From 9/11 to COVID, Every Emergency Means Bigger Government
For two decades, Americans have been governed by emergency. These emergencies have become excuses for permanent political power grabs, for restrictions on individual liberties large and small, for mass bureaucratization and mass expansion of government spending, trillions of dollars’ worth of non-solutions to deep-rooted problems. With every crisis, government grows. And now the crisis is government itself.
You can see this tendency in the response to 9/11. In 2001, terrorists perpetrated the deadliest attack on America in our history. The terrorists were nimble, small, non-state actors whose deadliness stemmed in large part from their willingness to fight outside of traditional, government-run military paradigms. After the fact analyses concluded that the security failure stemmed at least partially from the profusion of security agencies, some of which underperformed individually, and few of which communicated effectively with each other. The terrorists had slipped through the cracks of America’s security bureaucracy.
What did Congress do in response to a threat that exploited America’s bureaucratic obesity and dysfunction? It created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a super-bureaucracy charged with organizing a gaggle of other bureaucracies, many of which had little or nothing to do with each other. The solution Congress proposed to the problem of too much bureaucracy and too little bureaucratic coordination was even more bureaucracy, at a higher level. And of course, it hasn’t worked; DHS has been plagued by serious management and morale problems, by coordination issues stemming from the large portfolio of unrelated subagencies it oversees, and by wasteful spending. Terrorism, meanwhile, remains a real threat. It didn’t solve the problem. It became the problem. And government grew and grew along the way.
The DHS was not the only federal byproduct of 9/11. Congress also created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which proceeded to spend years harassing flyers who pose no threat, installing invasive scanners that nonetheless miss bombs shaped like pancakes, molesting children while failing to catch guns and bombs, and demanding that grandmothers strip off belts and shoes in exchange for the privilege of going from one place to another. In response to a genuine threat, Americans were treated to a new federal agency dedicated to mass groping. The emergency justified it.
The emergency also justified two new wars, one of which we’re still fighting today, and thousands upon thousands of casualties, not to mention more than a trillion dollars in spending to fund the war effort.
No one is safer because of these wars; if anything, the opposite is true. But they have helped fuel a bigger, more powerful federal government, one that is more costly, more intrusive, more bureaucratized, operating on a permanent emergency footing, despite doing little or nothing to solve the underlying issue.
The pattern set after 9/11 repeated itself, in a variant form, during the next great emergency, the 2008–2009 financial crisis. Again, the crisis was real—a mass collapse in the economy that put millions out of work and resulted in home values collapsing. People, especially ordinary middle-class people living on tight budgets, were suffering. So Congress, in its wisdom, used emergency powers to hastily set up a system—arguably unconstitutional—to bail out big banks.
After Barack Obama became president, there was a stimulus package too, designed to fund “shovel-ready” jobs that didn’t exist. Instead, Obama’s stimulus ended up paying make-work projects and boosts to state budgets and official counts of jobs created or saved that made no attempt to actually count the number of jobs created or saved. Republicans opposed it, for the usual Republican
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