Letting Crisis Go to Waste

Many progressives tend to see moments of disorder—sudden, dramatic breaks from life as we knew it—as opportunities for positive change. The crowning achievement of American progressivism, the establishment of the American welfare state by FDR’s New Deal, would have been impossible without the Great Depression. Decades later, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel famously repeated his mantra that Democrats should “never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Most recently, the Biden Administration has adopted a mantra of its own, appended to the title of its enormous post-pandemic spending proposal: Build Back Better. The implicit message is clear: the pandemic has exposed our country’s weaknesses—in physical and digital infrastructure, disaster preparedness, and so on—and laid bare those areas Americans cannot afford to leave unchanged.  

Such thinking is perfectly logical within a progressive mind frame. Because progressives generally think that society’s usual order entrenches power at the top and prevents the upward mobility of those with fewer resources, it follows that disorder should break the habit of routine quiescence and help rally the masses towards realizing their group interests. Citizens may be newly amenable to taking stock of the political shortcomings that brought them to the brink of crisis, and lawmakers, even conservative ones, likely feel pressure to do something to show they are on the case. Clear breaks from routine, from structure, from the expectation that we all go about doing what we do from 9-to-5 every day thus present the tantalizing prospect of equalizing society in various ways.

To be more abstract about it: If normality (“late capitalism,” to its detractors) stands for rigid hierarchy and quiet suppression of minority interests, then those who see hierarchy at the heart of American unfairness will see unusual times such as economic crises and pandemics as ripe for progressive reforms or even revolutionary change. Where order stands for the preservation of an unfair past, disorder stands for an equitable progressive future.

Such a perspective on disorder is yet more tempting because there is a kernel of unquestionable truth within it. Moments of crisis really do cry out for reflection and reform, as even the stodgiest conservative will admit. Surely the COVID-19 pandemic has taught Americans something about the way we conducted regular life until March 2020 and how “normal” life should look after the last pandemic restriction lifts. Individuals might choose to take on precautions like wearing masks on public transit even when not required. States and localities might begin thinking about how to shift their budgets to account for “black swan” events that no longer seem so remote. Perhaps our federal government will begin thinking more seriously about “de-coupling” from China. These are just a few examples. The point is only that it does not take a progressive leftist to conceive of crisis as an inflection point for shifting how we conduct our regular business.

Moreover, such thinking, even in its left-wing iterations, can be admirable. The progressive desire to “equalize” society such that the worst of times do not fall unduly on the shoulders of those with the fewest means to bear them bespeaks a noble sense of responsibility towards one’s fellow man. The usual conservative criticisms (with which I agree) notwithstanding, seizing on moments of disorder—of instability in the present and uncertainty about the future—to increase rates of redistribution is an understandable if simplistic form of showing that we are there for our brothers in their time of need.

But there are severe problems with this view of disorder, which illuminate not only how we ought to view moments of crisis, but how we ought to view “regular” ordered life itself. At root, the trouble with coming to see disorder as an opportunity for desirable change is what we might call a moral hazard: The more positively we spin disruption, the more likely we are to induce or prolong it, or to magnify small social problems so that they may be viewed as launching points for desirable social change.

Progressives have indeed become less shy about inducing and prolonging disorder to catalyze desired change. Democratic leaders of blue states and cities have resisted allowing the pandemic to end, constantly changing masking and vaccination requirements, even as most states have returned to normal life. Despite lacking evidence that these measures promote public health—as of this writing, New York has higher rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths per capita than Florida—elected Democrats seem unwilling to allow the pandemic to end.

Other prominent progressives have worked to erode sources of public order by embellishing the severity of the social problem du jour. Then-candidate Kamala Harris publicly encouraged supporters to donate to a bail fund for those arrested for rioting in Minnesota in Spring 2020. Rep. Ilhan Omar and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison openly supported a ballot initiative to abolish Minneapolis’s police just a few months ago. All this was the result of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, the kind of tragedy progressives tend to believe occurs orders-of-magnitude more frequently than it actually does. (In one survey, more than 85% of respondents self-identifying as “very liberal” estimated that more than 100 unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019. More than half thought the number was over 1,000. The actual number was 27.) In the realm of race and policing, prominent progressives betray a consistent preference for making symbols of order seem nefarious, while disorder presents liberation and opportunity.

Calling this moral hazard a problem, however, begs the question. Inducing disruption to the regular order of things is bad if disruption itself is bad, or, at least, worse than the status quo ante. To show that this equation is actually hazardous, we would still need to give some color to the intuition that a sharp break from the givens of life is a bad thing. Why should that be so?

The past year has given us some good examples, whose lessons are clear but frequently ignored by progressive elites. They all revolve around the same analysis: Who suffers when order breaks down?

The best engine for salutary social change is a free and ordered society, which provides protection and opportunity to the vulnerable and liberates all of us to allow our highest ideals to govern our actions

Who Suffers?

Who suffers when public order is not enforced by police, and people are liberated to riot and loot? Everyone knows the answer, but not all are willing to say it aloud. So, take it from The New York Times, reporting on the aftermath of this summer’s “unrest” in Kenosha, Wisconsin:

While large chains like Walmart and Best Buy have excellent insurance, many small businesses that have been burned down in the riots lack similar coverage. And for them, there is no easy way to replace all that they lost.

When people started burning down buildings in Kenosha after the police shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23, Tony Farhan prayed that his electronics shop would be left alone. The Farhans have struggled economically in recent years. Mr. Farhan, his wife and their four sons moved in with his parents while their savings went to one son’s health care. Mr. Farhan’s ambition for a better life was tied up in the shop. So were many of his family’s belongings. They couldn’t fit all the clothes and toys for their boys in the crowded house they shared with his parents, so they tucked things away into the shop storage room. “Half my house was in there,” said Mr. Farhan.

Big businesses and wealthy individuals can rebound from the destruction that results from a breakdown in law and order. But when the basic function of the state—to protect against violence and destruction of property—is no longer a given. The result is that it is the vulnerable who suffer. Elites who blithely shrug this off as “collateral damage” betray the fact that they have little interest in improving the lot of flesh-and-blood people and are motivated instead by the desire to see society conform to their own preferred abstractions.

Who suffers when schools go remote or shut down? Everyone knows the answer, but some institutions, like the National Education Association, insist that such disruptions are no big deal because “students are extremely resilient.” So, take it from the New York Times, reporting on the aftermath of months of school closures in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania:

Like schools across the country, Liberty [High School] has seen the damaging effects of a two-year pandemic that abruptly ejected millions of students from classrooms and isolated them from their peers as they weathered a historic convergence of academic, health and societal crises. Teenagers arguably bore the social and emotional brunt of school disruptions.

Nationally, the high school-age group has reported some of the most alarming mental health declines, evidenced by depression and suicide attempts. Adolescents have failed classes critical to their futures at higher rates than in previous years, affecting graduations and college prospects.

It was not the National Education Association, not the teachers nor their unions that suffered, but children. Teenagers needed the structure and socialization of school. Lacking resources of their own to deal with crisis, they were the most vulnerable age group when order broke down. (It is worth noting that students with additional disadvantages—special needs, hearing or vision impairments, and so on—have suffered even more. Americans should tremble at the thought of having failed the students who needed access to social and educational resources most of all.)

And it is no surprise that disorder in the education system did not affect all students equally. Researchers recently found that “online education is an imperfect substitute for in-person learning, particularly for children from low-income families,” and that “school closures have a large and persistent effect on educational outcomes that is highly unequal. High school students from poor neighborhoods suffer a learning loss of 0.4 standard deviations, whereas children from rich neighborhoods remain unscathed.” Students from wealthy families can afford to weather the disruption of school closures by hiring tutors or enrolling in private schools promising in-person instruction. Students from poor families have been left in the lurch, suffering learning loss, chronic absenteeism, and horrific mental-health deterioration.

Who suffers when government issues lockdown mandates, or encourages people to stay home as much as possible? Everyone knows the answer, but some public health professionals still try to imbue luxury behaviors such as staying home and ordering delivery with an air of heroism.

Your tacos still have to get from the restaurant to you somehow, which means the “risky” activity—going into a restaurant, picking up food, traveling, bringing it to your home—is merely shifted to someone who has to keep working. A more perfect microcosm for the class divide exposed by the pandemic you could not imagine, with white-collar workers convincing themselves that staying home and participating in the knowledge economy is a heroic act, and blue-collar workers shouldering the risks in order to support their families. Disorder runs deep when our normal course of interpersonal relations, in which we interact with food-service workers as human beings, is replaced by a paradigm of reducing the working class to an untouchable caste of delivery drones who must rise to meet the demand of the hygienic upper classes.

When the regular rhythms of life as we knew it are disrupted, and those simple things we could take for granted are no longer obvious, the people with the fewest resources to deal with disruption suffer the most.

Who Benefits?

Life as we knew it before COVID was far from perfect, but it was largely ordered, predictable, undisrupted.

Who benefits from order? Certainly not just the rich, as progressives often claim. Regularity and predictability are far more important to the non-rich, whose investments in their children and their businesses depend on what they have known to be true today remaining stably so in the future. When order breaks down, the wealthy can afford to withdraw and protect themselves with resources they have already amassed. Not everyone can afford such luxuries.

Disorder is the realm in which anything goes; nothing we took for granted is any longer assured, and our basest human instincts kick in, compelling us to do what it takes to protect ourselves and our loved ones. In the depths of disorder, might makes right. Those who can burn buildings do so. Those who can protect themselves from threats do so. Those who can pay gobs of money to educate their kids do so. And those who can isolate themselves from all risk do so. External considerations of the kinds we normally think about when making a decision—law, norms, lofty principles—fade from our judgment as people turn inward to do right by those for whom they are directly responsible. Relying on anything but the power of sheer self-preservation is a luxury of an ordered world.

Order does not simply constrain the powerless. It constrains the powerful just as much. Confidence that their lives will not be upended tomorrow leads the well-resourced and well-connected to continue to participate in regular American life, rather than withdrawing from it, shielding their children and their wealth from it in the process. In combination with individual liberty, order provides the structure for a mobile society. Striving individuals can plan, invest, and take calculated risks, knowing that resources held by the wealthy are not siloed away in an inaccessible other economy. That is far fairer than a state of instability, which shrinks the economic pie by encouraging the well-heeled to look out for their own short-term interests alone.   

Those negative outcomes progressives often attribute to order—in today’s parlance, our systemic biases—may not be outcomes of order at all. Viewed against the alternative of disorder, the ordered lives we took for granted actually seem geared towards helping disadvantaged groups, not hurting them. Those hierarchies often faulted for maintaining power and privilege actually minimize the difference between those at the top and those at the bottom by keeping the powerful and their resources “in the game”—exactly the opposite of what progressives perceive in their drive to tear down the old in favor of newer, more “equal” social arrangements.

The moral hazard created by viewing disorder as opportunity is enormous. Progressive elites can continue to induce disruption—by pushing to abolish the police, or simply by prolonging pandemic restrictions—but they will not bear the brunt of the policies they champion. These elites, by definition, have the resources to deal with what may come. But the fallout from elite experimentation with new ways of ordering public life falls squarely upon those who have the least say in the matter and stand to lose the most from it, such as the three-quarters of black Americans who want funding for their local police either kept steady or increased.

If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that the veneer of civilization is thinner than we thought. Ways of life we had taken for granted for decades were plunged into uncertainty suddenly and without an end in sight. Social unrest reared its head as it had not in decades, and progressive elites turned a blind eye, pretending that wanton destruction and calls for revolution were nothing more than measured arguments for reform. Calls for the abolition of institutions central to America’s flourishing—capitalism, law enforcement, the Senate, the Supreme Court—grow in number and volume as progressives encourage each other to “imagine new realities” unmoored from all human experience.

What is common among these phenomena is the suggestion that stark changes to life as we know it can be, indeed ought to be, implemented as a way to re-order modern life. Opponents of such agendas would be wise to learn the language of order and defend it not merely as the lesser of two evils but as an affirmative good. The best engine for salutary social change is a free and ordered society, which provides protection and opportunity to the vulnerable and liberates all of us to allow our highest ideals to govern our actions.