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After the Coronavirus, the Era of Small Government Will Be Over

The pandemic has put the state at the center of political life around the world. The aftermath will keep it there.

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump embrace at the completion of a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on April 24, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump embrace at the completion of a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on April 24, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here and subscribe to our newsletters here.

Will everything change? Will anything? In the wild heart of tumult, we overestimate how easily settled patterns of behavior can be overthrown. “We’ll never laugh again,” we glumly predicted after the 9/11 attacks. And then, of course, we did. And now, with global deaths from the coronavirus topping 121,000 and much of the world under lockdown? Perhaps, as the veteran diplomat Richard Haass suggests in an essay in Foreign Affairs, things that were already happening will simply happen sooner.

But what things? In what sphere? Those of us who think and write about foreign policy naturally ask how the pandemic will reshape relations among states. But perhaps that’s the wrong question. Crises are a blunt tool for change, but they do have a shape; and that shape determines the nature of the changes they force. Of the cataclysmic events of the last century, the two world wars radically changed the state system by replacing the European balance of power with an American-led world order based on institutions and law. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a quarter-century of U.S. hegemony, now drawing to a close.

World orders, as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes in his book of the same name, last until their foundations are shattered by events. The pandemic is not that kind of event. What we see, in fact, is the apex institutions of today’s global order—the U.N. Security Council, the G-20, the European Union—making hapless gestures as the virus races around the world. There is no reason to believe that their inability to mount an effective global response to what is plainly a global problem threatens their survival. The crisis is far more likely, as Haass predicts, to hasten the relative decline of the United States and the nationalist reaction against global cooperation. It may also further deepen the breach between the United States and China, each of which has blamed the other for the outbreak of the pandemic.

This crisis will affect, above all, our personal lives. The national lockdown is an intimate experience, and the experience is sure to change us at an intimate level. It’s as if the lights have been switched off and we have all had to learn to find our way in darkness. I don’t know whether it will make people kinder, more self-protective, or, as I suggested in an essay just before the pandemic struck, less individualistic. Already we have a kind of social pandemic of loneliness. How much deeper will it become if social distancing must remain in place until a vaccine has been developed, as increasingly seems to be the case?

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

The catastrophe to which the pandemic bears the closest comparison is the Great Depression, a worldwide event in which national economies collapsed with terrifying speed. That is, the change-forcing event will not be the scale of death but the economic and political consequences. Fifty million people died during the 1918 flu pandemic without redirecting the course of global politics. In any case, the projected death toll from the coronavirus has been diminishing in recent days as preventive measures have taken hold. The virus may also turn out to be somewhat less lethal than we feared.

But the economic suffering has been profound and threatens the legitimacy of national governments. It is in this sense that the pandemic resembles the Depression. As World War I made the 19th-century alliance system look like a suicide pact, so the Depression put an end to the giddy faith in an unregulated marketplace. The state stepped in where the market failed, and it never fully stepped out again. The Nordic model that U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders so admires first took shape in 1938, when, after years of mass unemployment and labor strife, workers and employers groups came together to agree on a system of national-level negotiations.

The pandemic certainly will not threaten capitalism itself, both because the economic pain will not be so long-lasting and because states, no longer chained to a laissez-faire orthodoxy, have responded with massive spending. The Economist recently noted that overall state spending as a percentage of GDP in the world’s richest countries is likely to cross 40 percent this year, perhaps to the highest rate ever.

That very response has already gone a long way toward undermining the anti-statism that serves as the orienting ideology of the Republican Party in the United States. As happened during the Depression, measures justified as emergency responses quickly exit from the category of the unthinkable to join the policy toolkit. The Senate is unlikely to adopt the recent proposal by Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, to reimburse businesses for 80 percent of their payroll, a policy apparently lifted from the United Kingdom or Denmark. But the Hawley proposal has nevertheless removed the mark of the devil from the Nordic model. Nor is the effect limited to the United States. In the face of catastrophe, as the editorialist Alain Frachon recently wrote in Le Monde, “government is no longer ‘the problem,’ as one said in the Thatcher-Reagan era, but ‘the solution.’”

The solution will be seen to mean not only active government but good government. Those are scarcely the same things. Despite its comprehensive welfare and public health system, the U.K. has already suffered more than 13,000 deaths, and the outbreak there has not yet reached a peak—because Prime Minister Boris Johnson, like Trump, at first dismissed the virus as a kind of foreign fad. European countries with less captious leaders, like France, have still suffered very high death tolls because they did not react early enough. The countries that have fared best—South Korea, Germany, New Zealand, perhaps Sweden—have an effective and nonpartisan civil service and a culture of pragmatic governance.

In the United States, a litany of missed opportunities reflect a demonization of government, and a consequent enfeeblement of the state, that stretches back to the era of President Ronald Reagan. Four decades of Republican hostility to government culminated in Trump’s McCarthyite crusade against the so-called deep state; that dog may no longer hunt. Though major tech companies are bound to absorb traditional public functions, whether contract-tracing for epidemics or the execution of the census, the prospect of big tech as a kind of parallel and autonomous government seems like a dangerous fantasy.

The return of the state may be a disaster in some places. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has used the pandemic as a pretext to award himself the power to rule by decree for as long as he wishes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to bring India’s clangorous free press to heel. The coronavirus is spring time for populists. But the state’s resurgence will make for intriguing drama in the United States, where Trump, unable to run for reelection on the economy and deprived of the foil of a socialist Sanders, will have to extol the vast government forces he has deployed to overcome the health and economic threat of the coronavirus. Left to his own devices, Trump might have been the Herbert Hoover of the pandemic; instead, he has become an unwilling Franklin D. Roosevelt. On the Democratic side, the imperative of state intervention may well push the presumptive nominee Joe Biden closer to Sanders on issues like health care and Social Security.

If the return of the state includes the idea of heightened nationalism, as seems to be the case, then the implications of the pandemic for statecraft may be almost wholly negative. Nationalism has already hamstrung the efforts of the EU to coordinate regional responses to problems like refugees and immigration. The coronavirus similarly shows us that we need more global governance, not less—but it doesn’t shake the system violently enough to force change. The cataclysm that is likely to accomplish that goal is climate change. Let’s hope the realization dawns before it’s too late to do us much good.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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