Ronald Reagan once said that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”
These nineteen words have been approvingly quoted by conservatives ever since and not just American ones. However, it only takes a moment’s thought to realise the absurdity of the implied generalisation.
Ambulance drivers are “from the government” and “here to help”, as are doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, teachers and social workers. Just because not all of them are as helpful as they ought be, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be thankful for those who are.
Of course, it’s easy to focus on the frontline public sector professionals on which we all depend, but what about backroom bureaucrats? There may be more of these than we can afford and many may be engaged in pointless activities, but that still leaves those doing an essential job.
Consider the case of Roger W. Ferguson Jr, who was Vice Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1999 to 2006 – in other words not just a banker, but a state banker. One could hardly think of a less heroic figure and yet all of us owe this public servant a great debt.
His story is told in a remarkable piece of reportage by ‘Arliss Bunny’ for the Daily Kos:
“On the morning of 11 September 2001, when… Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. arrived at work in his office in the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, DC, he was alone… it was a busy day and all the other members of the Fed Board of Governors who are normally in Washington were traveling. In fact, Ferguson was the only member of the Board who was anywhere near the District.”
It was a good thing that he was onsite, because the emergency grounding of aircraft all over America and beyond meant that other key figures including Alan Greenspan (then Chairman of the Fed) were stranded and out of contact.
Ferguson didn’t hang about:
“By the time employees could all hear the muffled thump coming from the direction of the Pentagon and smoke could be seen out the windows the staff had secured themselves and the premises and they had started to organize their war room. The President, George W. Bush, was still reading a children’s book.”
From this base, Ferguson was able to mobilise the electronic and physical transfers of money (and crucial government-backed guarantees) required to keep the banking system from collapse.
Things could have turned out very differently. The terrorists had targeted the “financial backbone of the world” and three-quarters of all the civilian casualties on 9/11 were from the financial community:
“Elsewhere in lower Manhattan virtually every bank and financial institution was forced to evacuate. This included the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq, which was closed for the very first time, and the New York Mercantile Exchange. The American Stock Exchange, known as “the curb”, had been located in the Towers and the New York Board of Trade had been in Four World Trade Center… Outside of the US, other exchanges, including London, closed out of an abundance of caution. The money markets and foreign exchange markets were seriously disrupted but did manage to stay open throughout the day.”
Yet despite the chaos, the grief and the fear, Ferguson and his team maintained financial order at a time of maximum vulnerability for the American banking system and, therefore, the world economy. To understand the sheer complexity and ingenuity of what was required you really do need to read the whole article, but it’s worth highlighting just one aspect of the story – which is that a key reason why Ferguson was able to move so fast was because he’d headed-up the Fed’s emergency planning committee for the Millennium or ‘Y2K’ bug.
There are two lessons here for conservatives. Firstly, never to underestimate the value of resilience. And, secondly, that an attitude of hostility to government itself (as opposed to the over-extension of government) is not proper conservatism at all, but nihilistic stupidity.