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Column: Reagan was wrong. Government isn’t the problem, as the pandemic makes clear

Ronald and Nancy Reagan
Ronald Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” The coronavirus outbreak teaches otherwise.
(PBS)

It was a sunny, chilly day on Jan. 20, 1981, when President Reagan stood outside the Capitol for his inaugural address and declared that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

He was talking about the recession that had been weighing on Americans since the late 1970s, making the case for why more taxes and regulations were not the answer to the country’s economic woes.

But Reagan’s “government is the problem” line would serve as a mantra for Republican politicians from that day onward, a safe harbor from which to defend decades of anti-government rhetoric.

Now here we are, amid an unprecedented public health crisis. Tens of thousands of Americans are dead. Millions are out of work.

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An anxious, frightened nation desperately turns to the federal government for leadership in managing and overcoming this emergency.

And the signature line from our current Republican president, heir to Reagan’s political philosophy, is this: “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

President Trump has blamed his administration’s laggardly response to the COVID-19 pandemic on everyone but himself — and in so doing has proved Reagan right.

Government is the problem. Just not in the way the 40th president intended.

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“The government is as good as the people running it,” said Margaret Black, 57, one of a number of SoCal denizens I’ve spoken with in recent days about what should and shouldn’t be expected of political leaders at a time like this.

“If you can’t stand it, you shouldn’t be part of it,” the Santa Monica resident told me as we discussed the difficulties she’s faced chasing down her government stimulus check — money she badly needs after losing her job with a survey company last month.

Yet even amid frustrating delays in receiving her bailout cash, Black remains hopeful.

“The government is capable of remarkably good things,” she said. “We look to it for that.”

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If nothing else changes after this horrific experience, one positive development would be a recognition by most Americans that government is not an impediment to greatness.

It is what shapes and defines our lives in various ways. And it is an indispensable resource during times of hardship and sacrifice.

To be sure, government has gotten a lot of things wrong. Racial segregation, draconian drug policies, a perverse tolerance of gun violence — none of this reflects well on the wisdom of our elected leaders over the years.

Moreover, even well-intended government programs can be executed sloppily. The poorly designed coronavirus relief for small business is one example. Obamacare is another.

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“Government is not perfect — no human institution can be,” said Cary Coglianese, a professor of law and political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

“But one reason government seems often to fail is that it is tasked with the most difficult tasks of all,” he told me.

“No one asks, ‘How well is the private market doing in responding to the pandemic?’ Because it is completely inconceivable that the private market could handle a disaster or other public crisis all on its own.”

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A COVID-19 vaccine, for instance. Numerous drug companies are racing to find a cure. But their efforts are being funded in large part by more than $3 billion allocated by the U.S. government to make such research a reality.

We’ll also be relying on federal authorities to prevent price gouging once a vaccine becomes available. Otherwise, as I wrote last week, there’s nothing to stop drugmakers from charging as much as they think they can get away with.

“Less government is not better,” said Christa Jackson, 58, who had to file for state unemployment benefits after her “nonessential” job as a dental hygienist disappeared. “You can’t rely on private industry at a time like this.”

Among other responsibilities, government is tasked with protecting us from ourselves. Seat belts, motorcycle helmets, face masks — we may not enjoy wearing them, but we’re required to do so in the name of public safety.

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“Government is not the problem,” said Evelyn Brodkin, an associate professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago. “It’s the essential actor in protecting the health, security and well-being of the nation.”

That’s a sentiment I heard again and again from academics who have spent their careers studying government actions.

“Even small-government conservatives typically accept the role of government in regulating and coordinating responses to crises that upset the economic security and safety of the populace,” said Christian Grose, an associate professor of political science and public policy at USC.

Grover Plunkett, an assistant professor of history and political science at Faulkner University, noted that Americans didn’t hesitate to seek government intervention after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including limits on personal freedom.

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“While there is much more inconvenience and loss of liberty boarding planes today, most Americans are willing to suffer the inconvenience and the search of our persons and belongings without warrants,” he said. “It is a liberty we are willing to forgo for security.”

What conservatives typically forget is that after Reagan branded government a problem, he said this:

“Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work — work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.”

We can disagree on where the lines may fall at any particular moment, and that’s fine.

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But we’ll be better off, and safer, and healthier, if we get past this childish idea that government authority is by definition a bad thing.

Judge government by those who hold the reins of power — and vote accordingly.

Don’t mistake their misdeeds, however, with our enormous good fortune to have, in the words of President Lincoln, a government of the people, by the people, for the people.


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