing the government’s footprint.
The great reliance on states and localities to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic means that many of the costs are falling on the parts of the government that are required to keep balanced budgets. Given the great falls in their revenues, they will be forced in the future to raise taxes and above all to curtail services, even if they get the bailout that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is seeking.