On the day that avian flu reaches these shores, even the most conservative Americans may begin to understand why effective government and global cooperation are as important as "free markets" and national sovereignty. With millions of lives at stake, they may well wish that we had spent more to bolster public health agencies at all levels -- including the United Nations -- instead of entertaining the simple-minded demagogy of the right for the past two decades.
Indeed, the pandemic threat is already exposing the limits of "free market" rhetoric among Washington's right-wing think tanks, which have remarkably little to say about the subject that now preoccupies officials and experts around the world.
After President Bush finally announced a federal plan to prepare for the pandemic on Tuesday, for instance, the Heritage Foundation responded by wondering why he hadn't proposed further budget "offsets" to cover his program's $7.1 billion cost. Beyond that petty admonishment, the mighty bulwark of conservative ideology had nothing to offer. Type "avian flu" into the Heritage Web site's search engine and it comes up empty.
In one respect, however, the six-paragraph Heritage press release was refreshing. After many years of undermining global and national efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic, organs of Republican propaganda like Heritage suddenly consider public health to be a pressing concern of the federal government, right next to national defense on the list of priorities. Conservatives tend to change their attitudes quickly when their own lives and families might be endangered.
That must be why even Heritage -- while remaining focused on the overriding imperative of reducing taxes -- is now calling for "a coordinated public health approach" to the pandemic threat. "By almost anyone's formulation," the think tank acknowledges, "this is an essential function of the federal government."
"Almost anyone's"? That careful formulation could refer to the black-helicopter and tinfoil-hat brigade among the right-wing troops -- or it could mean the friendly competitors over at the Cato Institute, who apparently have even fewer ideas about how to fight bird flu than Heritage has. Bear in mind that Cato -- whose shiny building is home to the deep thinkers of corporate-funded libertarianism -- shares Grover Norquist's desire to dismantle most agencies of the federal government and return America to the status quo circa 1917 (the last time the nation suffered an influenza pandemic).
In years past, the Cato approach to catastrophe could be summed up by its demand for the abolition of the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- presumably because everyone should depend on free-market solutions in case of an earthquake or hurricane. (Of course, President Bush came very close to achieving that goal when he appointed the egregious Michael "Brownie" Brown as FEMA director.) Not so long ago, Cato also suggested that the United States simply stop paying to support the United Nations -- which would have meant defunding the World Health Organization, one of the most useful agencies in coping with a potential pandemic. The withdrawal of American participation and support from world organizations has always been a matter of principle for the Republican right, although conservative ideology has yet to explain how we can close our borders to bird-borne disease.
Cato's analysis of FEMA's failure following Hurricane Katrina is summed up in an article titled "When the Catastrophe Is Government" by Radley Balko, who declares that we can trust government to protect us only "at our peril." Yet neither Balko nor anyone else at Cato can tell us who or what will protect us from the pandemic if not a reinvigorated and competent government.
The Cato attitude toward bird flu is much like the libertarian solution to global warming: If the "free market" can't solve the problem, let's pretend it isn't happening.
More thoughtful conservatives argue that the most important mission for government in this impending crisis is to unleash the pharmaceutical industry. We only stand a chance to prevent the worst, they say, if drug companies and their researchers can be induced to find a vaccine and to produce more Tamiflu, the only effective medication.
Roche, the company that holds the Tamiflu patent, is resisting efforts to promote production by other companies, although it cannot possibly begin to meet world demand alone. Policy experts are debating whether it would be best to invalidate the Roche patent -- or provide a large "prize" to Roche for additional production, so as not to discourage future research and innovation.
Either way, rapid production of lifesaving drugs will depend more on government action than the workings of the unfettered free market. By itself, the market has failed to anticipate the need for billions of doses of Tamiflu, even though there is no question that they would be purchased if available. And if a prize is to be given to those who bring forth needed medicines and vaccines, that too will be accomplished by government.
Should all those measures fail, civilization's fate may depend on the capacity of governments, singly and together, to contain the pandemic by other means. That will be the day that the era of big government resumes, with a vengeance.