Why America’s Institutions Are FailingBreaking News
tags: political history, regulation, policing
The pandemic and the police protests, the twin crises of this horrendous year, might initially seem to have nothing to do with each other. In some ways, they are totally opposite cataclysms.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which demanded a swift and efficient response, revealed a discombobulated country painfully slow to deploy its arsenal of health interventions. The killing of George Floyd—like the attacks on peaceful protesters—demonstrated a rush to violence by American law enforcement, whose military arsenal is too often deployed with tragic efficiency.
Beneath these differences, however, lies a unifying failure. “The government agencies we thought were keeping us safe and secure—the CDC, the FDA, the Police—have either failed or, worse, have been revealed to be active creators of danger and insecurity,” Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University, wrote on Twitter.
Why have America’s instruments of hard and soft power failed so spectacularly in 2020? In part because they are choking on the dust of a dead century. In too many quarters of American leadership, our risk sensor is fixed to the anxieties and illusions of the 1900s. We are prepared for wars against states and militant groups, but not against stateless forces such as pandemics and climate change. We’re arming and empowering the police like it’s 1990, when urban crime had reached historic highs. But violent-crime rates have fallen by more than 50 percent in almost every major American city in the past generation, while police still drape themselves in military gear and kill more than 1,000 people annually.
The failures of our law-enforcement agencies and public-health systems are not one and the same. But our orientation toward militarized overpolicing and our slow-footed response to fast-moving pandemics both stem from an inability to adapt our safekeeping institutions to the realities of the 21st century. Lost in the anxieties and illusions of the past, United States institutions have forgotten the art of change in a changing world.
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