Politics to Define the Spherical Cow


Given the turn our approach to government had taken before COVID-19 — with lifelong sinecures in seemingly every (paid) elective office that doesn’t have term limits and government budgets so big they have tides and so corrupt you can’t see the bottom — it is largely justified that the term, “politician,” has become a pejorative.  Still, there is a purpose to that role in government.  The public sentiment matters not only to get people elected, but also because sentiment affects how people act.

(If you want to get deep, this is one place a purely materialist view of the universe breaks down.  How people feel matters in what happens in the physical world.)

Consider the whole thing with Governor Gina Raimondo’s mandate to wear masks in public.  Many of us have had an adverse reaction to the command to do something that we have already been doing or would probably do if it were simply presented as a respectful behavior.  Instead, we get a command (made worse by our governor’s way of speaking… “I need you to do this,” “part of me is proud of you,” “I will find a way for us out of this,” and so on) that causes many to bristle.  That bristling, in turn, transforms the response of mask-supporters from persuasion into harsh condemnation (“which of my family members do you want to DIE?”).

The wearing of a mask, and even the executive order to do so, isn’t really the problem.  If, for example, the mask order had been in lieu of a massive economic shutdown, or even just to shorten it, that would be completely different.  Instead, a sizable group in our society (me included) thinks the shutdown has gone on too long and is planned for too slow of a loosening, so we don’t see the masks as a more-moderate alternative, but rather, as a burdensome addition to the imposition and power grab.

Sarah Hoyt wrote recently about the physics cliché that theories sometimes require that we imagine a “spherical cow of uniform density in a frictionless vacuum.”  Cows aren’t like that, and humans definitely aren’t.  We can’t be managed from the top down and told what to do because, first, we aren’t all the same, and second, how ideas are conveyed to us affects how we respond.

And so… politics.

Over the years of her administration, our governor has systematically separated her administration from the public feedback loop with a viscous layer of public relations employees.  People in agencies who actually do the government’s work aren’t permitted to interact with the public as much so that the governor can control the message that gets out, but it also constrains the message that gets in.

During this crisis, the governor has also shut herself off from the feedback loop that journalists provide.  They’re out there getting emails and receiving tweets from people responding to (often complaining about) their news coverage, and yet, Raimondo, for all her daily time in the spotlight, has refused the unpredictable spectacle of a live press conference in which all of these reporters can percolate ideas.

And even more, our General Assembly has been hiding under its political bed.  Of all the branches of government, it is the legislature that is meant to be most attuned to the desires of the public.  In Rhode Island, legislators are up for reelection every two years, and they (theoretically) represent diverse interests across the state.  That is why they are supposed to provide the incubator for our laws.  In their debates about bills (imagine for a moment that they actually debated bills in Rhode Island), they address the problem that cows aren’t spherical.  In order to gain consensus, they have to address what they’re hearing from the diverse public.

As Glenn Reynolds noted last week, “the lockdowns are going to come to an end” not because of “camo-clad protesters on capitol steps so much as ordinary people just deciding to go out.”  He also hypothesizes that the word, “quarantine,” comes from the Italian for “40 days” because that’s “about the longest most people can stand staying cooped up.”

At the moment, many people are grateful that the coronavirus hasn’t had the predicted death toll, and they credit the government’s economic shutdown.  In the months and years to come, the consequences of that approach will become painfully clear, and the public will likely reassess the decision.

Had we not replaced politics with executive orders, we would probably have moderated our response, and we would all feel some degree of ownership in the solution, because we all would have felt represented.  That is a massive failure of our government, and I fear it will have disastrous consequences.