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.