Published April 7 through April 16.
Part 1: The Metaphysics of Abnormal Life
Part of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, like the response to everything else, has been to draft it as another player in our normal, everyday political battles.
But there has also been an attempt to portray the pandemic as an overblown hysteria, a hoax designed to impose dictatorship on us in the form of mandatory social isolation. The unstated premise is that if the pandemic were real, it actually would make the case for Big Government, so therefore it cannot be admitted to be a genuine threat.
Clearly, our ordinary politics is not the best framework through which to address this extraordinary event. I was convinced of this after seeing how badly even Objectivists are doing at reacting to this. I haven’t heard much pushback directly from my readers—either you like what I’ve been saying, or you are keeping quiet about your resentment. But I made the possibly unwise decision to go onto Facebook, and from what I’m seeing there, it looks like the Objectivist vox populi is trending the second direction I described above: It’s all overblown and “social distancing” is a totalitarian Big Government push to control us all. (At the very least, this is proving to be the latest reason for Facebook Objectivists to get angry at each other. It’s a persistent problem.)
This reaction tracks pretty well with what I’ve been seeing from conservative commentators, which is where people are getting a lot of these arguments, and it’s what convinced me to take a step back and look at the coronavirus pandemic from a deeper and more clarifying philosophical perspective.
The place to start is certainly not with politics or even with ethics. The place to start is with metaphysics.
Why start with metaphysics? Because the key question that determines everything else is metaphysical: Is this normal life, or is it an emergency?
As I’ve pointed out before, “normal” in this context is not a statistical concept but a metaphysical one. I didn’t invent that idea. Here is how Ayn Rand described it: “By ‘normal’ conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence.”
The context in which she wrote this was specifically in drawing the distinction between normal life and an emergency. Here is what she had to say about it.
It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence. This does not mean a double standard of morality: the standard and the basic principles remain the same, but their application to either case requires precise definitions.
An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible—such as a flood, an earthquake, a fire, a shipwreck. In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger, and restore normal conditions (to reach dry land, to put out the fire, etc.).
By “normal” conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not in water or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue. By its nature, an emergency situation is temporary; if it were to last, men would perish.
The context for this, and the main subject of the article, is her exploration of the conditions under which a rational egoist would volunteer to help others—say, to jump into a river to save a drowning man. That you would do so in an emergency, she argued, does not imply that you are bound under normal conditions to suspend the operations of your life to “rescue” strangers from every possible need or difficulty.
“The principle that one should help men in an emergency cannot be extended to regard all human suffering as an emergency and to turn the misfortune of some into a first mortgage on the lives of others.”
Moral principles are determined by looking at the conditions necessary for human life under normal conditions, rather than looking first at cases that are strange, exceptional, and in some cases bizarre and concocted.
The upshot is that the rules that apply in an emergency should not be applied to normal life—and the rules that apply in normal life should not be applied to an emergency.
Now you can see why the big question of the coronavirus pandemic is metaphysical: is this an emergency or this normal life? If it is normal life, then the obsessions of normal politics apply. If it is a genuine emergency, then they don’t, and it is rational to adopt extraordinary measures—temporarily.
Most of the arguments I’ve been seeing online from conservatives and from Objectivists skeptical of social distancing are attempts to deny that this is an emergency, to downplay the pandemic, to pretend it is just an ordinary cold or flu that can be dealt with by ordinary precautions.
I laid out the basic facts about COVID-19 almost a month ago. Prior to that, until late February, these facts were not altogether clear, particularly because we had received very unreliable information from China (which denied person-to-person transmission of the virus up until late January.) But a lot was known by early March and the facts have not changed substantially since then.
The basic facts are that this virus spreads more quickly and easily than the flu and is about ten times more deadly, with a mortality rate in the neighborhood of one to two percent.
Is that an emergency? Such determinations are relative. This is not the Black Death or Ebola, diseases with mortality rates of about 50%, and I have no doubt there are eras in history when a mortality rate of 2% would barely have been noticed. But we are very fortunate not to live in one of those eras. Given our high standards of medical care and low death rates from other causes, COVID-19 produces dramatic increases in mortality to levels far above the norm. And just in terms of absolute numbers, a morality rate of one to two percent means that its unchecked spread would be likely to produce a death toll in the millions in the US alone, in the span of just a year.
By comparison, a little over 400,000 Americans died in all of World War II. I don’t know by what standard a potential death toll greater than that of a major war would not be considered a catastrophe.
But the real emergency is the demand this virus puts on the health care system. A significant number of those who get it require intensive care units with a ventilator to have any chance of survival. Combine this with the rapid spread of the disease, and you face the prospect that the need for ventilators will be much greater than the supply, meaning that the most severe cases will be left to die.
That’s what really makes this an emergency: the overwhelming of hospitals and the collapse of the modern, First World level of health care that we rely on.
Given the lack of good information from China, this scenario was mostly supposition and projection—until we started seeing it all happen in Italy: the geometric growth from a few cases to a few hundred cases to thousands to tens of thousands, followed by the overwhelming of hospitals, shortages of life-saving equipment, and extremely high levels of mortality as an advanced health care system breaks down.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been watching the same thing start to happen in New York.
For those who are skeptical or think it’s all being overblown, I should point out that I’ve been hearing about the crisis in New York from people I know, or know of, in Objectivist circles. We have more than our share of MDs, and it’s natural that a few of them would end up at the centers of this situation. I just published a new interview with Dr. Amesh Adalja. See also a heartfelt plea on Facebook from a longtime subscriber, Dr. Evan Madianos. A New York Times video that circulated widely a few weeks back featured Dr. Colleen Smith, who I am told by mutual friends used to be an organizer of the campus Objectivist club at the University of Chicago some years after my time there.
The point is that this is not “fake news” coming from the left-wing media. It is really happening, and people we know are trying to tell us about it.
A lot of people you know are also muddying the waters. But this carries us up one level philosophically, from metaphysics to epistemology. It’s not just a question about the reality of the pandemic. It’s a question of how we know.
Part 2: The Death of (Epidemiological) Expertise
I have my disagreements with Tom Nichols, but I feel like the last six weeks have been one giant advertisement for his book, The Death of Expertise, because we’ve seen exactly the phenomenon he’s talking about. Facebook in particular is full of eager amateurs ready to explain epidemiology to the epidemiologists.
I won’t pick on random people on Facebook. I’ll pick on the more prominent people whose articles are being eagerly shared there.
One is from Richard Epstein, who is a legitimate expert—in constitutional law. Apparently, he has done a little crossover work on the application of biological and evolutionary concepts to law and economics. But none of this qualifies him to write about epidemics, and that became painfully evident when he projected, almost exactly one month ago, that the COVID-19 death toll in the United States would not exceed 500. This number was quickly changed, under very unclear circumstances, to 5,000, and a “correction” added to the piece later on admits that a better estimate would be 50,000. Given the progress of the epidemic since then—even after the extensive social distancing measures Epstein argues against—the toll is now projected to be more than twice that amount.
Needless to say, a prediction that needs to be revised by an order of magnitude, then by another order of magnitude, is evidence of a flaw in reasoning so large it requires a retraction rather than a correction. But the real error of Epstein’s piece is in using evolutionary theory to predict that a less deadly strain of the coronavirus will quickly predominate, lowering the death rate. The problem? There is no evidence that there is a less deadly version of the virus.
See a good, thorough explainer here. There were early reports about two different “strains” of the virus, one of which was described as more “aggressive.” This was interpreted in some press reports to mean that it was more deadly, when the original intention was to describe it as more contagious. Even that is in doubt, and while there are now at least eight different genetic variation identified, the general view is that the differences between them are too small to matter.
This is the problem with deciding that experience in the law qualifies you to talk about epidemiology. You will tend to go off half-cocked with confident projections based on half-understood facts.
But if you want to get a better idea of where Epstein went wrong, watch him go down in flames in a cringe-inducing interview with Isaac Chotiner. When challenged, he first blusters about his qualifications as a lawyer.
“One of the things you get as a lawyer is a skill of cross-examination. I spent an enormous amount of time over my career teaching medical people about some of this stuff, and their great strengths are procedures and diagnoses in the cases. Their great weakness is understanding general-equilibrium theory.”
This is a tendency we’re going to see again, and it’s a real red flag when you’re evaluating an article: The author’s presumption that some one skill or concept he has learned, often something not directly related to science and medicine, makes him a better expert than the experts. But where Epstein really crashes and burns is when he responds to the interviewer’s challenges and fact-checks with a comical display of credentialism.
“What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period. You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?”
I think we can take that as our last word on Professor Epstein.
Now consider science journalist Michael Fumento. An interview with him has been circulating in Objectivist circles, but he’s been a one-man wrecking ball on COVID-19, publishing attempted debunkings in the New York Post and at RealClearMarkets, and other places. He gives off a lot of the same warning signs. Asked why he think he knows better than the experts, Fumento also goes back to his training as a lawyer:
“Lawyers are trained much better than journalists to do research. If a journalist makes a mistake, nobody will even say anything, because they make so many mistakes that there’s no point….
“On the other hand, lawyers deal with life and death and with billion-dollar lawsuits. We have thoughtful, well-trained opponents; journalists don’t. We have to assume that another guy or a team of people is against us who are as smart as we are. So we have to deeply research everything.”
This is an excellent argument—against journalists. But is he really expecting us to believe that lawyers as a whole are better trained at doing research than scientists? Seriously, is there something about lawyers that uniquely makes them think they know more about everything than anyone else? (The answer: No, they are not unique. A look at discussions on Facebook reminds me that engineers are also prone to this particular form of hubris.)
For all of this bluster about how much research he has done, Fumento has been promoting a series of major errors about COVID-19.
In the New York Post exactly one month ago, he confidently proclaimed that “the spread of the virus continues to slow” and offered this contrast.
“More than 18,000 Americans have died from this season’s generic flu so far, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2018, the CDC estimated, there were 80,000 flu deaths. That’s against 19 coronavirus deaths so far, from about 470 cases.”
We all know by now, particularly with the benefit of hindsight, that the small number from six weeks to a month ago represented just the beginning of a geometric growth curve that has gone skyrocketing upward. Here’s a good graph to put these old claims of “coronavirus is not as bad as the flu” in perspective, particularly in the New York context. The upper line in grey is the average number of weekly deaths in the state of New York. The red line shooting upward and punching through it is coronavirus deaths. The green line way at the bottom is the number of deaths in the worst recent flu season. It’s not even close.
Fumento makes a big deal out of Farr’s Law, which says that the number of cases during an epidemic will tend to conform to a Bell Curve, meaning that it will go up, reach a peak, then naturally fall on its own. But what Farr’s Law doesn’t tell us is how high the curve will be, and it has turned out to be many times higher than Fumento confidently asserted. But I guess he is a journalist now, so as he said, there is no accountability.
For RealClearMarkets, Fumento repeats exactly the ill-informed coronavirus Trutherism I recently debunked when I saw it at The Federalist: the idea that Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College team has “abandoned their model” of the pandemic.
The more dangerous piece of misinformation from Fumento is this one: “The point is that if you test positive for COVID but you’re showing no symptoms—you’re not sneezing, you’re not coughing—you’re probably not that big a problem, because, apparently, it’s being spread primarily by sneezes and coughs.” Yet we’ve known for some time that the distinctive aspect of this coronavirus is the ease with which it is spread by asymptomatic carriers. In fact, it is at its most contagious early on, before symptoms become noticeable. This is why the usual approach of quarantining only those who show already show well-developed symptoms doesn’t work.
Fumento saved an even crazier level of analysis for RealClearMarkets in his claim about why testing—which is crucial for getting us back to normal life—would be a bad thing: “[M]any who test positive will suddenly develop ‘nocebo’ symptoms; the opposite of placebo…. It’s a good guess that hospitals are seeing their share of the ‘worried well,’ people who were feeling pretty well before they tested positive and suddenly truly feel deathly ill.” So while deaths are spiking and corpses are piling up in the hallways of hospitals in New York, Fumento is assuring them from thousands of miles away that this is all in their heads.
The point here is not to shoot down every Coronavirus Truther theory—though you can check out a pretty good attempt at that. The bigger question is: How do we evaluate the views of experts on a complex scientific issue?
I’m going to begin by channeling Tom Nichols: The first step is to evaluate the views of experts. If you want to know about an infectious disease, don’t start by reading an article by a lawyer or a journalist, and definitely don’t go with a post from a guy you know on Facebook. Maybe someone outside the field of epidemiology is going to come up with some big idea that nobody in the field has bothered to think about—but probably not. So start by listening to scientists who specialize in infectious diseases, and if you must pay attention to journalists, pay attention to the ones who quote from scientists and link to their work. And then try your best to understand the basic arguments that the scientists are presenting.
Unfortunately, on such an important issue, I am afraid there is no easy workaround or rule of thumb for figuring out who knows what they’re talking about. The only solution is to do your own research, familiarize yourself with the relevant concepts, and know enough of the basic facts to know when a particular source is sticking to those facts and when he is blowing smoke.
The other big piece of advice I can offer is to beware of your own biases. It’s no surprise that a few of my former employers, like The Federalist and RealClearMarkets, are broadcasting coronavirus disinformation, or that some Objectivists have been latching onto these claims. It confirms all their suspicions about the media and their distrust of anything connected to the government. These are healthy impulses but can be blinding if you let them become your primary criteria for filtering information. I warned earlier about a self-induced “authoritarian blindness” in which the concepts of “fake news” and the “deep state” cause President Trump and his supporters to reflexively dismiss anything coming from journalists or government experts, even if it’s true. Don’t let this be you.
Initially, an irrational skepticism about coronavirus was motivated—at last among conservatives—by a partisan need to validate President Trump. Since he was downplaying the virus, his supporters felt the need to back him up. But now my impression is that they’re doing it mostly because they are afraid of what the moral implications would be if they admitted that COVID-19 is a genuine emergency that requires emergency measures. That is certainly the concern I’m seeing among Objectivists.
So let’s move up another level philosophically and look at the moral principles that are at stake in our response to this crisis.
Part 3: The Ethics of Emergencies
I observed in the previous installment that some people seem reluctant to recognize the extent of the coronavirus crisis because they are afraid of what the moral implications would be of embracing the emergency measures required by it.
Thus, for example, an article I linked to a while back about the “social distancing culture war” quotes a “devotee of Ayn Rand” who compares her state’s lockdown to “1940s Germany”—that’s right, the Nazis—and says “I’m a libertarian…. I don’t really like being told what to do.”
There are various things people object to: the use of government power, the prioritizing of health and safety over commerce, the idea of everyone planning their lives based on predictions from experts, some of whom work for the government. They are concerned that acquiescing to these things sets a precedent, that it validates or sanctions a more regimented or authoritarian way of life in normal times.
I understand that. I don’t like being told what to do, either, and I have praised the virtue of “cantankerous individuals who are going to be offended by an overreaching government just because it’s meddlesome.”
Yet simply because someone else tells you to do something doesn’t mean it’s wrong. I am assuming that nearly all of my readers buckle their seatbelts when they drive. But it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law: You can get a ticket for not wearing your seatbelt. Does that ever factor into your decision, one way or the other? Or do you do it because you are rationally convinced that it is in your own interest? In my case, I do it because I have my mom’s voice in my head singing a safety jingle from years before I was born and decades before the first mandatory seat belt law.
Even if the government shouldn’t necessarily be the entity telling you to do something, it might still be in your interest to do it. Sometimes, it’s not just the law, it’s a good idea.
(Incidentally, I tracked down the origin of that phrase, “It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law.” It referred to something that is no longer a law and was never a good idea: the national 55-mile-an-hour speed limit. It lives on, however, in a more felicitous form.)
Objectivism is a morality of rational egoism. It is not just the assertion of whim, but the assertion of one’s best, considered judgment about one’s own interests. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, there is overwhelming evidence that most of the measures now being recommended, including extreme social distancing, are in your interest, at least for now. If the government were not enforcing them, you would want to adopt them voluntarily—as, in fact, many of us were doing well ahead of our states’ shutdown orders.
The fact that COVID-19 is deadly for the elderly is already well established. But why not, as some have suggested, isolate only the elderly while letting younger people become infected to speed up “herd immunity”? The idea behind herd immunity is that at some point so many people will have already become infected and developed antibodies that there won’t be enough susceptible people left for the disease to continue spreading. But for COVID-19, the portion of the population that has to be infected to achieve herd immunity is on the order of 70-80%. Consider what this would mean.
While the coronavirus is deadlier for the elderly than for everyone else, it is still deadlier in most age ranges than ordinary annual threats like the flu. The best estimates we have—these are numbers from South Korea, which has had the most extensive testing—indicate that COVID-19 is less deadly than the flu only if you are under 30. If you are between 30 and 50, it is significantly more dangerous than the flu. If you are in your 50s, it is about four times deadlier. And these numbers are from a country where the virus has been less deadly than in, say, Italy.
So if we’re urging only those with a significantly increased risk to isolate themselves, that includes the majority of the population. About 35% of Americans are 50 or older, and half are over the age of 38. Moreover, while children under 18 seem to be at no special risk from this virus, virtually all of them live with parents or grandparents who are at an elevated risk, so they have to be isolated, too. You will never achieve herd immunity at this rate.
People have been throwing around the phrase, “The cure cannot be worse than the disease,” but if this applies to anything, it applies to the herd immunity approach, in which the cure is the disease. If our way to keep 100% of the population from getting COVID-19 is to encourage 70-80% to get it, we’re still going to get a very high fraction of the number of deaths. Let’s take a demographic I have a personal interest in. There are an estimated 42 million Americans in their 50s. According to the South Korean numbers, somewhere around four tenths of one percent of this group will die if infected. Run the numbers, and you will find that this means as many as 168,000 fatalities in this one population cohort alone.
As one epidemiologist put it, “If 70 percent of your population is infected with a disease, it is by definition not prevention. How can it be?” The only acceptable way to achieve herd immunity is through vaccination, so that most people acquire immunity without getting sick.
Since we keep comparing COVID-19 to the flu, we might ask what we do about the flu every years. Do we encourage everybody to get infected to achieve herd immunity? Of course not. We encourage everyone to get a vaccine. In case that’s not enough—scientists have to guess months in advance what they think the dominant strain of the flu will be each year—we also encourage everyone to avoid exposure, practice good hygiene, and avoid spreading the virus to others.
In the case of COVID-19, such preventative measure must be more extreme, given that the disease transmits more easily, is contagious well before symptoms become noticeable, and has a much higher morality rate. So the rational thing to do, to the extent it is possible for you, is to stock up your fridge, stay at home, work over the Internet, cancel social engagements, and stop going out anywhere you might find yourself in close proximity with people outside your immediate family.
It is easy for me to say this because it involves relatively little change in my lifestyle; I have been working on the World Wide Web for exactly as long as there has been a World Wide Web. Many jobs cannot be done remotely, and many of those are needed most during a period of mass quarantine. If we’re ordering everything delivered to our homes, for example, we need workers at Amazon warehouses, truck drivers, and UPS delivery drivers. We need people who are making food and stocking grocery store shelves. The toilet paper mills clearly need to be running night and day.
Above all else, we need the doctors and nurses and other health care workers who will be taking on a much higher risk of infection during this pandemic in order to save many thousands of lives. It is in everybody’s interest that we have these brave people working throughout this crisis, not just to care for coronavirus patients, but to care for those who fall ill for all of the ordinary reasons. What we can offer them in return is our gratitude—and to make things less difficult for them by reducing our own risk of needing care.
There has been a lot of chest-thumping, particularly among conservative commentators who cultivate a “tough guy” style, about how willing they are to take their own risks by refusing to engage in social distancing. This sort of boast sounds like an appeal to personal responsibility but is actually an abdication of it. Unless they are willing to refuse hospital care if they get infected—and I don’t know how you would even enforce such a pledge—they won’t be the only ones who suffer the consequences. They will be contributing to the overwhelming of the health care system and an increased burden on the health-care workers who are taking on the real burden of responsibility.
That brings us to the question of the impact of all of these protective measures on the economy, and here’s where I’ve noted a peculiar irony. I can’t count the number of times conservatives have told me that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is harsh, materialistic, and lacks compassion. Yet somehow I’m not the one saying that grandma has to die to keep the stock market from going down. Yet that is, in effect, the position being taken by a number of prominent conservatives.
Here, for example, is Glenn Beck’s plan to restart the economy: “I would rather have my children stay home and all of us who are over 50 go in and keep this economy going and working, even if we all get sick. I would rather die than kill the country, because it’s not the economy that’s dying, it’s the country.” This is the kind of plan that sounds a lot better in the first person than in the second person, as a plan for what he would supposedly do instead of his proposal for what the rest of us are supposed to do.
Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick echoed this sentiment, going onto Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to complain, “No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
Former Fox anchor Brit Hume defended this. Here is his explanation:
The utter collapse of the country’s economy—which many think will happen if this goes on much longer—is an intolerable result,’ the 76-year-old told primetime host Tucker Carlson. “[Patrick] is saying, for his own part, that he would be willing to take a risk of getting the disease if that’s what it took to allow the economy to move forward. He said that because he is late in life, that he would be perhaps more willing than he might have been at a younger age, which seems to me to be an entirely reasonable viewpoint.”
You will notice, by the way, that the same people who tend to dismiss scientific projections of deaths from coronavirus as exaggerated and an overreaction are quick to seize upon the most dramatically pessimistic descriptions of the economic impact of social distancing: that it amounts to “losing our whole country,” the “utter collapse of the country’s economy,” and the country itself “dying.” As if we had not gone through worse during the Great Depression and World War II. They are choosing which danger they want to emphasize in order to arrive at the solution they find morally preferable.
Why is it morally preferable? What we find at the end of this road is made clear by R.R. Reno at First Things, the Catholic magazine that has been pushing the most radical form of illiberal nationalist conservatism. Reno denounces the “demonic side to the sentimentalism of saving lives at any cost.” We should not base our policy around preserving human life because “There are many things more precious than life.” As for the religious right being “pro-life,” “the pro-life cause concerns the battle against killing, not an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.”
Reno asserts that there were no shutdowns or social distancing during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and that our forebears simply “bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows.” (He is, of course, completely wrong about that.)
In an individualist philosophy, every human life is inherently valuable. In Reno’s Catholic suffering-worshipping, human life is not to be preserved but to be sacrificed as a religious duty. For other conservatives, the motive is more political. I think Seth Mandel is on the right track when he describes it this way: “The way that people are talking sounds a lot like the populist nationalism that made up the wave that Trump rode first to the Republican nomination and then to the White House, because it’s phrased in ways that talk about the common good.'”
This is the morality (and sense of life) of nationalist conservatism: the lives of individuals are to be sacrificed for the greater good of the national collective.
Remember that we started talking about the ethics of emergencies. Ayn Rand wrote that in an emergency situation, the application of morality changes but “the standard and the basic principles remain the same.” This emergency is pushing the collectivism of the nationalist conservatives to its logical conclusion. It creates a stark moral precedent of the sacrifice of the individual for nationalist goals, which they intend to carry back into normal life.
Yet all this talk about sacrificing human health for the sake of the economy is all irrelevant. There is no real trade-off between fighting the pandemic and saving the economy. As for the claim that an economic downturn is also deadly, this does not seem to be supported by the evidence.
We cannot restart the economy fully without showing that we can contain the threat of the pandemic. People are not going to go back to work, schools are not going to reopen, bars and restaurants are not going to fill up again, until people no longer have reason to fear infection. Death and the fear of death are powerful dampers on the economy.
Take the case of Sweden, which has been touted as a model for a less restrictive approach to social distancing that doesn’t “destroy” the economy. Yet the Swedish economy is still projected to contract sharply this year because people are voluntarily curtailing a great deal of economic activity in a rational and self-interested response to the danger of the pandemic.
As recently as two weeks ago, it looked like Sweden was experiencing no more dramatic spread of the coronavirus than its Scandinavian neighbors. Since then, the country’s cases per capita have shot past its neighbors and the Swedes are now considering adopting more stringent measures several weeks behind everybody else’s schedule. By avoiding strict social distancing, Sweden may only have prolonged the loss of lives and wealth.
I think it’s worth considering whether and on what conditions less restrictive government policies should apply—but there is no grounds for complacency or for thinking that we can avoid the harsh conditions of this crisis. There is no basic conflict of human interests here. The policies that will save lives are also those that will lead to the soonest revival of the economy: namely, whatever policies will mostly quickly and effectively contain or mitigate the threat from the virus. That is the moral and metaphysical fundamental.
If we’re concerned about creating bad precedents for normal times, we should start by insisting on the recognition that these are not normal times, that what has to be done now is only temporary, and the priority is, as Ayn Rand put it, to “restore normal conditions.” So far, the evidence indicates that the best hope is in shutting down as much activity as possible as early as possible, paying a harsher economic cost up front in the hope of getting back to normal, or close to it, sooner.
That applies with even greater urgency to the actions of government, and that brings us to the level of political philosophy and the proper role of government in a pandemic.
Part 4: Dystopia for the Duration
The question of what we ought to do during the pandemic has been partly superseded what we are required to do by the government. I say “partly,” because the shutdown orders would be impossible to enforce without a high degree of voluntary cooperation. Yet this raises the question of the proper role of government in a pandemic.
David French provides an overview of the existing legal precedent on this. The upshot is this: The federal government, having been created out of the union of the state governments, has only the specifically enumerated powers given to it in the Constitution. (In theory—in practice, that limitation has been ignored for a long time.) This is why, despite President Trump’s pretensions on this issue, he can neither order the states to shut down nor order them to reopen.
The state governments, on the other hand, being the original sources of sovereignty, are not limited to specific, enumerated powers. They have a “police power” that includes—well, anything that they consider to be for the public good. “A governor or state legislature can often act without a specific grant of power. The power to act is presumed, absent a specific limitation.” This includes the power to impose quarantines and other public health regulations.
French is looking at this as a lawyer and not as a political philosopher, but from the perspective of political philosophy, this notion of a plenipotentiary “police power” is a barbarous relic left over from absolutist theories of government.
Let’s look at this instead from a Lockean/Objectivist perspective, in which the individual is the original source of sovereignty, and the only legitimate power of government at any level is to protect the individual’s rights against the threat of physical coercion. From that perspective, what is the basis for government power in a pandemic?
I think this is something that has already been well established by pro-liberty philosophers. To knowingly or negligently subject another person to infection with a deadly pathogen falls under the category of the initiation of physical force—like dumping toxic waste on another person’s property.
Take the case of “Typhoid Mary,” an asymptomatic carrier of a deadly pathogen. (The theory is that she harbored a reservoir of bacteria in her gall bladder.) She was released from quarantine in 1910, but she repeatedly broke her promise to stop working as a cook and ended up spreading the disease far and wide and killing at least two more people. She was eventually returned to quarantine and spent decades there for the protection of others. This is an unusual case, to be sure—someone who carries a disease for decades and refuses to exercise any precautions. But it is a case that pretty clearly falls under the government’s function of protecting individual rights.
The application of this principle is contextual and relates to the point I made at the beginning of this series about “normal life” versus emergencies. For diseases that are less deadly and less contagious, it is not reasonable for government to impose any special measures. That’s why those who want to dismiss COVID-19 compare it to the flu, because the flu is a known and familiar disease, one that we have all decided is “normal.” So we chalk up the flu as one of the ordinary risks of social interaction, and while we take preventive measures, the burden generally falls on the vulnerable and infirm to sequester themselves.
I’ve already made clear in earlier installments why COVID-19 is a threat at least an order of magnitude greater than this, and we don’t have to rely on uncertain estimates about morality rates. Somebody has put together a helpful set of graphs showing actual COVID-19 deaths versus other ordinary causes of death—flu, car accidents, heart disease—and the results are pretty definitive. This is a threat to human life that is out of the ordinary.
So this is a pretty clear case where the quarantine powers of the government apply, where the government can tell you: if you are infected, you have no right to endanger others. You are required to quarantine yourself until you are no longer contagious.
But COVID-19 presents us with a very difficult twist. If this were a case where we could identify specific individuals who are infected and put them in quarantine for just a few weeks, I don’t think anyone would be arguing about it. The problem is that COVID-19 has a large number of asymptomatic carriers, and we don’t yet have a good enough testing system to identify them.
This failure is in large part the government’s own doing, because overly centralized FDA regulations prevented the development of a coronavirus test back when it could have helped contain the spread of the disease. (It looks like the same thing happened in the UK.) We should note that most governments failed at this. The only real success story I know of is South Korea. Thanks to large-scale testing and contact tracing, which allows them to require quarantine only for those most likely to be infected, South Korea has been able to employ a less extensive system of social distancing.
Mass quarantine is the blunt instrument we’re using because our government failed at creating this kind of test-and-trace system. This is what makes the current lockdown seem so ominous and oppressive. Because it is targeted at everyone, not just at specific individuals, it seems like we are all guilty until proven innocent, and because it is being imposed without a short, specific time limit, it may seem less like a temporary stop-gap and more like a permanent way of life.
That’s why people are responding as if this is some kind of authoritarian nightmare borrowed from dystopian fiction.
As much as it seems this way, we should note that the dystopia is imposed by the conditions of reality, by the nature of this particular virus, rather than by some kind of political conspiracy.
There does not seem to be any way around some degree of social distancing. Government rules have been less restrictive in some US states and in countries like South Korea and Sweden, but they have still been doing things like banning large gatherings. This makes sense to me given that we have, not just asymptomatic spreaders of COVID-19, but “super-spreaders“—cases where one or a few infected people showing up at a large event have spread the disease to many other people: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, spring break in Florida, a “Police and Pancakes” event in Detroit. It is an act of negligence in a pandemic to gather people together in close proximity.
So for example, South Korea’s test-and-trace approach has not spared it from also recommending, and in some cases enforcing, social distancing.
[T]he government has been gauging whether it should extend a 15-day intensive social distancing policy it implemented on March 21, under which high-risk facilities were urged to close and religious, sports, and entertainment gatherings were banned. But it is “too early to be at ease,” Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said, citing a recent spike in imported cases and small cluster infections which also prompted the government to cancel the re-opening of schools next week….
Social distancing played a role in restraining domestic group transmissions by some 70% during the first 11 days compared with the last 11 days before it took effect, Park said.
The main difference is that South Korea used all of these tools early and effectively, so while they had their first recorded case the same day as the United States, they have had far fewer cases and are now winding down to the point where they are finding about 25 new cases per day. That’s not deaths, that’s cases.
This, by the way, is the goal here. Some of the early discussions about “flattening the curve,” including my own, implied that it would result in the same number of cases, just spread out over a longer period of time. But South Korea has shown that preventive measures can decrease the spread of the virus to very small levels. This is what has allowed them to avoid more draconian lockdowns and will also make it possible for them to return to normal life much earlier.
As for government-ordered shutdowns, the evidence indicates they have been less important than most people think—less necessary, but also less damaging. An interesting study validates my own anecdotal observations: most of the economic activity that has been shut down for the past month was already shutting down before official government orders.
Those data show that restaurant reservations had declined precipitously in most states before restaurants were officially closed. On the day before closure orders, the median state had seen reservations fall by a whopping 73 percent. In some states, like Michigan and Georgia, reservations had already fully stopped before restaurants were officially closed. In short, patrons did not need the government to tell them to before they stopped eating out.
Another measure comes from the nation’s aviation system. While international flights have been mostly grounded, thousands of domestic flights remain in the air. Congress even required airlines to maintain a minimum level of service as a precondition for receiving bailout funds from the most recent coronavirus stimulus bill.
While Americans are still free to fly, however, the number who actually do has collapsed. The TSA has been publishing daily data on the number of travelers it screens—it is now averaging roughly 100,000 a day, down from 2.4 million at the same time last year.
This implies that the government-ordered shutdowns have not actually caused that much additional economic damage—but it also means that they probably haven’t saved many additional lives, either.
As is usual with ham-fisted government solutions, shutdown orders have also invited politicians to draw of a lot of arbitrary distinctions between “essential” and “nonessential” jobs, as well as to impose the kind of useless “security theater” we’re used to seeing in the airports: restrictions that don’t accomplish much except to make a show of doing something. So in Wisconsin, there was a brief ban on “window visits” to nursing homes, before everyone regained their sanity. In Maryland, the governor banned recreational fishing a hobby whose selling points include solitude and not having to go to the grocery store.
The poster child for this kind of overreach is Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, who issued a confusing and highly intrusive executive order that required stores to rope off sections containing “nonessential” items, banned travel between households, and banned landscapers from working. The chief complaint is that Whitmer banned activities based on how “essential” or “nonessential” she deemed them to be, rather than on whether they could be conducted safely.
Of course, there are many for whom the opportunity to invoke increased government power is an excuse to do what they’ve wanted to do all along. I’ve already linked to an example from the right, Adrian Vermeule’s call for “public health” measures that includes government regulation of our moral “health.” On the left, there are the usual suspects who insist that all the same powers invoked for the pandemic should also be used to stop global warming.
Then there are the nationalists in the Trump administration, where the pandemic has resulted in a grant of power to White House trade advisor Peter Navarro after President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act. “A longstanding critic of globalized supply chains, Navarro is now the closest thing the country has had to an industrial policy czar since World War II, with the authority and influence to compel companies to shift their production and supply of key products back to the US.”
This is on top of the massive stimulus bill, which was produced so quickly that it could not possibly have been written to address the specific needs of this crisis. Instead, it was loaded full of pork, on the premise that if we’re throwing money out of helicopters, we might as well be throwing it at politicians’ pet causes.
Let’s be very specific about the nature of the economic crisis caused by this pandemic. The crisis is that we are forced, for a time, to eat our seed corn—to consume our capital.
Businesses that cannot keep operating at a time when everyone is afraid to leave their homes have to fund their minimum expenses, not from current revenues, but by dipping into their reserves of capital. Individuals who are put out of work as those businesses trim back to the bare minimum (or go bankrupt) have to do the same, depleting their savings to fund their current expenses. If they don’t have sufficient savings, they will have to abandon or sell off valuable assets like houses and cars.
If the problem is a widespread need to spend our capital on consumption, rather than investing it to create new production, then the massive stimulus only makes the problem worse, not better. By spending trillions of dollars we don’t have, it compels the further spending down of capital and merely spreads it more widely among the population, either through taxation or through inflation that will erode the value of everyone’s savings.
This destruction of wealth is not going to end until we end its two underlying causes: the pandemic—and the excuse it creates for excess government regulation and unlimited government spending.
Check out what looks like a good plan for achieving the long-term suppression of COVID-19 until a vaccine is available. It involves a massive ramp-up of testing and the employment of a small army of “contact tracers.” The idea is to return to the ordinary approach to epidemics: identify those who are contagious, trace the people they have been in contact with, and quarantine only those who are at risk of spreading the disease. The expense of recruiting and training these contact tracers is estimated at $3.6 billion. That’s a tiny fraction of the amount poured out in the recent stimulus bill, but it’s the only part that would actually stimulate the economy.
The even better aspect of this plan is that it returns the government to nothing more than its well-established, limited, and temporary quarantine powers and does not requires an open-ended, unlimited “police power” to regulate all human activity.
That’s the key issue we should be looking at. Governors’ actual use of their “police power” will probably be less important than the spirit in which they invoke it. What we should be looking for are politicians who regard these powers as abnormal and see their goal as getting back to normal—and giving up their power—as soon as possible.
One of the best speeches from a governor is this one from Colorado Governor Jared Polis (hat tip to Ari Armstrong). Polis’s theme is, “When will this nightmare be over?,” accompanied by the assurance that “none of this is permanent.”
We cannot live without an open and functional economy. People need to be free to engage in commerce, transactions, trade, and work. But we simply cannot function normally while we are living day-to-day with mortal fear of a deadly virus.
The sheer size of this crisis has forced us to take a series of drastic measures that we would have thought unthinkable, unimaginable just a month ago….
If there is any way to safely end it sooner, then we will.
Like many of you, I am beyond furious that we have been forced to shut down large portions of our economy—putting tens of thousands out of a job—because the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth doesn’t have the supplies and testing that we need to mount a proper, more targeted response.
I know that we would all rather be going back to work tomorrow instead of collecting government stimulus checks or unemployment insurance. I know that business owners will have to make even harder decisions this month. I know we all want this to end as soon as possible.
But if the choice is between a temporary shutdown and a catastrophic loss of life, the choice is clear. These closures and restrictions will be temporary. But when you lose a life, you lose it forever.
And in fact, the economic consequences will be even more severe and more prolonged if we completely overload our hospitals. The longer this economic paralysis lasts, the fewer jobs there will be to return to, and the more difficult the recovery will be….
[W]e are using our creativity—our innovative, scrappy, and independent spirit—to obtain more tests so that we can have widespread testing and containment like Korea and Taiwan, who have been able to successfully return to a level of normalcy by testing, quarantining, and isolating individuals instead of quarantining an entire society….
The better job we do of staying in, the sooner we will be able to go back out. I know this isn’t easy, but if we all do our part, we can beat this virus and get back to living our lives.
This is the right outlook, but the comment I like better came from Steve Baker in the debate over an emergency bill in the British Parliament. He gives the proper name to these emergency measures and treats them with an appropriate moral and emotional revulsion—regarding them, in effect, as necessary evils, with an emphasis on the evil.
We are, perhaps let me be the first to say it, implementing tonight in this bill at least a dystopian society. Somebody will call it totalitarian. I don’t think that is quite fair, but it is at least dystopian. It is implementing a command society under the imperative of saving hundreds of thousands of lives and millions of jobs….
Libertarian though I may be, this is the right thing to do.
But my goodness we ought not to allow this situation to endure one moment longer than is absolutely necessary to save lives and preserve jobs.
In the previous edition, I quoted someone who compared our response to the pandemic to Germany in the 1940s. I think that’s the wrong comparison. It’s more like America in the 1940s. Then, too, we saw a vast expansion of government power—both legitimate wartime powers and many illegitimate ones. There were those who loved the mass regimentation, the central planning, the idea of everyone drafted by the state and taking orders, and who wondered why we couldn’t keep all of that in place and apply it to other favorite causes that were “the moral equivalent of war.”
What actually happened is that the moment the war was over, the American people were incredibly eager to get back to normal life and sweep away all vestiges of wartime regimentation.
I hope and expect the same thing to happen again.
The goal of stopping this pandemic is to return to normal life: to what is metaphysically normal, to the normal activities and goals of human life, and to the normal scope and powers of government in a free society.
Editor’s Note: You may have noticed that this series is organized around four of the five main branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. In the next edition of The Tracinski Letter, I will follow up by considering the esthetics of the coronavirus.