In 1986, President Ronald Reagan famously said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.‘”
Thirty-four year later, I can think of nine far more terrifying words: “There’s a pandemic; the government’s not here to help.”
Reagan’s joke reflected the conservative, small-government dogma — and rugged individualism — that has not only held American politics in thrall for decades but also has inflicted a grievous toll on the country. It’s the reason, in part, why millions of Americans lack health insurance; why the United States is the only developed country in the world not to offer its workers paid family and sick leave; why the business community runs roughshod over their employees and consumers; and why American workers struggle so mightily to make ends meet.
But rarely have we seen a more visceral and deadly example of conservative antipathy toward government than the past several months, as Republicans insist we must rely on the good sense of individual Americans rather than government mandates to protect public health. The results have been as predictable as they’ve been deadly.
Over and over we’ve heard Republican governors resist stay-at-home orders and mask requirements, and quickly move forward with opening up, predicated on the notion that individuals would do the right thing.
Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said, “We’ve got to get people to own their personal responsibility, to continue to do the right thing, stay away from folks in public, wear a mask in a crowded grocery store, wash your hands.”
Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, said “There is no government replacement for your personal responsibility.”
Both states are now seeing major upticks in coronavirus cases.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott dismissed a request in mid-June by a Texas judge to impose a mandatory mask order by sniffing that “he believes in government mandates, I believe in individual responsibility.” Instead, he’s continued to plead with Texans to wear masks while not requiring it. On Wednesday, Texas set a single-day record for new coronavirus cases.
The state of Texas reported 6,975 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, its highest number of reported cases in one day yet.— Ryan Struyk (@ryanstruyk) July 1, 2020
In South Dakota, President Trump is headlining a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore in spite of a longstanding ban by the US Park Service due to concerns about wildfires and the potential for damage to the sculpture itself. And now there’s the added anxiety of large crowds congregating during the pandemic. Nonetheless, Governor Kristi Noem, declared that social distancing and mask-wearing will not be required. “In South Dakota,” she said on Fox News, “we’ve told people to focus on personal responsibility; every one of them has the opportunity to make a decision that they’re comfortable with.”
How has focusing on personal responsibility worked out in America’s efforts to control the coronavirus?
According to a recent study, those states that imposed mask-wearing requirements “had a greater decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates” than those that did not. More intrusive government has saved lives.
Around the world, the countries that were the earliest to require face coverings have seen some of the lowest numbers of coronavirus cases.
To be sure, many Americans are taking the correct steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. But clearly it’s not enough — and government mandates are essential.
Consider, for example, the extraordinary decline in smoking over the past several decades, which has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Was it the result of public education efforts or Americans finally recognizing the danger represented by tobacco use. No. Almost all of the decrease in smoking rates is correlated with increases in cigarette taxes. What led to the decline in automobile fatalities? It was largely due in part to government forcing car manufacturers to do that, as well as seat belt laws, airbag requirements, and tougher enforcement of drunk driving.
Humans don’t generally make the best decisions when it comes to risk and health. Ideally, governments leaders not only speak and act for the nation as a whole, but provide the most accurate information and guidance to citizens.
For far too long, Americans have regarded their government as the enemy, dismissed those who have made a career in the public sector, and elected outsiders pledging to shake things up. They’ve bought into the threat-mongering of politicians warning about the dangers of big government and public mandates. And we’ve all paid a profound price for it.
Don’t expect a major epiphany any time soon from the American people, but if they ever needed an example of why government matters — and why small government conservatism doesn’t work — the coronavirus pandemic has provided it.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.