If it isn’t coronavirus, it'll be something else. Will we be ready for it?

None of this is a brief for limited government or for expansive government — for a small state or for a large one. It is, rather, a brief for a state with well-defined roles and responsibilities, one that has adequate resources and authority to execute its duties in relation to these. It is in no way contradictory or inconsistent to advocate a settlement under which the national government has no role whatsoever in, say, K–12 education or the management of churches or newspapers, and in which it is very limited in its role in building highways or regulating trade — but at the same time has a great deal of power and authority when dealing with an epidemic or other public-health crisis and a relatively free hand in matters of national security. (This strikes many people as obviously reasonable and unobjectionable, which is why our reflexively sneaky progressive friends are always trying to redefine gun control or climate change as public-health and national-security issues.) It is perfectly defensible to favor a smaller welfare state and a bigger budget for the Centers for Disease Control.

But our heroic, god-emperor conception of the presidency prevents the emergence of that understanding of the state. If the presidency is a kind of sacral kingship and the state is mainly a vehicle for the apotheosis of our national demigod, then it must be very difficult to achieve a schematic reimagining of the state as a series of discrete means directed at a series of discrete ends. Barack Obama promised to “fundamentally change” the country, and Donald Trump promised to “Make America Great Again.” But these are slogans, not a program for responding to unpredictable epidemics.