The Era of Big Government Is Back
The U.S. government didn’t handle the pandemic perfectly, but its response has made Americans more favorable to big spending and projects
“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
That remark rang true for many Americans when President Ronald Reagan made it in 1986, and for many of them it still does. But it might have lost some of its persuasive power as events like the 2008 financial crisis chipped away at the idea that capital markets are an unfailingly superior method of allocating resources while the widening gulf between the very rich and everybody else made laissez-faire approaches to the economy seem less fair.
And now the pandemic has served up a counterexample of how the government can, in fact, be helpful. While the vaccines against the novel coronavirus were produced by an established private sector pharmaceutical industry, without government support and funding they would not have been developed, secured or distributed as quickly as they were. The government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis has been far from perfect—it underplayed the danger early on, and its guidance on mitigating risks was often flawed—but it is not hard to grasp how much worse the pandemic would have been without it. Indeed, a bit more government arguably might have saved lives.
More government is what President Biden is aiming for, and while it is unlikely he will get the $4.1 trillion in new spending on infrastructure projects, child care, education and paid leave that he first proposed, he will probably get some of it. Thursday he and a bipartisan group of Senators agreed to a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure deal. It is a departure from the tack that fellow Democrat President Bill Clinton took in 1996 when he declared that “the era of big government is over.”
That era of big government got under way with the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was followed by a decadeslong string of massive government initiatives, from Harry Truman’s Marshall Plan, to Dwight Eisenhower’s Federal Highway Act, to John F. Kennedy’s support of the Apollo program to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
One reason those programs were able to get off the ground was probably that more people believed in government’s ability to deliver. In 1964, 77% of respondents to a survey conducted by the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Institute said they trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. But events such as the Vietnam War, Watergate and the inflation of the late 1970s eroded people’s faith in Washington. In 2011, the share of Americans with high trust in the government reached a low of 15%, according to an average of survey data compiled by the Pew Research Center.
Trust in government, while still lackluster, has picked up a bit lately, notably since the pandemic struck. And considering how strongly the economy is rebounding as the pandemic has eased—thanks, in no small part to the government’s vaccination program and the relief payments it sent out to most Americans—it may be due to rise further.
What might really swing the pendulum, however, would be if Mr. Biden is able to get some portion of his ambitious agenda passed, and then if many Americans come to believe the programs put in place have actually helped them. It is a tall order—the country remains deeply divided along partisan lines, and although surveys show most Americans so far approve of the job Mr. Biden is doing, only a small fraction of Republicans do.
Don’t dismiss the possibility out of hand. After decades of ambitious spending, big government didn’t have much low-hanging fruit to argue its benefits by the time Mr. Reagan came to office. But 40 years later, in the wake of a devastating pandemic, there might be more opportunities for it to prove its worth, from rebuilding infrastructure to combating the effects of climate change.
If there is going to be a second era of big government, now might be when it starts.
Write to Justin Lahart at firstname.lastname@example.org