Americans love, love, love to hate on government, for all its foibles and failures.
But we conveniently forget that good government has also solved, curtailed or prevented a lot of problems over the years, including epidemics, economic ills and environmental crises. When government works, it becomes largely invisible, taken for granted, wiping out both crises and the traumatic memories of those crises. Bad government we remember and loathe and curse to our children; but good government is often a victim of its own success, the cure so effective that we forget how horrifying the ailment it eradicated was.
That has been quite literally true when it comes to public-health crises once thought consigned to history, such as the current measles outbreak.
Nearly two decades ago, measles was declared eliminated from the United States. This achievement was due to good science, yes. (Researchers developed a vaccine in the 1960s.) But we can also credit good government policy, as jurisdictions across the country began subsidizing and ultimately mandating childhood immunization.
More recently, this highly contagious and potentially fatal disease has returned, ravaging communities around the country. Since January alone, 940 individual cases of measles have been confirmed across 26 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The far right’s response to this outbreak, bizarrely, has been an outcry for government to ... butt out.
Some of these calls are motivated by pseudoscience linking vaccines to autism (a link that was long ago debunked, though still propagated by conspiracy theorists on both the left and right, including President Donald Trump). Lately, more have been motivated by libertarian zealotry.
A “Liberty Loving Republican” Texas lawmaker recently referred to vaccines as “sorcery” and compared government-mandated inoculation to communism. The Republican governor of Kentucky likewise said policies mandating vaccination are un-American; one of the U.S. senators from his state, Rand Paul, a Republican, echoed that government-required immunizations are a threat to “liberty,” even though he’s a physician who should know better.
In other states where officials are trying to tighten vaccination requirements, including Maine, Washington, Colorado and Oregon, “nearly all of the opponents are Republicans who’ve taken a medical freedom stance,” as Politico noted in a recent article. In California, where 900 students on two college campuses were recently quarantined, every single Republican state senator opposed a recent measure cracking down on immunization exemptions.
Thankfully — at least for the time being — these outbreaks appear mostly contained, a credit to the herd immunity developed by decades of mandatory vaccinations. But that false sense of security has only emboldened those ideologues to proclaim that perhaps we don’t need the very government policies that reduced the threat.
There are parallels to other social or economic ills that threaten to come roaring back in the years ahead, as anti-government fanatics take advantage of fading memories.
Consider, for instance, the recent Republican attacks on the Federal Reserve.
Beginning with Paul Volcker’s ascension to the chairmanship 40 years ago, the central bank cultivated a reputation for independence and a willingness to do things that were politically unpopular. This reputation is exactly what enabled the Fed to break the back of inflation and to credibly commit to stable prices in the decades since.
Americans have been spoiled by this impressive policy achievement, however. And we have now forgotten why the bank’s autonomy was worth safeguarding in the first place.
Or consider ongoing attempts to roll back environmental regulations, including limits on the pollutants that can be dumped into our air or waterways. Such bureaucratic red tape isn’t necessary, Trump and his cronies suggest, because U.S. environmental quality is already top-notch.
Even if we did hold some sort of planetary record — which we don’t — the reason pollution has been declining is precisely because of these same laws and regulations that Trump wants to dismantle. Acid rain, flaming rivers and choking smog have abated thanks to deliberate policy choices this country has made over the years, and that Trump is now trying to unmake. If anything, the environmental and public-health crises that remain — including in Flint, Michigan — suggest our government has done too little to protect its citizens, rather than too much.
An ancient Chinese book of strategy advises using your enemy’s strength against him. Clearly the anti-government right has taken this advice to heart.
Distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.