Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it.
The American Wager
Americans must recover their commitment to personal responsibility.
The coronavirus crisis presents a twofold challenge. On the one hand, we are tempted to cry out “do whatever it takes—just get things back to normal!” But we now know “normal” is hopelessly corrupt. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the incapacity of our institutions, the consequences of our profit-maximizing economic model, and the moral bankruptcy of dominant elements within our contemporary culture.
On the other hand, we are also tempted to solve this crisis no matter how far afield from normal it takes us. We flirt with a willingness to accept the unthinkable, not simply as an expedient but as a permanent, and readily abused, new normal. The legal authority and changes introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic could produce results that deteriorate our democracy.
So not only must we grapple with the practical reality of saving lives and minimizing economic damage, but ensure that our response is measured and correct. Restraint, wisdom, moral responsibility—these virtues are not guarantees of an easy road to a happy ending. But virtue never is.
It comes down to a simple question: do Americans wish to be trusted with freedom, along with the responsibility it entails, or do they want to be freed from responsibility itself?
“A Small Price to Pay for 2.3% GDP Growth in the 3rd Quarter”
The Imperial College’s report on the coronavirus, which is responsible for the U.S. government performing a 180 from its previous passivity and inaction, makes for sober reading. Their response team input infection and death rates from China, South Korea, and Italy into their epidemic modeling software and ran various simulations. What would happen if the U.S. government did nothing in response (up to 2.2 million dead), if it ran a mitigation strategy (1.1 million dead), and if it ran a full-blown suppression strategy (a peak of few thousand dead).
The differences in these results are like night and day. The suppression option, with its closures and mass social distancing, is clearly the preferred policy choice if we want to save lives. However, the report noted an important caveat:
The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package–or something equivalently effective at reducing transmission–will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more)–given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.
Americans will not accept, and America cannot handle, intensive national lockdown measures for up to the 18 months it will take to develop a vaccine. If parents going mad over actually having to be personally responsible for their children (heaven forbid!) doesn’t do it, then the needs of the economy will.
For this reason, many Americans are gravitating toward the hope that, once the current outbreak of the coronavirus is brought under control via a relatively brief suppression strategy , we can begin a gradual resumption of normal economic activity accompanied by a careful, informed, and well-financed watch for any indication of a resurgence.Yet preventing a second coronavirus outbreak necessitates that a state possess strong surveillance capabilities to contain any new infections. And even if a second outbreak weren’t to occur, measures taken in this crisis will become precedent. That is where the worries truly begin.
Temptations of Power
China demonstrates what can be done with the most draconian of measures: cordons sanitaires around entire cities with millions of inhabitants, an aggressive and systemic quarantine regime where mild and even suspected cases were forced into quarantine centers, and strict surveillance.
Other Asian nations have pursued similar measures, though they are less intrusive. South Korea—highly praised in the press for being a democracy that can handle the coronavirus, despite having been a military dictatorship a mere few decades ago—has the advantage of drawing on its 2015 experience with Middle East respiratory syndrome.
Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, notes that South Korea’s impressive testing capacity and handling of the situation is the result of “years of investment in complex health care infrastructure, including lab hardware and technicians to analyze samples, logistics for moving goods and providing services and information technology to keep supplies and data moving.”
Additionally, legislation enacted since 2015 grants the government the authority necessary to gather cell phone, credit card, and other data from infected individuals, strip the data of personal identifiers, and then deploy it to the public’s benefit. Emergency text messages inform citizens of nearby cases of coronavirus, down to which local businesses infected individuals have visited and during what hours. Individuals that tested positive are required to install a GPS-tracking app so that the government can keep an eye on them and leap into action if quarantine is broken.
These approaches have produced enviable results, but also demonstrate that they require well-functioning, well-financed, and well-coordinated institutions—something the United States clearly lacks at the moment. Not to mention that there is no law or precedent that states U.S. citizens can be tested and treated at the government’s expense.
Furthermore, most of the highly specific approaches employed by China, South Korea, and other countries cannot readily be undertaken in the United States due to differences regarding civil liberties and views on government, all rooted in our Constitution. The forced closure of a church or other house of worship in the name of minimizing contagion could be seen as a violation of the First Amendment. Warrantless data collection, even if for the very real necessity of contact tracing, is arguably an attack on the Fourth Amendment. A blanket federal response that circumvents local state authority over public health and policing might impinge on the Tenth Amendment.
And yet, for the sake of maintaining public order, we are turning to such measures, worrying precedents and constitutionality be damned. The Department of Justice is seeking the ability to detain individuals indefinitely without a trial during times of emergency such as a national epidemic. New York mayor Bill de Blasio, openly showcasing either his ignorance or contempt for the Constitution, has threatened to close houses of worship permanently.
Officials are turning to tech giants and startups to employ tracking and surveillance networks to help with contact tracing and quarantining. The White House was considering a three-state quarantine until the relevant governors strongly pushed back, with one of them saying it was tantamount to a “federal declaration of war.”
We shouldn’t be surprised then if, in the near future, the Department of Justice and/or the CDC is granted the legal authority to shut down religious gathering or to warrantlessly extract geolocation data in a time of crisis. Who would argue back in a situation such as this one?
Yet as history has demonstrated time and time again, governments cannot be fully trusted with such power. One need look no further than the past two decades. The calamity of 9/11 and the response to it, including the passage of the Patriot Act, opened to the door to a torrent of government abuses—warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, torture, and more. It is quite reasonable to worry and suspect that any changes introduced in response to the current crisis result in similar abuses that harm our political system.
The possible proliferation of high-tech surveillance systems is particularly concerning. These could encourage what social critics like Evgeny Morozov call “technological solutionism”—the notion that “we should recast our problems, from political gridlock to weight loss, as things to be solved primarily through technological efficiency.”
Instead of addressing the obvious challenge—that resolving the coronavirus crisis means figuring out how to get the public to act in the collective interest of the nation—a technological solutionist mentality would rather side-step the issue by putting in place technical systems that allow for “societal management” (a positively delightful addition to the dictionary of technocratic language, alongside such winners as “human resources” and “motivationally challenged”).
From such a perspective, no one is given a chance to display any sense of personal or moral responsibility in the face of a crisis because it is believed that the public cannot be trusted with such responsibility.
And that, sadly, is the very crux of the issue.
Freedom from Responsibility
The founders were absolutely clear that the legal and political rigging of the American regime could not support—or be supported by—a people that had lost its virtue and restraint. Theirs was a classical, traditional view of man’s moral character: inherently imperfect and prone to error, man was open to the temptation of indulging his passions and appetites and of abusing authority. This is why a sustained practical education in “self-government,” our capacity to restrain and order ourselves, was critical.
This sort of personal character, crucial to community life, is what separates us from the animals. In Federalist #39, James Madison speaks of “that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government.” John Adams, our second president, declared in 1798 that “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and religion…. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
This particular form of personal character is described by Catholic University’s Claes G. Ryn as “the constitutional personality.” In his words:
The Framers assumed that for the Constitution to work its institutions had to be manned by individuals who embodied its spirit of restraint. That spirit stemmed from America’s unwritten constitution, that is, from the religious, moral, cultural, and social life that had inclined Americans to constitutionalism. To be capable of sustaining the constitutional order those working under its provisions had to be predisposed to virtues like moderation, respect for law, and readiness to compromise.
The crisis in the United States today is that the constitutional personality is almost entirely absent. This is the great peril that the founders foresaw: that we, the American people, would be incapable of handling our great latitude of freedom over the course of centuries. That without the necessary discipline, self-restraint, and moral virtue, our institutions would not survive.
Americans have by and large become creatures of appetite, as evident in the ongoing crisis. Instead of self-implementing social distancing to combat the coronavirus, many opted to go bar-hopping, enjoy the beach, or attend parades. A woman purposely coughed on $35,000 worth of produce at a store. The media utterly botched its coverage of the pandemic, opting instead to focus on partisan agendas. Businesses, having spent years focused on delivering profits, were unprepared for the storm, resulting in mass layoffs and the need for bailouts.
Our political leaders are no better. Some mayors and governors insisted on proceeding with “business as usual” until reality forced their hand. Two senators who received special briefings on the possible social and economic impact of coronavirus dumped their stock portfolios rather than alert the public. Congressional leadership worked to block a recorded vote on the greatest stimulus bill in the nation’s history to insulate members from accountability. And, of course, the president unfortunately exhibits almost no restraint as a general principle—just consider how many of his staffers have tried to control his Twitter habits.
Whether it is the authorities or members of the public, the examples go on and on and on. Is it truly any surprise that our institutions are breaking down given an utter lack of self-restraint and moral responsibility, even in the face of a crisis unprecedented in living memory? Are we not right to worry that this trajectory will only lead us down a slow, grisly, and inevitable slide into collapse and dissolution?
Yet nature abhors a vacuum, and will rush in to fill the void. If we are not to be ruled by Men of Virtue, then Men of Iron, witnessing the unrestrained anarchy that is unfolding, will step forward. They will declare that people cannot govern themselves, having willfully abdicated all moral responsibility. “If they will not bear this cup, then we will,” they will say, eventually ascending to power. They will impose order by the sword if that is what it takes.
But resorting to violence may hardly be necessary. Men such as these would rather pursue more subtle methods, seeking ways to structurally change society into the right and proper form. They would bring technology—and with it, technological solutionism—to bear in their quest for societal management, finding new ways to implement “nudging” and “situational crime prevention.” And as a consequence of such ruthless logic, we would even be stripped, in the name of the common good, of the very opportunity to take moral responsibility for our own actions.
Consider, for instance, subway turnstiles in New York City. We are all familiar with these. You are supposed to buy a card to ride the subway. You could, as many do, opt to engage in fare evasion by jumping over the turnstile and riding the subway regardless. If caught, you must pay a fine.
There is a clear moral choice here: pay for your card, as is your responsibility, or ride for free by disregarding your civic duty. It is a choice that people must make multiple times every single day. But suppose for a moment that all existing subway turnstiles were replaced with full-body turnstiles. These are practically impossible to cheat; you must pay for and validate your ticket in order to ride the subway. The opportunity for one to make a moral choice has been stripped away.
To quote two key theorists behind such situational crime prevention concepts, “it is ethically more defensible to arrange society so that people are not readily tempted into crime, than to allow temptations to abound and then to visit punishment on those who fall.”
This is the sort of frightful technological solutionism worldview that could emerge from the current situation. If people cannot behave responsibly during a pandemic, then they can be made to through well-designed systems and just enough use of force. China’s handling of coronavirus demonstrates this, as evidenced by their use of Alipay Health Code—a purportedly third-party smartphone application which “dictates whether [users] should be quarantined or allowed into subways, malls and other public spaces.” Alipay is nonetheless mandatory for citizens to install, shares information with public authorities, and is used to control who can go where in a quarantined city.
This resulting society is one which, to quote David Garland, “flies in the face of traditionalist ideas that see order emerging out of moral discipline and obedience to authority.” It seeks to “automate human virtue,” explains philosopher Ian Kerr, which is “programming people to ‘do the right thing’ by constraining and in some cases altogether eliminating moral behavior through technology rather than ethics or law.”
This is a dystopian and totalitarian experiment by any sane measure. It is, in the most literal sense, de-humanizing: what matters in such a society is not human beings, but rather the perpetuation of “society” itself. One can vaguely hear the ghost of Ted Kaczynski whispering from beyond the grave, reading off of his gloomy manifesto on industrial society:
The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity. Of course the system does satisfy many human needs, but generally speaking it does this only to the extent that it is to the advantage of the system to do it. It is the needs of the system that are paramount, not those of the human being. For example, the system provides people with food because the system couldn’t function if everyone starved; it attends to people’s psychological needs whenever it can conveniently do so, because it couldn’t function if too many people became depressed or rebellious. But the system, for good, solid, practical reasons, must exert constant pressure on people to mold their behavior to the needs of the system.
The creation of such a world must be opposed by the true friend of liberty, the moral person, and the religious conservative.
Wake from Death and Return to Life
We return to our initial challenge: saving lives and minimizing economic damage during the coronavirus pandemic while ensuring that our response is measured and appropriate—i.e., without falling to the temptation of surrendering our freedoms and responsibilities, especially to technological systems.
So then, what should we do? For many of us, the answer is to think nationally and act locally.
Whenever possible, we should pursue local solutions and approaches to the current crisis. Americans still possess something of that much admired “can-do” spirit and communal mentality that encourages self-reliance rather than reliance on a distant central authority, as seen by the rapid emergence of mutual aid groups, distilleries producing hand sanitizer, 3D printing enthusiasts using their machines to supply hospitals with protective gear, and more.
State authorities have a role to play too. The Buckeye Institute, a think tank in Ohio, has produced a policy brief listing some ideas that the state can embrace without having to resort to federal authorities. These include universal recognition of out-of-state medical licenses, authorizing pharmacists to treat certain illnesses (thereby reducing the load on doctors), utilizing local medical and nursing students, and so on. The Pelican Institute in Louisiana has similarly put out some ideas, including noting that the state “is in the unique position of having laws on the books that allow for the leasing of airspace to drone companies.” Perhaps now is the opportune time to test whether drone delivery can work at scale?
Contact-tracing and other measures can also be done at a local and even individual level. The Singaporean government made the source code for its contact-tracing application, TraceTogether, open. It can now be shared, redistributed, and modified at will. The application, used by the government, notably does not ask users for any personal information apart from their phone number.
The Zcash Foundation (the organization that maintains the privacy-oriented cryptocurrency Zcash) is working to develop decentralized, privacy-preserving contact-tracing that doesn’t rely on a (semi)trusted third party like the Singaporean Ministry of Health. A number of doctors, epidemiologists, and technologists have even signed an open letter calling on Apple, Google, and other mobile operating system vendors to create such an application.
Secondly, since federal involvement is nonetheless absolutely necessary in a crisis such as this, we must ensure that new laws and measures put into place produce an optimal balance between the need to protect the public interest with the legal, civic, and constitutional rights of both states and individuals. These must include legal obligations upon the government to inform the public about what systems are in place, what procedures are being followed, and so forth.
Thirdly and most importantly, we must endeavor to reimbue the American people with the constitutional personality that is so absolutely essential to the well-being of our republic. This is the most difficult task of all, as it affects all aspects of our lives and steps into the rancorous culture wars of the present day.
Teaching traditional Western philosophical thought in schools? Challenging the notion that social evils are the result of pre-existing social norms and institutions?? Emphasizing the centrality of moral action??? You can practically hear the progressive cultural elite screeching in the distance. Their power rests upon perpetuating the diametrically opposite point of view. Restoring the constitutional personality thus means reasserting control over the moral-philosophical education of Americans, especially those of a younger age.
The long-term survival of the republic cannot depend on traditional cultural and moral norms being taught as an elective for the already philosophically inclined, especially if they’re only taught by a few professors working out of a just-barely funded “center” or such on a university campus.
In the meantime, there are some more practical, prudent, and immediate things that can be done. Federal and state governments can run public awareness and education campaigns that encourage, but do not enforce, good behavior.
Japan, for example, has not seen an explosion in coronavirus cases and doesn’t feel the need to follow the WHO’s recommendation to deploy an over-expansive testing regime. In the words of a Japanese Health Ministry official, “We don’t see a need to use all of our testing capacity, just because we have it.” Why the divergence? How has Japan—a nation with some of the most densely-packed cities in the world, a population with weak immune systems, and an enormous proportion of elderly citizens—managed to control its outbreak?
Cultural and hygienic norms play a large role. Daily bathing and frequent hand washing derive from the Shinto custom of self-purification to avoid kegare (uncleanness or defilement, whether it be physical or spiritual). Surgical mask-wearing was already ubiquitous due to a social propensity to avoid spreading disease. Students are responsible for cleaning their own schools, which teaches them general maintenance of a shared space, how to use cleaning products, collective and personal responsibility, and so on.
This focus on cleanliness extends into adult life—businesses sweep the sidewalks in front of their buildings every day in the morning, neighborhoods and residential areas organize regularly scheduled clean-ups to cut the grass, pull weeds, clear drains, and more. Manners are reinforced by both government and businesses via posters and public service announcements.
A strong sense of communalism also helps. Part of this is historical, but it is also a matter of official and unofficial policy. Governments and businesses in principle agree upon maintaining social cohesion through full employment (jobs eliminated in the name of efficiency in the West still exist in Japan), protection of domestic industries and products, modest executive pay, and so on. An appreciable sense of social equality is helpful when grappling with a “we’re all in this together” social challenge. It is certainly more productive than the behavior of American and European elites in the current mess.
American authorities, along with businesses, schools, media organizations, and others, can take a page from Japan on this. If we can institutionalize cleanliness and the notion that public spaces are truly a shared environment—and that it is incumbent upon the individual to be responsible for these things—that is a good start for the restoration of self-governance in Americans’ character. In this effort, conservatives can find common cause with environmentally-focused progressives. It will be necessary, for what is at stake is nothing more than the stability of our shared country.
The Founding Fathers went all-in with their wager. With the Declaration, they risked their very lives. With the Constitution, they staked their legacy.
Now it is our turn to take the same wager.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.