Posts tagged: COVID-19

Is Social Distancing Big Brother?

Many conservatives and libertarians are complaining that our practice social distancing is objectionable because it is a form of government control. I’ve not been too sympathetic to this line of criticism because I think the vast majority of social distancing is voluntary, with little by way of threats of government coercion. I engage in social distancing because I think it protects me and my family, that it is my duty to my fellow citizens, and, frankly, because I’m afraid of being reprimanded by other people for violations. I’m not so worried about the police, going to jail, or being fined. I bet most people in the country feel similarly.

Social distancing is not primarily the result of government power. Instead, high-status persons are functioning as trendsetters in establishing new social norms, like hand-washing. Some people feel more constrained by those new norms than others, but that is not primarily because of government action. Instead, social distancing is a largely  spontaneous order of social norms, which do indeed restrict freedom, but not in a big brother kind of way

Here’s something odd about these complaints. Conservatives and libertarians traditionally argue that many public goods can be provided through ostracism and social norms. Government coercion isn’t required. But our present predicament is that people are providing a public good (safety from the virus) through ostracism and social norms, by and large. Yet conservatives and libertarians are complaining about this state of affairs rather than lauding it. I’m delighted because social distancing is coming from people’s own hearts and self-interest, and not through violence. People are mostly doing the right thing for the right reasons.

This suggests that we might be able to provide lots of other public goods through social norms. Cool! Why aren’t we hearing more about this?

My guess is that conservatives and libertarians are focused on the economic costs of social distancing, which are gigantic. I get that. I’m feeling it. My wife has been furloughed, I’ve lost thousands of dollars because of speaking honoraria that aren’t coming my way. We’re fine, and blessed to have what we have, but it is unfortunate and difficult all the same.

People are also understandably upset about the fact that we’re making big social decisions based on bad data and worse models. If conservatives and libertarians were simply upset that we’re being told things that aren’t true, then I would completely sympathize. But the truth is that we have bad models and bad data in large part because there are so many unknowns, such that the degree of social distancing we’re adopting may well be reasons. And, as I’ve said here before, it’s really hard to know how to make these trade-offs, and so people are defaulting to extremely risk-averse behaviors. I don’t see why that reaction is especially less reasonable than alternative plans of action. As a result, the spontaneous order of social distancing is a reasonable, moral, and local reaction to the virus. It is not a matter of mere top-down planning.

To Save Lives, Embrace Political Diversity

One of the more interesting facets of the coronavirus is that some people seem to have temporarily put off their ideological blinders and aren’t opposing policies and practices they would normally oppose. Right now, as I see it, libertarians, conservatives, and progressives/egalitarians advocate the following policies and practices meant to combat the virus:

  1. Libertarians: deregulate medical testing and information-sharing in the medical profession and private sector generally.
  2. Progressives: increase confidence in public health institutions and expand the social safety net.
  3. Conservatives: increase personal virtue in the form of better personal habits.

Right now, the wisdom of all three viewpoints is clearer than usual.

US labs now have limited permission to engage in new experimentation, and it looks like FDA regulation and controls will slow down the proliferation of effective testing. Libertarians have a point in stressing the ways in which regulation slow innovation and the spread of those benefits to the general public. Moreover, libertarians are generating new ideas, like awarding huge prizes for innovation related to stopping the virus.

The US is increasing public health spending and relying more on government agencies for social order, and we are suffering from a lack of trust in public institutions like the CDC, especially because it appears that the Trump administration slashed funding for the CDC’s pandemic response team, a grave error. Progressives are right to complain. And proposals to expand and strengthen the social safety net are currently far more bipartisan than they were just a few weeks ago.

US elites are also massively stressing the importance of personal virtue in the form of responsible personal habits as a way to secure the public good and make government more effective. Indeed, unless the public is prepared to exercise personal virtue in activities like washing their hands and engaging in social distancing, no amount of government policy is going to matter. This is a central insight of traditional “character counts” conservatism.

In my view, the coronavirus suggests that traditional conservatism is the most underrated of the three systems of thought at the moment.

Everyone is going to respond that their particular ideology has exceptions built in, so there’s no need for progressives to like deregulation generally, or for libertarians to like high state capacity generally. But the coronavirus reveals what we’re ready to tolerate under emergency conditions, and this suggests at least a partial rationale for adopting these policies after the virus subsides.

But the most important point is that we can see the need for different ideologies and diverse perspectives both in times of crisis and in ordinary daily life. Adherents of different perspectives can learn from each other. We are better when we can work as a diverse team.

The coronavirus has helped many of us remove our ideological blinders for a moment. Let’s use that opportunity to see further, together. Let’s beat this thing.