For those who entered this period of crisis possessed of unflappable self-confidence, these aren’t extraordinary times at all. Every unforeseen outcome, every unprecedented challenge, every fresh misery and nagging anxiety all serve to reinforce preexisting biases. This is the sort for whom a crisis is a terrible thing to go to waste.
You can recognize the type by the hobby horses they ride. In times of prosperity and comfort as in periods of unique peril, their objectives are permanent and their methods are unchanging. But these are theorists, not crisis managers. For those closer to the ground, “success” is a subjective thing. It is modest and imperfect, and it is measured in hours, not generations. There is something humbling about spending your days just making sure the roof doesn’t collapse. The crisis managers are identifiable by their willingness to temporarily sacrifice cherished values and precepts to stave off the worst-case scenarios, even if mitigating today’s threats risks exacerbating tomorrow’s dangers.
American free-market conservatives should by now be well acquainted with this internal conflict. A national crisis demands a national response, and, at this event’s outset, the federal government’s aggressive intervention in spaces reserved for private individuals and businesses was a source of cognitive dissonance for the American right—at least, those honest enough to admit it. For them, the crisis brought about by this pandemic has been an exercise in confronting their priors.
But it would be a mistake to assume, as so many have, that conservatives who have questioned their beliefs at this moment concluded that they were unsound. For limited-government conservatives, this crisis has done more to reinforce their beliefs than undermine them.
For example, those who understand that government is too unwieldy to navigate an evolving crisis nimbly were vindicated by the alacrity with which Washington abandoned cumbersome regulations.
The Department of Transportation has relaxed restrictions on truck drivers, allowing them to work longer hours to keep the supply chain moving. The Food and Drug Administration has sacrificed its rigorous approvals process, drafting private labs and hospitals into developing COVID-19 tests and allowing for the speedy trial of existing drugs to treat the disease. Health and Human Services has expanded telehealth coverage for Medicare recipients and waived penalties for the violation of certain HIPAA guidelines. The Environmental Protection Agency has suspended penalties for companies conducting vital pandemic-related activities. The Department of Agriculture is relaxing restrictions on supplemental nutrition programs and school lunches. And that’s just on the federal level. From restrictions that prevented medical professionals from practicing across state lines to laws that prohibited restaurants from delivering alcoholic beverages, the states are slashing red tape at a record pace.
The federal government’s lethargic response to this crisis cannot be attributed to the lack of legal authority with which it is endowed. Just the opposite, in fact. As the New York Times reported, both the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA botched the opportunity to control this outbreak at its earliest stages because of the onerous and inflexible regulations it imposes on private institutions. The tests designed and deployed by the CDC were flawed to the point of uselessness, and regulatory guidelines ensured that medical providers would have no alternatives for weeks. But the federal government has not just tested the faith of those who trusted in its competence. It has also tested the patience of those who expect it to be honest.
Up and down the chain, from the municipal level all the way to the White House, politicians have failed to meet the measure of this moment. Public officials spent the early phases of the crisis assuring Americans that the epidemic was controlled. They insisted this pathogen was hard to catch and, if you got it, that the vast majority of the infected would experience only mild discomforts. They urged Americans to congregate, patronize local businesses, and avoid distancing from at-risk populations. They told Americans who believed they were infected to seek out guidance from local officials, but those local officials could only direct them to contact their health-care providers (who had nothing more to offer than palliative measures; certainly not COVID-19 tests). They told you to “stop buying masks” because they were “NOT effective in preventing general public” from contracting the Coronavirus. Now, the CDC is considering guidelines that would compel the use of facemasks by the general public.
Conservatives who trusted in the compelling power of liberalized trade relations to accelerate the forces of history have taken it on the chin. The national-security rationale for repatriating, at the very least, the domestic manufacturing capabilities to address a national health emergency has been fully and irrevocably established. But if the libertarian model of a globalized, barrier-free trade regime is dead and gone, so, too, is the Ray Bradbury ideal of an international landscape that has evolved beyond great power competition. Amid this crisis, America’s near-peer competitors are racing to secure whatever advantages they can through the deployment of soft- and hard-power tools, and the United States cannot afford to cede that turf.
For the candid and self-reflective, the Coronavirus is an opportunity for an ideological audit. It’s only natural that a crisis so all-consuming would challenge us in unexpected ways. For conservatives, however, the crisis has reinforced the validity of their views more than, for example, the temporary stimulus payments designed to help keep people in their homes have shaken them. That capacity for flexibility and rapid evolution is a testament to conservatism’s staying power.