The Coronavirus and Why We Have Government

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The U.S. government’s dismal lack of preparation for the coronavirus pandemic encourages us to ask why people have governments. 

The answers are twofold: one basic, the other particular to now and to the United States.

The basic answer to the why of government is similar to what Robert Frost said about poetry;  it’s a hedge against chaos. Ideally governments are instituted in large multi-faceted societies to maintain order and justice and to provide a fair framework for settling disputes, conducting business, and protecting rights equally for all people - creating the conditions where life can flourish now and in the future. Governments are also responsible for the security of the state, protecting it from both internal and external threats. The point is that we want our government to act for the common good and to be, in general, as unobtrusive as possible so that people are free to live their lives as good citizens, enjoying their liberty and their pursuit of happiness. Ralph Nader said, “...the pursuit of justice is the condition of the pursuit of happiness.” That statement encapsulates and justifies good governance. If a state can provide as much justice as possible, the people will be free to pursue as much happiness as possible. Martin Luther King, Jr.,  put it slightly differently but meant the same when he defined the American Dream as: “The riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

To succeed democratic governments must take on a further responsibility: education of the people. Not indoctrination, but the education of citizens as critical thinkers with strong knowledge of the country's history free of myth and propaganda, while also teaching what is expected of good citizens. How else can we have a government of, by and for the people? People need to know about those times when the government failed to live up to or protect its own ideals and why that happened.These failures must be taught honestly because they are the lessons people need in order to confront current failures. Many Americans would like to believe that the United States is the world’s greatest democracy and that the words of the Pledge of Allegiance “...with liberty and justice for all,” are, in fact, true. But, if your education has taught you that those things are true, then I’d like to give you a good deal on the Brooklyn Bridge. Citizenship begins with knowledge, responsibility and vigilance.

So much for a simplistic, but basic, explanation of why we have a government. Note: I have said nothing about our government’s need to project intimidating force as the world’s sole superpower, nor using that power for securing natural resources, markets or labor. Those are what we might call ‘add-ons,’ not the fundamental role - having more to do with profit-driven economics than with a definition of good democratic government. However, the bulk of our financial resources are allocated to sustain that power of Empire.

What I’m interested in right now is how the coronavirus lays bare a terrible failure of our government. We should all know by now that multiple agencies and experts warned for many years that such a pandemic was not only possible but likely and that we were not prepared in terms of medical equipment and facilities. An essential responsibility of government is to prepare for such likely contingencies. If it doesn’t, what good is it? Lack of preparation exponentially increases the scope of the crisis, the harm done and the degree of suffering. Lack of preparation also ensures that those leaders who have failed in their responsibility will blame others and make the failure political. Crises like  COVID-19 should not be political. When leaders say. “We could never have seen this coming,” they are lying. 

As bad as this situation is, we all need to understand that our government has failed us in many other ways, some potentially worse. Because the corona situation is so all-consuming, it has eclipsed the political struggle over preparation for the Climate Emergency, which is proceeding unabated and unmitigated as we hyperventilate (quite reasonably) about the paucity of ventilators. The catastrophic climate crisis underway will quite likely impact many more people than the coronavirus, and unlike the virus, will not, at some point, run its course. The failure  of the U.S. government to act comprehensively and proactively in response to the climate situation should make each of us ask why we allow such disastrous negligence to continue.

But it’s worse. Our government habitually prepares for military emergencies that it invents. Twenty years ago in the wake of 9/11, the Bush administration, in the name of imminent attack, lied to the American people about the necessity for preemptively attacking the country of Iraq.  This lie was not a mistake; it was a premeditated crime, a crime against humanity. Millions of people killed, trillions of dollars wasted, environments destroyed and poisoned, and time - time that our government had to prepare for real crises - squandered. Of course, the weapons dealers, the war profiteers, the banks, the fossil fuel companies have made astounding profits. That means the peoples’ money (our taxes) has been gifted by the government to the very people who are destroying the climate and not preparing for real crises, so that they can continue to profit. We call that corruption.

When governments fail like ours has failed, exactly what kind of allegiance do we owe? The people owe no allegiance to a corrupt government. But we owe total allegiance to our fellow humans, to the ideals that bind us morally and politically, to our children and to the future. Which means we can’t walk away from this crisis and can’t walk away from what the pandemic has taught us about the failure of our government. Like the health care workers who have toiled so courageously and tirelessly to save victims of the virus, we, as citizens, need to show the same dedication to reinstituting an honest government whose primary interest is health, welfare and justice for the people and the planet. Who else can fix this problem? We are called to act.