Are We There Yet?

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Americans are beginning to protest the “lockdown.” The impulse is libertarian, and some libertarians are loudly supporting it. I’m not — at least, not yet. Maybe I will. I think it’s time to loosen the tourniquet. But let’s not lose our heads and cry tyranny. If you read some of the polemics out there, you’d think we were in Nazi Germany, and we’re not.

First of all, it’s not a “lockdown.” Certain industries are closed, and that is a serious matter, but ordinary people are not locked down, at least not where I live. I’m in deep-blue, Democrat Seattle, which has “closed” the public parks, meaning that the parking lots are taped off, but people are still walking, and running, and biking and picnicking, six feet apart. I walk freely to the grocery store, to the hardware and to the Chinese restaurant next door, for takeout. The hardware makes everyone use hand sanitizer at the door. The local grocery has put up a glass barrier at the check stand, like the ones for bank tellers. The Asian supermarket makes all employees wear masks. Asians are more willing than others to wear masks. Most people I see aren’t wearing them.

It's time to loosen the tourniquet. But let’s not lose our heads and cry tyranny.

What I’m still hearing from the fevered shores of the Right is the thought that the coronavirus is a manufactured panic, a political gambit by the Powers That Be to slip us into tyranny — the evil rule of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. And I think: you jokers don’t know what tyranny is. The government sending you money so you can stop working is not Stalinism. And if the coronavirus panic has an insidious political motive, Italy, Spain, France, and the UK have all fallen for it, as have China, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. Are they all hoodwinked? By whom? Is Boris Johnson in on it?

Let’s get real here. Fighting epidemics cannot be done by the market. It’s a government job — and not a nice one. And government has a history of it. Back in 2011, I reviewed on this page Michael Willrich’s book Pox, an American History. Pox is the story of the public health campaign against smallpox from 1899 to 1902. Smallpox was a killer. In my review, I wrote, “Smallpox was highly contagious, so that an infected person was a threat to everyone around him who was unvaccinated. First symptoms appeared more than a week after exposure, so fighting the epidemic by treating sick people was a strategy of being perpetually behind. The disease could, however, be stamped out by vaccinating the healthy.”

The public debate right now is not about vaccination, though it may come to that. Compulsory vaccination is a more invasive, unlibertarian policy than social distancing and shutdown — but it is the policy that defeated smallpox. In the early 20th century the libertarians battled against compulsory vaccination all the way to the Supreme Court. And in Jacobson v. Massachusetts 197 U.S. 11 (1905), they lost.

Fighting epidemics cannot be done by the market. It’s a government job — and not a nice one.

Legally, the analogy was with war. The argument that fetched the Supreme Court in Jacobson was that an epidemic is a microbial invasion. The Court said that just as the government must have the power to defend against the invasion of a foreign army, it must have the power to defend against the invasion of a foreign microbe.

Libertarians will immediately brand this a dangerous proposition. And it is. State power is full of dangerous propositions. The US Bill of Rights is festooned with such terms as “due process,” “probable cause,” “just compensation,” “cruel and unusual” and “public use” all of them open to interpretation by judges. A strict libertarian, seeing the document for the first time, might proclaim it as worthless as the Stalin constitution of 1936. But it’s a good deal better than that, because Americans have (mostly) made it so.

Libertarians like to think in principles. It is a good thing, in moderation. It clarifies thought. But few of the best principles for normal life produce good results in extreme circumstances. Sometimes you have to accept a dangerous principle because it’s the only one that works. But you limit it. You put a fence around it — as tight as you can.

Libertarians will immediately brand this a dangerous proposition. And it is. State power is full of dangerous propositions.

I’m arguing here that people need to focus on fencing in the dangerous-but-necessary responses to the epidemic, not simply crying tyranny. Fear of political overreach is justified. The tourniquet can be put on too tight or maintained for too long. It may be loosened up in the wrong way. My state’s governor, Jay Inslee, recently declared that when restaurants open up, they will have to record the name and address of everyone who eats there, so that government health workers may track down and forcibly quarantine persons who may have been infected. I have been asked what I thought of this, with the implication that probably a libertarian wouldn’t like it. I was about to say I find the thought annoying, though upon reflection, it’s no big deal giving my name and address, because in the epidemic I have been paying everything by bank card, so they have my name and address already. The unease is over the prospect of being locked down for 14 days because someone in the restaurant was infected. But I really don’t object to that, either. To be sure, it is a sacrifice of the individual to the collective, but of a sort I can accept. An epidemic of life-threatening disease is an emergency, serious, unexpected, and unusual. It is an actual crisis in which “we are all in it together,” and not just a problem that some political activist labels that way. The sacrifice demanded is of short duration. It is small compared with the threat of the disease and really does help fight the disease. The prospect of quarantine applies to everyone in the restaurant. And if I want, I can avoid the whole thing by eating at home.

No, I don’t object to it.

Somebody did, though, because Inslee withdrew the order the next day. In his new order, restaurants will be asked to present a sign-in list to patrons, but the patrons won’t have to give their names and addresses to be served.

The government can send everyone little green pieces of paper, but somebody has to produce the goods and services the little green pieces of paper are supposed to buy.

I don’t oppose all power on behalf of public health, but power does need to be questioned. In March, the federal health authorities said the shutdowns were necessary to “flatten the curve,” so that the hospitals wouldn’t run out of ICU beds and ventilators. It was a good argument, and it carried the day. The governors cried crisis and demanded immediate aid, and President Trump sent the Army Corps of Engineers to build field hospitals, including one near me. And the shutdowns worked. The curve flattened. The field hospital built near me was not needed. Now the people on CNN and some Democratic governors are moving the goal posts. They are arguing that officials should not let up, because the curve may turn upward. They talk of some restrictions lasting for the next 18 months.

That is not only moving the goalposts but taking them down and promising to put them up later. I don’t think the motives of those arguing for this are mainly to increase their power, but that is the effect, and when libertarians point it out, they are not wrong. Some of the public health people are pushing for policies that may seem reasonable to a microbiologist, but not to ordinary citizens. They argue, “We’ve got to follow the science,” but opening up is not a scientific decision. It is a political decision. The politicians who decide it should consult the scientists — but other people, too. My sense is that the governors who are easing up have their ears to the ground. They know their decisions will increase the risk of infection. But there is also a cost to human health of postponing medical screenings and elective surgeries, and a more general cost of interrupting educations and careers and leaving people idle. Rents and mortgages and car loans need to be paid. People need to work. The government can send them little green pieces of paper, but somebody has to produce the goods and services the little green pieces of paper are supposed to buy.

The Great Coronavirus Shutdown is something people now living have never experienced before. When it is over, Americans need to consider how much of it, if any, was worth it, and whether they would go through it again. Part of that question will hinge on how bad the epidemic actually was. How long did it last? Did the virus come back? What was the final death toll under the policy followed in the various states? What was the death toll in Sweden, where policy was looser than in America, and in East Asia, where it was tighter? It is a matter of fact that the microbe itself is less deadly than the influenza of 1918, and unlike then, most of the deaths are of those near the end of life or with other medical conditions. What that means is a matter of opinion. We are a practical people, but we are not a culture that sets our old and sick out to die.

Trump is no scientist; he flails, he bullies, he talks up quackish remedies, then abandons them. But he does know about life and the limits of sacrifices.

And how often do we expect to do this? Once a century? Once a decade? Do we all now agree that in future shutdowns, everything should be paid by Uncle Sam, with borrowing in trillion-dollar heaps? I note that Senator Bernie Sanders is already insisting that when we have a vaccine, it must be free to all Americans. And I think: why? It’s not free for the companies to invent it. It won’t be free to produce it or to administer it. Why should it be free to have it? (How much would you pay for a vaccine right now?)

I’m asked if, based on the situation right now, I think government officials should be able to order more shutdowns whenever they think it necessary for the public health. My short answer is yes. But in the United States, the power to do that is divided among more than one official, and also subject to judicial review and the criticism of rival politicians, the legal bar, the academy, the news media, and public protesters. Most of all, it is subject to the anger of the people at the next election.

The verdict on the Great Coronavirus Shutdown will be decided in November. Already we’re hearing Democrats make the case that Trump did too little. Every day they’re on CNN, blaming The Donald for 85,000 dead and calling for officials to “listen to the science” and keep commerce shut down. And they have a case. Trump is no scientist; he flails, he bullies, he talks up quackish remedies, then abandons them. He is not a “war president.” But he does know about life and the limits of sacrifices. I just heard him on TV bellowing, “vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back.” Bombast? Yes. And also necessary.




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Thomas L. Knapp

"Fighting epidemics can only be done by the market."

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