This is a website for stories. I make a concerted effort to keep it a writing website, and I work very hard to refrain from using it as a platform to talk about things that don’t relate to writing, whether those topics are controversial or not. I avoid talking about current events, politics, or even my own “real” job, because I don’t think that it’s appropriate to use this platform for something other than what I built it to do: share stories. I don’t write stories to have deep messages, hidden meanings, or social commentaries, although some people have taken such meanings from my tales. I write to entertain, to tell stories that I would myself enjoy reading, so I assume that is mainly why readers come here, too. In fact, I think the closest I’ve come to using the site for other purposes is this post I wrote about statistics.
However, as I alluded to in that selfsame post, one of my personal pet-peeves is disinformation. I don’t think there are right answers to be had, but there are definitely wrong answers, and sometimes we can come up with less wrong answers. It’s probably all part of my futile efforts to try to make the world obey logic, but when I come across mal-informed decisions, I feel somewhat compelled to at least provide what information I possess. What people believe and decide is their business, but it seems only fair that they at least be informed in that process.
In this case, the instigation for this off-topic post is the underwhelming mini-apocalypse that seems to be the only thing to see in the news these days: coronavirus. I have until now deliberately kept references to the virus from the site, and I haven’t even posted a suggestion to read more while you’re stuck in isolation (although, come to it, you really should – Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica and invented calculus while he was in quarantine from the bubonic plague, so maybe someone will solve the mathematics of String Theory while we’re all locked down for COVID-19). As the situation has progressed, I have become increasingly concerned by the seeming lack of understanding of the disease’s epidemiology, and by the increasingly draconian measures being taken to counter its spread.
What follows, therefore, is something of an essay on the disease, its implications, its effects, and what I see as the dangers of reacting in the wrong ways to its continuing spread. As I said in the statistics post, if this isn’t something that interests you, you are under no obligation to read it – you’re a free individual, after all, and quite capable of making your own decisions. Just go back to reading our stories. Or wait until the next post comes out on Thursday. For now, though, I ask that you please indulge me for this piece on science in defense of liberty.
According to Ayn Rand, civilization is the ascent to a state of privacy. That is, we create civilizations and governments and societies in order to insulate ourselves from the demands of the mob. In a barbarous state, the individual is in no way protected from the needs, whims, and desires of the many, and so governments are created to protect the individual from the many. This is the concept which underpins the social contract, by which governments are given power. Because governments can use their power to subjugate the individual as easily as to protect the individual, there is always an inherent danger to governments.
A government’s power tends to increase as the protections for the individual decrease, but the effectiveness of the government also tends to increase, which is wherein the eternal conflict resides. Which side is predominant – the government effectiveness or the individual freedom – varies with the circumstances. If the environment is benign, the pendulum will swing in favor of greater individual freedoms, as there is less of a need for government in order to protect them in the first place. When the environment becomes more fraught, that pendulum will tend to swing the other way, and individual freedoms will be lost in favor of greater governmental effectiveness. This is why crises almost always see an increase in government power at the expense of individual liberties.
The American Constitution is an explicit social contract that more capably than any other protects the rights of the smallest minority, the individual, from subjugation by the government, and thus exemplifies the shifts heretofore described. In times of crisis, the government has tended to assume greater power, as individual liberties have been curtailed. The Alien and Sedition Acts of the post-Revolutionary era, rationing and economic controls during the second World War, increased surveillance and restrictions after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, all implemented in the name of security and safety. It is also worth noting that in all of these cases, although there was some dissent, the majority desired such changes.
On the surface, these kinds of changes are not dangerous, and perhaps even appear necessary for the government to fulfill its role of protecting the individual. After all, it is in times of crisis that the government must take greater actions to protect its citizens. The danger lurks in the pernicious nature of many of these actions. Long after the crisis that spawned the changes is over, the expanded role of the government, and the reduction in individual freedoms, remains. Economic changes made to address the Great Depression, and then World War II, remain today. Regardless of the potential benefits of such an expanded role for the government, ultimately greater power to the government leads to a reduction in freedoms of the individual.
Presently, the virus referred to as COVID-19 has taken on the characteristics of a crisis, defined now as a global pandemic, with millions infected and thousands dead across the world. The new virus, which originated in China, does not seem to be especially deadly (although the statistics are unclear so far, because testing is so erratic and the numbers are being skewed by multiple, conflicting factors), but it is quite virulent, and very adaptable. Its most dangerous traits are its survivability (studies have found it can survive on surfaces for anywhere from three to seventeen days), its mild symptoms (or even lack thereof, in many, which leads to its rapid and prolific spread amongst populations, including more vulnerable members), and its mutability (the virus has been mutating so quickly that even people who have had the virus before are not necessarily immune from having it again). By themselves, none of these traits would be particularly dangerous to our modern health systems, but together they have the potential to put significant strain on those systems.
The concern, initially, was that unchecked spread of the virus would lead to hospitals and healthcare centers being overwhelmed by cases, without the resources to handle them. To address this problem, governments at different levels began implementing “social distancing” measures: efforts to slow the virus’s spread through the population. The goal, as it was being stated, was to “flatten the curve,” to spread out the time in which cases were occurring so that a single, large peak didn’t leave patients without beds in hospitals. Although the science behind social distancing is somewhat sketchy (studies have found very contradictory information about its effectiveness at limiting viral spread – some have suggested that being six feet apart, you can spend twenty minutes with someone before risking contraction, while others have found that even being twenty or more feet apart you perhaps have only a dozen minutes before infection is likely), the principle was sound, and while it is all but impossible to accurately analyze its efficacy, the worst-case, apocalyptic scenarios that were being predicted have not come to pass: hospitals have not run out of beds, and the health care system, while strained, has not been overwhelmed.
This sounds like a victory. It sounds like perhaps the worst of the crisis has passed, the apocalypse has been averted, and we can return to something approaching business as usual. There would need to be changes, of course, because the virus is still with us, but the extreme measures taken by governments given extreme power to address the predicted crisis can be devolved. Yet, in many places, that resumption has failed to materialize. Instead, the goal has changed, and you can never reach a goal if someone keeps changing what it is. Now, the goal has become, although this is not being expressed in words, that no one should die of this new virus, and various levels of government are using this new goal post as justification to continue their draconian measures and abuses of power.
I do not mean to downplay the human cost of the virus, or the seriousness with which it should be taken. Death is a tragedy, and we should never wish for more people to die. However, death is also a natural part of life, and it is hypocritical of us to launch a crusade against a specific cause of death. It is just as tragic that people die of heart disease, car accidents, or pneumonia, but we don’t daily report the statistics on those deaths and enact dictatorial measures in order to reduce them. Even if the current mortality rate of coronavirus continued to hold for twelve months, it still would be at most the third leading cause of death in the United States. These numbers are terrible in that each of them represent an individual who has been lost, and it is absolutely important that we continue to take reasonable precautions and apply ourselves to finding solutions, but it is irresponsible and hypocritical of us to focus such a quantity of resources, and demand such sacrifices from the entire population, in order to address this one cause of death.
The best people to decide what responsible solutions and reasonable precautions should be implemented are individuals. Individuals know themselves and their lives better than anyone else, and so they are in the best position to make decisions for themselves. Not governments, or so-called experts, or even scientists, and that’s coming from a scientist. Let people decide for themselves if they consider the costs of wearing a mask to be greater than the benefits. Let them decide for themselves if they feel comfortable interacting with others in social settings, or if they are comfortable frequenting different types of business. Trying to categorize certain businesses and services as essential is a biased and probably impossible exercise. Every business is essential to the people who work there, but where does someone arbitrarily draw an “essential” line? Businesses are in the best position to decide how to safely open, and customers are in the best position to decide if their measures are adequate.
In some situations, the government needs to take the lead in solving the problem and protecting the populace. Things that occur on the level of nation-states, like wars, need to be addressed on the level of nation-states. Illness doesn’t occur, however, at the level of nation-states. It occurs, fundamentally, at the individual level. Individuals are the ones who stand to get sick, and individuals are the ones who stand to stay healthy. It is the responsibility of individuals, therefore, to take the steps that they consider to be reasonable to protect themselves and to protect those with whom they interact. Individuals will police each other, too. Someone taking excessive risks will probably find that they’re doing so alone.
No matter how much information it has, no matter how skilled of leadership it possesses, government at any level will never be able to adequately account for the individual. But that’s not a bad thing. It is not the government’s responsibility to make sure that none of its people die of illness. It is not the government’s responsibility to tell people what precautions are reasonable and what is excessive. It is not the government’s responsibility to dictate to individuals where they can go and with whom they can interact. Those are decisions for individuals to make, individuals who are in the best position to make those decisions for themselves. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that individuals are free to make those decisions. The time has come for the government to step back into that role.
I hope that, whether or not you agree with this, you found it interesting. We’ll be back on Thursday with another book review, and our usual programming will resume next week.