Ronald Reagan famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
The pandemic, or rather how we and our governments chose to act in 2020, turned that enemy into a blessed savior and projected as the external threat an invisible and ever-lurking disease. Suddenly, old rules no longer applied, and governments rushed in to fill the void showering us with shiny gifts (“More money, more power!”).
What we had were livelihoods wrecked, dreams shattered, and despair spreading faster than the disease these measures attempted to counteract. Against that, indiscriminately delivered government checks are small comfort.
What we’ve had in the last year are mostly stupid government regulations (are there any clever ones…?) and people sheepishly internalizing them as if they were handed down by a prophet on stone tablets. Yes, the Covid mania is a religious cult. What worries me more than a misplaced resurgence in idolatry is the social attitudes that come with this. Now any threat can again be dealt with by imposing rules like we just did – my life becomes yours to govern. (You don’t think the climate crowd is eager for their turn to call the shots?)
While the U.S. was busy dishing out dough in a not-so-covert attempt at introducing Universal Basic Income (UBI) schemes, European rulers went with the more zombifying version: freeze labor markets in place, by paying employers and workers not to work. “Hands up, nobody moves,” said European governments and regulators.
In the spring, this temporary measure – like all long-lasting“temporary” government measures – seemed reasonable, as this invisible threat would blow over in a few weeks (right?). Why upset productive labor relations when we’ll be back to normal before long?
Weeks turned into months and months into a year. It’s unthinkable that after a year on the government payroll, living a remarkably chill life with no noticeably financial consequences for the individual, that this hasn’t shifted the mentality and ideological makeup of large segments of society. I wonder deeply what it does to a population: while workers in industries affected were compensated by governments borrowing and printing money, those whose incomes were not directly affected were left to fight for themselves – without any of the pleasures and routines their lives usually involved.
For a year or so, plenty of Europeans got a paid vacation (without the pleasure of traveling, however), at the expense of everyone else. Americans sidelined the employers to instead shower its populace with cash and rent moratoriums. The same unforgettable lesson was imbued into the civic psyche on both sides of the pond: government can afford anything; that, to cite the MMT adage, we can have nice things.
It’s not hard to put this in terms that remind us of harrowing political discourses: a divide between creators and leechers, between value producers and welfare queens, between those who make and those who mooch. We accept that the young and the old live off the sweat of those working, understanding very well that we all pass through those phases. It’s a very different thing that governments now are surreptitiously enacting: some people get to live well at the expense of everyone else, while your passions, dreams, and friendships deteriorate and decay.
Yet, this fairytale must one day end, either in disappointment and reconciliation if we still want to continue as a free society, or in resentment and (hopefully nonviolent) civil war if we’d rather move away, separate and segregate. The divide between those whose livelihoods were ruthlessly taken from them – tourism companies, restaurants and pubs, the small-business owners forever closing shop – and my friends enjoying the bulk of their pre-pandemic salaries at no or part-time (low-intensity) work, is too vast to bridge.
In that sense, the small comfort of government checks even to those whose livelihoods have not been destroyed is at least something: they get some compensation for the freedoms and experiences that the government took away. Europeans in similar positions have not; they have forcibly lost a year of their lives, with very little to show for it, and now loom tax hikes, as Britain’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently announced.
Thanks, government, for your splendid service.
And I’m not the only one worrying about these subtle changes. The Wall Street Journal editorial board commented on the contents of the $1.9 trillion package:
“Only a small part of what Democrats passed is for pandemic or economic relief. It’s mainly a way station on their high-speed train to a cradle-to-grave welfare-entitlement state. Most of the $1.9 trillion will flow to government unions or supposedly temporary income transfers that Democrats intend to make permanent later this year.”
The rationale? “Most Democrats want to detach welfare from work as a matter of principle.”
The Illusion that Everyone can Live at the Expense of Everyone Else
Plenty of things were tearing American societies apart well before the pandemic: the culture wars, intellectual intolerance, the generational divide, insiders against outsiders in labor markets and housing markets. Europe shared in on some of America’s troubles and added fault lines of their own: immigration, the euro, and the bureaucracy of the EU superstate.
It’s fair to wonder what extensive UBIs, government welfare, and zombification of labor markets do to the fabric of an already torn-apart society: don’t worry about making your way, the government’s endless purse of gold is here to save you from all and any hardship you may or may not experience. Don’t look after yourself or those close to you; don’t save for a rainy day, don’t be responsible, don’t learn valuable skills that make you more employable; in fact, don’t work hard – or at all. Just, you know, flip Reagan’s terrifying words, embrace those nice-looking chaps from the government, and blame someone else for your troubles (anyone, really: the Republicans, the elites, the covidiots, the patriarchy, white privilege, the arbitrary social values that don’t take you seriously after you dyed your hair neon green).
The pandemic and the government overreach that followed it are just another ill added on top of the previous ones. To rulers, always on the flourishing side of any divide, this is a dream come true: no (financial) cost, no public outcry or political obstacles. A fantasyland for those who want governments to be saviors not of last resort but of first resort. And if everyone shares in the ostensibly free handouts, we’re all guilty when proponents of ever-larger governments next say, “But Uncle Sam saved us during Covid! You all benefited from his generous financial support!”
Ethan Yang writes persuasively that
“Although many people support lockdowns because they believe they will help control the virus, others genuinely see them as a means to fundamentally change American society out of spite for our individualistic values.”
The rifts between those who make their way fair and square and those who leech off the government pandemic support are probably unmendable.
That Wall Street Journal editorial doesn’t muck about with qualifications: “The goal of this Democratic program isn’t Covid relief. The point is to expand and solidify the role of government as the guarantor of every American’s income unlinked to any obligation to work.”
Salute your new Washington savior; (s)he’s probably here to stay.