As governments the world over struggle desperately to contain the spread of COVID-19, it becomes strikingly clear just how limited their capabilities and resources are in the face of such a threat.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, the mightiest industrial and technological nation in history, as medical staff confront dire shortages of such basic items as surgical masks, and the capacity to test so many of those who may have the virus, thanks to budget cuts, tax cuts and under-investment in public infrastructure.
Government - effectively the public's primary defence - has been found wanting.
Of course, such a pandemic as this was impossible to foresee but, even so, the systematic shrinking of the size and scope of government, and the consequent reach of social policy, has been happening for decades, and the ideas behind this process have been powerful shapers of public policy in the early 21st century.
What has become known as neoliberalism - essentially the subordination of all economic activity to the pursuit of private profit - has for the past three decades been the dominant influence on government policy throughout the industrialised West. Its articulation in popular discourse has included US President Ronald Reagan's much-quoted remark in his first inaugural address in 1981 that "... government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem" and, a few years later UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's throwaway line that "there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." Never mind that Reagan, to be fair, was addressing specific circumstances at the time and that Thatcher was forced to clarify her remarks, these quotes have served to illustrate a concerted retreat from government.
The American libertarian anti-tax activist, Grover Norquist, who has had a profound influence on the Republican Party, offered the most dramatic view on reducing the size of government when he said: "I'm not in favour of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."
However, the notion that smaller and more limited government somehow serves the wider public interest long predates both Reagan and Thatcher; indeed, its first intellectual iteration may be traced back to the late 17th century English enlightenment thinker, John Locke.
The muscular libertarianism of Norquist and his allies traces more directly to long-simmering corporate resentment over US President Theodore Roosevelt's anti-trust legislation of the early 20th century and especially to the New Deal program of his relative, Franklin Roosevelt, who sought to address the immiseration of the Great Depression by harnessing the power of government.
At a more intellectual and philosophical level, the Austrian-born economist Ludwig von Mises took issue with what he saw as the drift towards socialism in the 1930s in his native Austria, where he influenced economists such as Friedrich von Hayek, who hailed Mises as one of the major figures in the revival of classical liberalism in the post-war era. Hayek's work The Transmission of the Ideals of Freedom (1951) pays tribute to the influence of Mises in the 20th century libertarian movement, and the linking of personal freedom to limited government.
But it was the Road to Serfdom (1945) which established Hayek's reputation. Heavily influenced by the emerging Cold War and the extension of Soviet communist power in Europe, Hayek argued that freedom to live as one wished on one's own private property - so long as the rights of others were not infringed - represented the ultimate good. Taking aim at communism, Hayek argued that central planning, because of the unlimited scope it offered government, ran counter to the "spontaneous social order" that had evolved over time; it was unnatural.
He went further in 1960 in The Constitution of Liberty, again asserting the centrality of property rights but also arguing that the growing interest in "social justice" was not only a myth, but veered dangerously towards totalitarianism given the scope it opened for government to regulate social behaviour. Forget the idea of the public interest which, for Hayek, was simply a "nonsense notion".
US agencies have been abolished or emasculated; the reach of policy has been deliberately shortened.
Hayek's disciple, Milton Friedman, was later to become the darling of free market advocacy with his Capitalism and Freedom (1962), boldly challenging the basis of much post-war social policy as being based on the wrong-headed belief in equality.
Central to Friedman's thought was the theme that true political freedom could be achieved only by withdrawing government from the economy - in his words, removing "the organisation of economic activity from the control of political authority". He argued that free markets ("competitive capitalism") could function only under limited government and the strict separation of economic and political power which enabled one form of power to offset the other.
Unpacking the ideas of Hayek and Friedman, and tracing their impact on social policy, political scientist Wendy Brown, of the University of California, Berkeley, argues in a new book, the presciently titled In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019), that the state has been effectively de-democratised. She writes: "Neoliberalism thus aims at limiting and containing the political, detaching it from sovereignty, eliminating its democratic form, and starving its democratic energies." Neoliberal policy aims to loosen political control by elected governments over unelected economic actors and markets, replacing regulation and redistribution with market freedom and uncompromised private ownership rights.
The narrowing of the scope of social policy in the US in regard to federal racial equality legislation is examined by Nancy McLean in her Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America (2017) in which she traces the strategies of the influential libertarian Cato Institute, exemplifying neoliberalism's anti-democratic resistance to social and economic equality. McLean finds a curious pale shadow of democracy, stripped of sovereignty and the ability to legislate for the common good, detached from pursuit or defence of the public interest and social justice, and restricted from touching individual liberties, markets and traditional community norms (however unjust), that has little left to do and little power to do it.
The assault on government was championed by Donald Trump in his election campaign in 2016 when he threatened to declare war on and drain "the Washington swamp." Indeed, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was even more explicit, declaring his ambition was to "deconstruct the administrative state".
In pursuing that aim, agencies have been abolished or emasculated; the reach of policy has been deliberately shortened. Part of this "deconstruction" was the Trump administration's decision in 2018 to dismantle a National Security Council directorate at the White House charged with preparing for when, not if, another pandemic would hit the nation. (Trump appeared to know little about this when asked, the decision apparently the work of the now departed National Security Adviser, John Bolton, long an ardent small government champion).
Very diplomatically, Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institute of Health, told Congress last month that it "would be nice if the office was still there," adding: "I wouldn't necessarily characterise it as a mistake [to eliminate the unit]. I would say we worked very well with that office".
Quite clearly, there are tensions between the ideological aims of neoliberalism and the very necessary functions, however basic, of the modern administrative state.
This has led to the view that neoliberals seek to replace the state, in a perfect world, with self-regulating markets - akin to Grover Norquist's wish to shrink the state and drown it in a bathtub. However, a recent study - the first intellectual history of neoliberalism - argues that the reality is not quite so simple.
Harvard historian Quinn Slobodian, argues in Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (2018) that at the core of 20th century neoliberal thought is the project to create conditions for safeguarding capitalism at the scale of the whole world. It focused primarily on designing institutions not to liberate markets so much but to encase them "to inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy".
The result, from the present vantage point, is a badly weakened and woefully ill-equipped administrative state facing an unprecedented crisis, and global capitalism in disarray - ironically now at the mercy of government.
- Dr Norman Abjorensen is a political historian. His Historical Dictionary of Democracy was published in the US last year by Rowman & Littlefield.