The United States is about to undertake a remarkably risky epidemiological experiment on itself.
With at least 72,000 Americans dead of COVID-19 over the past seven weeks and no sign of overall decline in rates of infection, the White House and numerous state governments have decided it's time to begin lifting stay-at-home orders that were imposed to slow the spread of the disease.
There are several reasons why the country has decided to risk precipitating a sharp increase in the number of infections and fatalities. For one thing, there's genuine fear among elected officials that damage to the economy from the lockdowns is too great for them to be allowed to continue any longer. (This is usually combined with an unproven and most likely dubious assumption that people will return to normal patterns of behavior and spending as soon as legal restrictions on economic activity are lifted.)
Then there's the restive faction of the Republican Party that uses its media perches and headline-grabbing protests at state houses and city halls to express displeasure with stay-at-home orders. And well-publicized anecdotes of people becoming less willing in warm spring weather to continue sheltering-in-place (despite numerous polls showing strong broad-based support at both the national and local level for maintaining such restrictions).
But underlying all of these sources of opposition to public-health measures is a deeper cause that intertwines with and underlies all of them, at least in part — and that is the old-fashioned, pig-headed individualism of the American people. We hear it every day from politicians, protesters, and media personalities — and on Tuesday it was also expressed by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley. Judge Bradley and her colleagues were presiding over a lawsuit filed in protest of the Wisconsin governor's stay-at-home order when she volunteered that she considered it "the very definition of tyranny."
Americans like to see their "don't tread on me" ethic as one of the country's most admirable traits. And maybe in some contexts and historical moments it is. But during a pandemic it is idiocy to cry tyranny at efforts to mitigate the spread of the pathogen. In such circumstances, our incorrigible individualism can become lethal — a suicide pact that threatens individuals as well as the political community as a whole. That makes it a public menace.
We hear versions of the argument for individualism so often that it's hard to think about it critically. In the context of the coronavirus, it goes like this: "Don't force me to shelter-in-place against my will. I can take care of myself. If I want to work, shop, or go party with my friends, that's my call. I'll accept the risk. And anyway, the only people facing a significantly elevated likelihood of death from the illness are the elderly. So worry about them and get your niggling, do-gooder, nanny-state nonsense out of my face. You're not the boss of me. Let me live my life and make my own choices about what risks I'm willing to accept."
Even if we assume this imagined individualist is actually informed about how bad COVID-19 really is and hasn't been hoodwinked by nonsense about how it's "just like the flu," the argument is wildly irresponsible — as we can see as soon as we reflect on cases in which it is comparatively persuasive.
Take the example of drugs. Who is harmed if you decide to spend your days shooting up heroin or smoking meth? If this activity prevents you from taking care of a child or other dependent, then it could be quite harmful. But if you're responsible only for yourself, habitually doing drugs may harm no one and at most will harm only you — which means that the argument from individualism may be justifiable in such a case.
But now imagine that you combine this drug-taking lifestyle with a public activity like driving. Now the actions of the heroin or meth addict has the potential to cause great harm to others — namely, the other drivers and pedestrians who could be injured or killed in an act of intoxicated driving. That leads the individualist argument to break down. Now one person's decision about how to live his life and how much risk to accept collides (perhaps literally) with the well-being of other people who have their own lives to protect and levels of risk to accept for themselves.
And of course allowing people to go about their lives freely during a pandemic when there is as yet no vaccine or even an especially effective treatment regimen is potentially far more of a danger to the public good than allowing a drug addict to drive under the influence. If you live your life without regard for social-distancing, and especially if you don't wear a mask when you do so, you aren't just taking a bold and potentially foolish stand against supposedly tyrannical government restrictions. You're also threatening to spread a deadly virus far and wide among your fellow citizens. That's especially so with COVID-19, which is highly contagious and asymptomatic for many.
So, you need to imagine a drunk driver who could harm not just one or a few people but dozens, each of whom could then unknowingly spread the contagion still further. Now multiply that possibility by all the millions of people who, thanks to their stubborn individualism, may soon become the epidemiological equivalent of drunk drivers and you can begin to grasp the magnitude of what we may soon confront.
It may be inapt and somewhat tendentious to compare the struggle against COVID-19 to a war, but there is at least one respect in which the comparison holds. A war and a pandemic both threaten the political community. Not just the good of atomistic individuals within the community but the good of the nation as a whole is at stake. That requires a national response, one that calls out for and requires restrictions on personal freedom for the sake of the entire polity. How long those restrictions need to remain in place isn't a function of how annoying, frustrating, or even economically painful they are for individuals. It's a function of the need to contain the deadly virus — just as the duration of the hardships of war is determined by the shape of the battle and the imperative of victory. In both cases, neglecting to do what is necessary to prevail deserves to be judged a gravely serious failure of responsibility.
Countries in which citizens are inculcated with a sense of the common good will respond responsibly to coronavirus threat — by, for example, setting up, paying for, implementing, and accepting the hassles involved in a rigorous testing and tracing program. That's the one thing that could have allowed us to begin easing lockdowns without risking a serious spike in new infections and deaths.
But that's not the American, individualistic way. We value personal freedom too highly — and for that we are likely to pay a very steep price over the weeks and months to come.
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