“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
Thirty-four years have passed since Ronald Reagan summed up the conservative view of government’s role in American life. In that time, corporate forces and conservative politicians have captured legislatures and regulatory agencies, rewritten rules on political spending, and lowered taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Unfortunately, in a historical development known as neoliberalism, they’ve often been joined by liberals in privatizing public goods and services and cutting the social safety net.
It’s long been obvious that the unregulated “free market” can’t provide everything we need. A glance at statistics on health outcomes or exploding housing costs, or even a fleeting memory of the Great Recession in 2008, will remind you. But in the past days, as the COVID-19 outbreak has brought the global economy to its knees, we should remember Reagan’s words and how absurd and coldhearted they sound now, at a time when even Republican senators are calling for the federal government to provide direct cash payments to all Americans (incredibly miserly and insufficient as such proposals are).
If we’re lucky, we’re witnessing the death of the ideas that make up the neoliberal consensus.
The contention that market competition should be expanded to every feature of life, including education, health care, social services, and even democracy, is central to neoliberalism, as political scientist Wendy Brown has argued. Neoliberal logic has distorted the American health care system away from providing adequate care and toward making profits for health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. It is estimated that 21 million people in the United States will require hospitalization over the course of this crisis, yet there are only 925,000 staffed beds available. COVID-19’s speed would overwhelm almost any imaginable health care system, including public health systems. Yet years of profit-driven cutbacks in US hospitals nationwide has left the United States in particularly dire straits, made far worse by our lack of a single-payer system.
The number of in-patient hospital beds were cut by 39 percent between 1981 and 1999. As historian Mike Davis explains, the purpose was to raise profits by increasing the number of occupied beds at all costs except to corporate bottom lines. That’s to say nothing of the 27.5 million people who are uninsured, a number that will surely skyrocket as more and more people lose jobs, and therefore health insurance access.
There may be no better exemplar of this thinking than when health and human services secretary Alex Azar, a former Eli Lilly CEO, refused to guarantee that a coronavirus vaccine would be affordable to all Americans because “we need the private sector to invest.”
Then there’s the idea that cutting taxes, particularly for corporations and the wealthy, is worth whatever the cost to public services and institutions. Decades of austerity has thinned staff, equipment, and planning at public health agencies. Almost a quarter of the local public health workforce has been lost since 2008. Funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — more than half of which goes out to states, cities, and towns — has been cut by 10 percent over the past decade.
As budgets have tightened, not only in public health but across public institutions, the concept of running government like a business has become common sense. Trump’s response to questions about his administration’s cuts to the CDC budget offers a staggering example: “Some of the people we cut, they haven’t been used for many, many years . . . I’m a business person — I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them. When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”
The proper neoliberal approach to public goods like health care and public education is to subject them to business practices like outsourcing and just-in-time manufacturing. Whether the service achieves its public purpose becomes secondary to “saving taxpayer money.”
As we face down the worst month for layoffs in US history, does anyone have confidence in our already tattered social safety net? Twenty-three states were already running low on money in their unemployment trust funds before COVID-19. The nation’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program reaches only 22 percent of families with children living in poverty due to work requirements, strict time limits, and other barriers.
For comparison, Denmark — a country with already robust social services — has committed to paying 75 percent to 90 percent of salaries if businesses do not lay off workers during the crisis.
Whatever the US stimulus package eventually looks like, neoliberal ideas about the limited role of government aren’t looking so hot right now. How could anyone argue against everyone having access to basic needs like health care, food, and the internet? Millions of students are now relying on online learning to attend school and picking up free meals from school campuses. Millions of workers are working on laptops from home.
But will bigger, enduring ideas about a more democratic, more collective future beyond the horizon of neoliberalism take hold? Or will right-wing populism fueled by racism ramp up carceral policies and maintain closed borders for everyday working people? That will depend, as it always does, on whether we have the power to put our ideas into action — whether we organize to demand it.
As the outbreak has exposed, collective power is our best protection. Health care and airport workers were demanding more equipment and training to protect themselves and others weeks before the Trump administration took COVID-19 seriously. (In fact, back in 2014, as an Ebola outbreak spread beyond West Africa, unionized medical interns, residents, and fellows pressured hospital administrators to collaborate on plans to keep both staff and patients safe.) Activists in cars are surrounding immigration detention centers to demand the release of detainees. Homeless families are occupying vacant, publicly owned homes. Public bus drivers in Detroit walked off the job and won protective equipment and free fares for the duration of the outbreak.
Almost everyone is pro-government in the middle of an economic crisis. “I am a conservative . . . Civilization requires government,” wrote John Hood, chairman of the John Locke Foundation, in a recent op-ed. But we can go beyond calls for temporary government intervention in markets and demand taking our basic needs out of the market altogether.
As David Harvey and others have stressed, neoliberalism has never been solely about ideas. It’s a political project designed to bolster the power and wealth of elites against gains made by working people in the mid-twentieth century. Only collective power will bury it for good — the new ideas will follow.