AFTER SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, huge swaths of the federal government reorganized around the idea of fighting terrorism. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) became a maximally intrusive and minimally effective part of every traveler's life. The FBI, which had failed to connect the dots on the 9/11 plot, received billions more in funding. The Department of Homeland Security, a shiny new Cabinet-level bureaucracy with an Orwellian name, grew at a rate that would make Clifford the Big Red Dog turn green with envy. The PATRIOT Act whisked away Americans' privacy, and the Authorization for Use of Military Force plunged the nation into a new type of endless war. The security state that had been unable to prevent a terror attack on American soil was showered with gross sums of money and far-reaching new powers as a result.
But at least, the hawks thought, we'd be ready for the next crisis.
The next crisis was the financial meltdown of 2008. As many of the country's major financial institutions spiraled downward, the concept of "too big to fail" took on new meaning. The outgoing Republican president, George W.
Bush, declared that he'd "abandoned free market principles to save the free market system." In the wake of the crash came complex new regulations on banks and financial markets, including Dodd-Frank at home and Basel III abroad. These constrained the global banking institutions while granting financial regulators the authority to inspect balance sheets and to demand changes in corporate strategy. All the while, governments seemed to signal that if trouble came knocking again, the feds would likely once again socialize the banks' risk.
But at least, the regulators thought, we'd be ready for the next crisis.
ENTER THE CORONAVIRUS. Once again, the existing government players have not covered themselves in glory. As Jacob Sulhun documents in "When Should Force Be Used To Protect Public Health?" (page 18), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the surgeon general issued confusing and misleading guidance and imposed unhelpful constraints on the manufacture and dissemination of masks and tests, overstepping their boundaries and making things worse in the process. The White House contradicted itself constantly in the crucial early days--and in the crucial later ones as well. State governors and their health agencies swayed in the winds of public and expert opinion.
We do not yet know...