Our governmental systems, federal and each state, are designed to avoid rash decisions. We use systems that divide power into three generally equal branches that check one another’s powers and demand debate of important issues. Our fettered freedom created and maintains history’s most propitious culture. It is good to be an American. Of course, our system’s Holy Grail of restraining abuses of power results in diffused responses and partisan debates. That is also good as it helps prevent imprudent, irreversible actions. A concomitant element of our democratic system is that when faced with emergencies we often approach problems as a free people that the theoretical benevolent dictator might resolve quicker and better. COVID-19 comes to mind.
With this unprovoked surprise attack in January 2020 Americans responded as our system of government required. And as human beings one of our first reactions was to seek someone to blame. In a country designed to be a caldron of debate, assessing blame is a perpetual condition. We can call for charity for all but the better angels of our nature often seek partisan cover.
However, we have now had five months to accumulate evidence and analyze the problem. Maybe in hindsight some of our decisions could have been better but hindsight is only worthwhile if it is used to make better decisions now. Another, more cynical way to state this is: Never let a “good” crises go to waste.
I am reminded of what Jack Welch, the head of General Electric Company when it truly brought good things to life, said when one of his employees made a million dollar mistake. When Welch was asked if he intended to fire the employee Welch replied, “Of course not, I just paid a million dollars for his education.”
We have already lost about 100,000 people and are spending trillions of our treasure trying to help families and businesses. Most economic experts agree such an approach is necessary but almost all of them are chagrinned it is. In like manner, most medical experts side with the decisions to require social isolation to avoid spreading the virus, especially in certain at risk populations. But most scientists realize such preventative measures are themselves quite harmful.
Examples of military, economic and social disasters that have been used as opportunities for long-term good are legion. Gentle Reader, you will immediately think of many but I would like to cite just a couple.
President Abraham Lincoln abhorred slavery but was trapped in that most typical political snare, the realization that the ideal of equality was hostage to reality. Therefore, until he could issue the Emancipation Proclamation in January, 1863 under the guise of freeing slaves in the “belligerent states” as a military strategy, Lincoln had to publicly assert what the public would support. As Lincoln had said in a letter to newspaper magnate Horace Greeley only six months earlier:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it,
and If I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it;
and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
After years of arguing against slavery Lincoln saw the “War Between the States” and the military advantage of freeing only those slaves in states at war with the Union as an opportunity.
Similarly, during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress devised the Civilian Conservation Corps that used public funds to employ and train out-of-work young people to create and build public works. The CCC supported families, cared for natural resources and built marvelous public works such as Osage Hills State Park in Oklahoma. Another of the marvelous public works products was Hoover Dam built between 1931-1935. Roosevelt and Congress took a crisis and used it to develop millions of acres for agricultural and recreational purposes.
The reality is America did not avoid COVID-19. If there is anyone to blame, what good does it do to waste our energies and resources pointing our fingers and wringing our hands? Many people are already sacrificing, working, researching and striving to help themselves and others survive. As Patrick Henry exhorted his Colonial colleagues when the British were coming:
“Our brethren are already in the field.
Why stand we here idle?”
Or as that great public works president Theodore Roosevelt said:
“It is not the critic who counts …
The credit belongs to the [one] who is actually in the arena.”
In other words, let us recognize COVID-19 not only as the terror it is but also as an opportunity forced upon us. If we must spend trillions of dollars of our treasure helping our 35 million who are unemployed through no fault of their own maybe we can invest in new Hoover Dams while educating and re-training the unemployed for our new society. For many economists predict at least a third of that 35 million will not be able to return to their old jobs or businesses. Yes, we should help one another but most people prefer an opportunity to a dole. Our world is not going to return to 2019. Perhaps we can prepare for the “Brave New World” fate is casting upon us. America need not become the Rome described by Edward Gibbons in his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. With the proper and imaginative application of our resources perhaps we can transform, not decline.