Ronald Reagan liked to say that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” The line never failed to get a knowing laugh from Republicans. Government, amirite? Always screwing everything up. If they’d just get out of the way, not only would we all be freer but everything would work better.

Doesn’t seem so clever now, does it?

The coronavirus crisis is offering us a stark reminder of the role government plays in all our lives, and how vital it is that it operate effectively. Our well-being and at times our very lives depend on it.

So perhaps it’s not that surprising when we look at Washington and see the Republican Party, despite controlling the executive branch and the Senate, acting like bystanders as we confront the twin threats of a public health crisis and an economic crisis.

Meanwhile, it’s Democrats who are working like mad to come up with measures to address every aspect of the problem they can think of, while President Trump pretends that everything is fine and it’ll all be over soon.

Look around, and what you see at every level is that we all have no choice but to turn to government to help us. We want it to fill in the gaps that the crisis has exacerbated.

Schools have to be shut, so governments rush to provide meals to millions of children. Because we trail the developed world in mandating paid leave, the government has to step in to fund sick leave for workers who will be forced to stay home. The federal government will boost Medicaid payments to states to deal with the crisis, and beef up food stamps and unemployment i

nsurance. We’re even contemplating sending everyone money to mitigate the effects of the coming recession.

That’s not to say that private-sector actors aren’t chipping in where they can or they have the inclination, because many are. But their efforts are piecemeal and limited.

As we’re seeing, there are many things only government can do — even if there are gaps in how it does them. For instance, the federal government maintains a Strategic National Stockpile of medical supplies, including pharmaceuticals and protective gear for health-care workers. The private sector wouldn’t create such a thing, because it doesn’t generate short-term profit. The stockpile isn’t big enough, but it’s intended to buy time in a crisis until production can ramp up.

It’s an example of the kind of long-term planning and preparation only government can do, and when it doesn’t do it well enough, we’re all angry and disappointed, because we want those systems to exist and to work effectively. Just as we’re angry when the government doesn’t move quickly enough to counteract a looming recession.

Unfortunately, if you have a Republican government that has been chipping away at those systems, it puts you in the worst possible position to deal with a crisis.

It’s even worse if the government is being run by a buffoon who cares more about his latest poll numbers than he does about managing the single largest organization on the planet. While you can certainly imagine a Republican administration that wants to trim government but is nonetheless competent at running the one we have, this administration is not it.

You can see this in what’s been happening at many of our airports. In a hastily written Oval Office speech, Trump announced a ban on travel and trade from most of Europe, shocking pretty much the entire world. White House aides had to quickly walk much of it back, explaining that trade would continue and U.S. citizens currently in Europe were free to come home.

Then it quickly became apparent that the White House had done virtually nothing to prepare for the inevitable crush of Americans rushing home from Europe lest they be stranded there. The result was utterly predictable:

Airports nationwide were thrown into chaos this weekend as workers scrambled to roll out the Trump administration’s hastily arranged health screenings for travelers returning from Europe.
Scores of anxious passengers said they encountered jam-packed terminals, long lines and hours of delays as flights from more than two dozen European countries were routed through 13 of the busiest travel hubs in the United States. Airport workers queried them about their health and instructed them to self-quarantine as part of the “enhanced entry screenings” announced Friday to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

So a sudden policy change meant to slow the spread of the virus caused thousands of people to stand for hours in close quarters, potentially spreading the virus. As one traveler described the scene at Dulles Airport, “I counted and came up with approximately 450 people in each section, for a total of just under a thousand. Many were coughing, sneezing and looking unwell.”

It’s hardly the first time Trump had an impulsive whim and then the rest of his administration had to scramble to implement it. In this case, however, the consequences could literally be deadly. And it’s no surprise that the only federal officials who seem to know what they’re doing are the civil servants Trump regularly derides.

I should note that actual libertarians (as opposed to libertarian-ish Republicans), who understand the threat events like these pose to their worldview, are arguing that the pandemic proves the superiority of their ideology, because in order to speed the response some time-consuming regulations are being relaxed. This argument is absurdly thin, but the crisis doesn’t mean we all have to embrace a maximal expansion of government.

It does remind us, however, that we need our system of social supports to be robust, and we need to elect people at all levels — federal, state, and local — who take governing seriously and strive to do it well. Then when the next crisis hits and we’re all shouting for government to save us, it will be there to do the job.

You might think of that the next time someone suggests that all we should want from government is for it to get off our backs.

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