President Trump’s election drew attention to Middle America’s struggles, which media and political elites had largely ignored. Opioid abuse and overdose are the most horrifying of those struggles, and on Thursday, Trump aggressively and clearly brought this plague into focus.
Importantly, Trump’s plan to address this issue doesn’t rely on a magic bullet or even a handful of big policies. In an act of policy humility, reflecting, in this case, a conservative mindset, Trump’s administration has proposed more than a dozen small policies.
Declaring a federal public health emergency allows rules restricting treatments for substance abuse and mental health to be liberalized. It could speed crucial federal hiring by clearing away red tape.
Trump also announced a slew of other policies involving all sorts of federal agencies.
Through federal funding, shifting enforcement priorities, and other policy changes, the Justice Department, local law enforcement and other first responders, the State Department, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Veterans Affairs will make efforts both to enforce drug laws better, and to support and treat addicts and would-be addicts better.
None of these policies will solve the problem. Some of them may not help at all. But the conservative worldview sees catastrophes like the opioid epidemic as maladies to be minimized rather than problems to be solved. The conservative sees government policies as nudges that can help while acknowledging that we don’t know the consequences of our actions.
None of us knows for sure what will work, and conservatives accept that the world is not perfectable by government, so the best thing is to try many things that might help and are within the purview of the federal government.
Still, the most important causes may be out of the reach of policymakers.
Communities where opioids rage the worst, including Appalachia and other parts of rural America, are the places where communities have crumbled. The causal arrow points both ways here: drugs destroy communities, but eroded communities also give rise to drug abuse. One West Virginia publisher aptly described the environment in which opioid abuse flourishes as “social vacancy.”
In places where employers have disappeared, often churches have followed. The norms of the traditional family and marriage erode. Too many men, unmarried and unemployed, find themselves without a role in the world. Into this social vacancy flows the mind-numbing allure of drugs.
This erosion of community isn’t something the federal government can fix. No Cabinet department can restore marriage in West Virginia or get people in Middletown to go to church. Despite some of his campaign promises, Trump won’t bring the steel factories back to Pennsylvania’s Monongahela Valley.
The daunting size of the opioid problem calls for quick and firm action. The nature of the problem, however, also calls for humility and patience. Trump didn’t promise that he had the solution, but he promised he would do whatever the federal government could do.
That is the best start. In fact, it is probably the only way to start.