May 14, 2020

At a Time of Accelerating Globalization, We Need a Stronger and More Effective Government

The pandemic is the latest in a long line of developments that handicap arguments for limited constitutional government
Mark Lilla

This article is the first in a series titled "Liberalism After Coronavirus." The purpose of the series is to give different authors an opportunity to explore the future of liberal values through the lens of the pandemic. 

It is futile to try making predictions at this point about our post-coronavirus world (assuming such a world ever comes to be). Too much depends on unknown factors, both with the virus itself and attempts to develop a vaccine against it. Even more crucially it depends on human responses to those unknowns. What we do now will help determine how long the current crisis lasts, and the duration will determine many of the long-term consequences people are speculating about. Prophets beware.

At the same time, it is useful to consider what the pandemic has revealed about the world we already live in, and how well-adapted our constitutional system is to meeting the challenges we face. More specifically, while there is a great deal of talk about globalization today and how it is affecting our society, very little is said about its relation to basic American political institutions and principles. This is puzzling, to say the least. It is one thing to cherish in the abstract principles like limited government, the separation of powers, federalism, and even individual rights. It is quite another to assess realistically how those principles ought to apply to different states of the world—and by that I also mean states of the wider world, outside our borders.

Americans of all political stripes tend to be fundamentalists about our constitutional order, which helps to explain why we so rarely amend our founding document. If there is a conflict between that document and the world, Americans’ instinctive response is that it’s the world that needs changing—as if that is ever easy! That of course is not how the Framers went about conceiving and constructing our order. Their primary goal was to make non-tyrannical collective self-determination possible for a modern republic in a large country remote from the then-centers of world power. The Constitution they wrote was a means to that end, under those conditions; it was not an end in itself. They intended it to be a tool, not a fetish.

In judging the adequacy of our present constitutional arrangements, therefore, we ought always to have two measures in mind: how well our Constitution ensures collective self-determination and whether it invites tyranny. And we ought always to recognize that there will be a trade-off between the two. At certain points in our history, it has been important to sacrifice a little capacity for collective self-determination in order to guard against tyranny. But at other times it has been important to extend the limits of governmental power to ensure that we can act decisively as a nation. Debates over presidential war powers, for example, are at bottom debates over which of these measures ought to matter at a particular time.

As the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically revealed, globalization in all its forms is the greatest threat to American national self-determination since the Cold War. Five forms come to mind:

  • Economic globalization, involving the free international flow of goods, capital, and labor.
  • The globalization of information (and therefore disinformation).
  • The globalization of environmental degradation.
  • The globalization of misery (the migration of refugees and asylum seekers).
  • The globalization of disease.

None of these phenomena is new of course, including epidemics. What is new is the acceleration of all these forces simultaneously, which has left every nation in the world less able to determine its own destiny. This is the fundamental political fact of our time. It does not mean that we are at war with other nations. Rather, war and globalization belong in the same category of “threats to collective self-determination.”

When the United States in the 20th century managed to become the dominant world power, its destiny, paradoxically, became more dependent on the actions of other nations and non-state actors, not less so. We became more powerful and less autonomous. And so various taboos in constitutional law regarding presidential powers, congressional oversight, military secrets, the collection of intelligence, and so forth had to be rethought in light of the new situation. That was perfectly normal and consistent with the ultimate aims of the Framers.

A similar rethinking is needed in light of multiple globalizations the nation is facing, the most recent example being the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as our military power made us more dependent on foreign countries in the 20th century, so our economic might in the 21st century has made us more vulnerable to financial, trade, migration, environmental, and health crises elsewhere. As a result, our capacity for collective self-determination has received a significant blow. The overriding political challenge of our time is to restore and defend that capacity.

And so, to those who ask whether all of this means we’re heading toward a time when a much larger, more intrusive state will be demanded or at least accepted as necessary by most Americans, my answer is: I certainly hope so. I hope, as many national conservatives are now arguing, that the United States will before long develop a robust national industrial policy making significant investments in research and development and in human capital (including health, training, and education). I hope, as many on the left do, that we recognize our interest in environmental protection treaties and domestic policies to mitigate global warming, mainly for domestic reasons, but also because it threatens to destabilize large parts of the world, with significant economic and strategic repercussions for us.

I also support, as many conservatives do, a wise and firm immigration policy that puts American economic interests first. And I, like many on the left, hope to see a far more centralized federal effort to prepare for and respond to pandemics (shifting powers from the states) as well as a more active federal role in health policy generally.

All of these positions can be debated. But we will get nowhere if we remain fixated on the “size of government.” What really matters with democratic governments is whether they are strong, effective, responsive, and accountable, not how big they are. And, yes, there are trade-offs here, too—for example, between accountability and responsiveness. Americans have, compared with other peoples, an almost pathological distrust of discretionary public authority, which is why there are so many checks and balances in our system. But that does not stop Americans from complaining loudly when the government is slow and ineffective.

The federal government has grown (though not significantly as a percentage of GDP) because America has become more involved in the rest of the world and has developed an extraordinary economy that requires regulation, research, and sometimes subsidies. That simply is not going to change, given the world situation. The challenge today is not to shrink government, or even constraint it; the real challenge is to make it stronger, more effective, and more responsive, regaining people’s trust in it. If our experience with COVID-19 does not teach us this lesson, we are simply incorrigible.

Mark Lilla is a professor of humanities at Columbia University and the author of a number of books, including The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics.

Photo credit: Fancy/Veer/Corbis via Getty Images.

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