In times of crisis and conflict we have the opportunity to observe our reactions of those of others for lessons that will still apply when the danger has passed. You can probably think of a scene in some movie where one of the characters panics and winds up bringing calamity on a whole group. That is a lesson that our culture has learned, stored for the long term, and conveys on a regular basis.
Don’t panic. We need to keep that in mind.
Similarly, we should have learned cultural lessons that would apply to the comments to a Facebook post by Moderate Party founder Ken Block lambasting the limited St. Patrick’s Day activity in Newport. Here’s local podcaster Bill Bartholomew:
I can not articulate how irresponsible Newport’s leadership was this week, like literally tried to make a video, and my jaw froze. Newport is full of low wage, elderly, immune compromised individuals that were unnecessarily inserted into an, at minimum, stressful and dangerous environment
He’s not just faulting people who have put a party above the community’s health; he’s faulting the city’s government for not stopping them from doing so. We’re seeing a lot of this attitude. Intellectuals have been passing around this brief essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Joseph Norman, who make the pretty obvious argument that sometimes the good of the community requires people to behave in a way that isn’t necessarily rational for them as individuals in the moment, not the least because it will come back to harm them in the long run. Well… sure.
That’s the conservative argument against pure libertarianism in a nutshell. The problem is that you can’t simply apply that argument to any particular situation — such as the spread of COVID-19 — by pure association. If you try, you run into the conservative argument against progressivism in a nutshell, which is that sometimes the community has to behave in a way that isn’t necessarily rational for the community in the moment, not the least because it will come back to harm the community in the long run.
Taleb and Norman write that “the prudent and ethical course of action for all individuals is to enact systemic precaution at the individual and local scale.” But that statement, however true, does not tell us when and how this applies. What is the scale for an individual’s precaution? At what point does the need for local-crackdown overcome protection of individual rights? We need to have answers to these questions; they can’t simply follow the old rule on pornography that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Obviously, that attitude will favor those who undervalue individual rights, which is to say those who want more power for government.
Consider the widely spread Washington Post article modeling how “social distancing” can “flatten the curve” of the virus’s spread. Various simulations show dots (representing people) randomly bouncing around and spreading a color (representing the virus). The graphics are great for helping people to think through how epidemiology works, but once again, they don’t answer the question of when they apply and when the scenarios are too extreme.
The final graphic, which we’re supposed to understand to be the correct answer, is social distancing in which 75% of the population doesn’t move. That is an extreme solution for a society that will cause incredible harm economically, psychologically, and civically, as well. On the other hand, it stops the spread of disease.
The article ends with somebody offering a reminder that the simulation would be more realistic if some of the dots disappeared because they died. That lends the article a dark feel that amplifies the hysteria, but it’s probably about the least significant shortcoming of the project. Out of the 200 dots, only four would disappear from death.
Other considerations are more significant. First of all, the model doesn’t differentiate between mild and severe cases even though we only really care about the latter. About 80% of the dots (i.e., more people than stand still in the simulation) have mild cases. Yes, they can spread the disease, but that’s a different challenge. Also, any dots with more-than-mild symptoms should slow down or stop themselves, but in the simulation, they just keep bouncing around. That adjustment would also make a huge difference.
This isn’t merely to quibble with an illustrative simulation. These are real considerations when deciding whether to slam on the brakes of a local, national, and global economy. What makes COVID-19 interesting is that it’s somewhat more contagious and deadly than the ordinary flu, but it’s still a long way from the contagions of cinematic nightmare, so the answer isn’t obvious. If instead of mandatory closures, we all took additional steps to disinfect surfaces, keep some additional distance in our personal interactions, repeatedly washed our hands and avoided touching our faces, and moved more quickly to identify and isolate those who appear sick — all on a scale adjusted for our own circumstances and vulnerabilities — that might bring the balance of risk and consequence to tolerable levels.
The cliché of “if it only saves one life” does not really apply at this level, because the consequences of our reaction will be so huge.
So, back to Bartholomew. If he wants to talk about irresponsibility, he should be sure he’s not overstating his own case. I asked him for examples of “low wage, elderly, immune compromised individuals that were unnecessarily inserted into an, at minimum, stressful and dangerous environment,” and the one he provided was of an at-risk individual who saw the lines outside bars as she went to CVS. Does that justify shutting down the economy?
I asked him whether an alternate solution might be for the city (or, even better, a private business or charitable organization) to, instead, provide emergency services to bring at-risk individuals what they need. His response was to state that he “would have preemptively called off the [St. Patrick’s Day] parade and sought emergency funding for biz losses.”
This is merely looking for obvious ways government can try to plug the cracks when government takes too-strong of a hand. Where does the money come from to compensate the businesses — the bars — for their losses? When all the dots of this simulation have bounced, filling the economic gap for reduced partying might have wound up taking resources away from medical innovation. That wouldn’t seem like a worthwhile trade.
The self-righteousness and the intellectual shortcuts of those inducing hysteria proves one thing above all: that they think the answers are obvious. They aren’t. This is why one of the lessons our culture has tried to pass down to us is to meddle as little as possible. Unfortunately, an entire resurgent ideology is founded on people’s desire to meddle.
As journalists become uneasy about the steps that government is taking to lock them out of the room and worry that local newspapers will fall under the economic weight, they should recall the lessons of the last century. If we don’t get perspective quickly and figure out why so many in our society seem to lack it, the ground progressives claim during this global lock-down may be one of the most deadly consequences of all.