What we should want, therefore, is a government that may be overwhelmed by a vast, unforeseen problem at first but will then be able to quickly mobilize, learn from mistakes as it goes, and in relatively little time work itself toward massive and effective action. Such a government could capitalize on the advantages of freedom to deliver on the promise of keeping us safe. This is a lot to ask, but it has been the general pattern of successful American government responses to crises—be they wars, economic calamities, or natural disasters.

This is the standard against which to measure our response now. That our lives are disrupted is not a failure of government. That it takes time to gear up is not the president’s fault. The question to ask is not what our very way of life prevents us from doing, but what we should be good at that we aren’t doing well.

It is nearly impossible to achieve the perspective necessary to focus on this question early in the effort to mobilize, when everything seems to be going wrong. In any response to a major unanticipated crisis, good choices will mean trouble averted (and so will be hard to notice), while bad choices will create bottlenecks in the way of mobilization and so will draw intense attention and criticism. Mistakes that were far from obvious in the moment can soon look like wild and inexplicable misjudgments. The question isn’t whether such bottleneck errors will arise; they always do. The question is how our government responds to them and how it then prepares for foreseeable further problems.