America's narrow idea of freedom is literally killing us
Which country is more free during the pandemic: the United States or Vietnam?
Here's a question for all red-blooded liberty-loving American patriots: Who has a greater lived experience of freedom at the moment, citizens of Vietnam or the United States? Vietnam, of course, is a one-party Communist state, with fairly strict limitations on freedom of speech, the press, and so on, while the U.S. has (at least for now) a somewhat democratic constitution and (at least formally) some protections for civil liberties.
But in Vietnam, there is no raging coronavirus pandemic. Thanks to swift action from the government, that nation squelched its initial outbreak, and has so far successfully contained all subsequent infection clusters before they got out of hand. Its figures at time of writing (which have been confirmed as reliable by outside sources) show a mere 1,283 cases and 35 deaths, and no community transmission for the last 75 days. Life for Vietnamese people has returned to normal, with a few sensible precautions. If their success holds for a few more months until a vaccine can be deployed, Vietnam will have dodged the pandemic nearly perfectly.
Given Vietnam's high population and very high density — it has over 96 million people crammed into an area about the size of New Mexico — numerous long borders, including one with the country where the pandemic started, and relatively impoverished economy, it has turned in arguably the most impressive performance of any country in the world. Most of the other star performers, like Taiwan or New Zealand, are rich islands and hence much easier to isolate from the world (though nearby Thailand has done nearly as well).
Meanwhile in the self-appointed "land of the free," on Sunday the seven-day average of daily COVID-19 deaths was 1,148. The same seven-day average of new cases has increased from about 82,000 on November 1 to over 150,000 on Sunday — numbers that are certainly a large underestimate, because, with very high test positivity rates across much of the country, many cases are being missed. Total recorded deaths in the U.S. are over 250,000, which again is a large under-count. There are many more future deaths already baked in, and infections are mounting exponentially in almost every state. Unless something changes, and fast, the coronavirus pandemic will surpass the Second World War to become the greatest American mass casualty event since the influenza pandemic of 1918.
The bleak irony of American life is our boastful and hyperbolic national conception of liberty has left us as one of the most unfree peoples on the globe. There can be no freedom without government, a lesson currently being inscribed in blood, and stacked up in the mobile morgues that are overflowing with corpses in more cities around the country every day.
As an American, the months since March have felt like living in Airstrip One, the miserable police state formerly known as Britain in George Orwell's 1984. In that time I have seldom left my house for fear of catching the virus, or worse, spreading it to someone who is at risk and killing (or permanently disabling) them. I have not seen my family since October 2019 for the same reason. In a best-case scenario, I will not see them until the middle of next year — something like 2 percent of my entire lifespan, optimistically speaking. It looks like even the occasional outdoor dining I savored as a small bright spot over the summer will be shut down soon, with cases spiking badly in my home city of Philadelphia.
All the political freedoms I supposedly enjoy as an American citizen are useless in the face of this unending tsunami of death and misery. The plain fact is that the average resident of Vietnam — under a repressive dictatorship, let me emphasize — has more freedoms in the places where, for most people, it really counts: the freedom to leave the house, the freedom to see and touch one's family and friends, the freedom to go to a restaurant or a bar or a movie or a concert, and simply the freedom from constant grasping fear of invisible death.
Let me be clear: The point of the comparison here is not to say that authoritarian rule is necessary for containing the virus. On the contrary, part of the reason the virus escaped in the first place was because authoritarian officials in China tried to hide it at first (though they later turned things around, as I will discuss below). And as noted above, Taiwan and New Zealand are democracies and have also done very well. South Korea, Australia, and Japan have struggled somewhat more than Vietnam, but thus far have also kept the virus largely in check. A few European democracies like Finland and Norway have done fairly well, and while most others on that continent are suffering a catastrophic second wave (worse than I predicted, alas), they have recently adopted a second lockdown which is beginning to slow the spread. The point is that the United States is getting rinsed in providing liberty to its citizens — supposedly the entire point of its existence, according to its founding documents — by a bunch of dictatorial Communists.
The United States, once again, stands virtually alone among nations with its obdurate refusal to do anything about the galloping pandemic at the national level. Now, part of that is President Trump's singular incompetence. Since surviving the virus — thanks to cutting-edge experimental treatment only he could get at the time — he has progressed from not doing anything about the virus to effectively trying to spread it personally. He held dozens of huge campaign rallies, even after one in June infected hundreds of people. An election night watch party recently became the second super-spreader event hosted at the White House.
Even halting, timid efforts to stop hospitals from being utterly overwhelmed at the state and local level are running into stiff resistance from reactionary lunatics. Almost every single Republican governor has preemptively refused to follow President-elect Biden's guidance on imposing mask rules, even as their own operatives and elderly representatives fall sick from the virus. New York Governor Cuomo's weeks-late and unenforceable order banning gatherings larger than 10 people inspired a Republican New York City councilman to gleefully announce on Twitter that his Thanksgiving celebrations would have more people than that. The order is an "odious infringement on personal liberty," moaned the libertarian writer Robby Soave at Reason.
In South Dakota, where the hospitals are already full to bursting with new cases still accelerating, the blithely apathetic Governor Kristi Noem insists that masks are a matter of personal choice. Newly elected QAnon nutcase Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-Ga.) boasted of refusing to wear a mask during congressional orientation.
In short, while it is a minority movement, the most fervent, dedicated, and effective political mobilization in this country is organized around stopping the government from saving the lives of its citizens.
As I have previously written, the signature American view of liberty emerges from a cramped and extreme version of 19th-century liberal theory. American conservatives and libertarians often assert that one has liberty when the government is not "interfering" with whatever one feels like doing, regardless of circumstance.
Of course, even on these terms, the rabidly pro-pandemic stances detailed above don't work. Even the most dogmatic libertarians generally admit in other contexts that the government must have rules against behavior that harms other people, such as killing them. A Maine wedding back in August, for instance, flouted pandemic control rules and ended up infecting at least 177 people, seven of them fatally. None of the seven had attended the wedding.
But there is a deeper problem. The entire structure of the economy, and especially who owns what, is the product of state laws and actions. The government is constantly taking actions to defend property rights, adjudicate property disputes, and so on. That means at a deep level there is no such thing as government non-interference, only choices about which kinds of interference are best.
The distribution of property in turn is not the product of some eternal history of fair trade and exchange — as philosopher G.A. Cohen points out, the very idea of private property rights cannot help but be a violent destruction of liberty. Once there was land nobody owned, and then someone decided with no justification aside from brute force that it was theirs forever. As a historical matter this is exactly what happened in the United States. The country exists because European settlers stole an entire continent from its previous inhabitants. This is the "original appropriation" problem, and it blows apart the dominant American understanding of liberty. Even the most brilliant libertarian thinker by far, Robert Nozick, could not solve it. His book Anarchy, State, and Utopia had to include a proviso that it was okay to establish property rights if it made people better off — a wholesale surrender to paternalistic utilitarianism. If you can impose property to make people as a whole better off, then you can confiscate it for the same reason.
In other words, this view of liberty seen above, focused above all on preventing the government from imposing rules on the citizenry — whether it is taxing the rich, forcing people to wear masks, or preventing mass congregation indoors — cannot get off the ground. It is a philosophical non-starter.
Thus the primary rhetorical strategy of American neoliberalism, the libertarian-inflected school of thought that sees government involvement in the economy as an unnatural imposition to be avoided at all costs and which has had a hammerlock on both parties since the 1980s, is to simply evade the problem of property. Because it would have unsavory implications for capitalists, who want to protect their socially-constructed wealth from taxation or nationalization, neoliberals built a political fence around property and the economy by pretending they are natural and non-political.
That is a big part of why modern American politicians are so reluctant to govern — an entire generation of both voters and elites have internalized the idea that the government should directly control things only as a last resort, and that the main task of politics is massaging and coaxing the market to slightly adjust social outcomes here and there. As David Bentley Hart writes at Commonweal, "what [Americans] have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions." It is not a coincidence that legal scholar Richard Epstein, whose crack-brained prediction back in March that lockdowns were unnecessary because the virus would cause a mere 500 deaths helped inspire the Trump administration's early non-response, is a famous libertarian. As the man himself wrote in April, "the response of the state governors to the coronavirus outbreak has become far more dangerous than the disease itself."
In reality, as Vietnam demonstrates, the only way to have freedom during a pandemic is with a competent, aggressive state that does intrusive, coercive things on a hair trigger, the very instant they become necessary. There must be widespread testing, fever checks, and so on to monitor for the virus. Anyone who tests positive needs to be instantly thrown in isolated treatment facilities. People's movements must be tracked, and anyone a positive case has come in contact with recently must be thrown in quarantine for a time. All the while the state must build trust that its policies are necessary and working. And as Simon Wren-Lewis writes, "if you start seeing a rapid rise in cases, and your [test-trace-isolate] system is beginning to fail, you need to lock down rapidly and hard."
China — a country as large in area as the U.S., with about four times the population — demonstrates this last point clearly. Vietnam's response was so good that it has not so far had any serious outbreaks, while China had several. Yet each time the Chinese government quickly identified the problem, and smashed the spread of the virus with a severely strict lockdown — people have been forcibly locked in their homes for weeks (though with food and supplies delivered to them), followed by gargantuan mass testing of entire provinces.
Another irony here is that China's lockdowns, while far more directly coercive than anything the American government has done at any level, are in practice not all that different from what many Americans have been imposing on themselves since March. Indeed, because the Chinese government was making sure (nearly) everyone was fed and housed, in many ways its lockdowns were less unpleasant than America's, which have ended up with people being thrown on the street by the millions. Much more importantly, because China's lockdowns were so strict, and its test-trace-isolate system so efficient, they were over in a matter of weeks. Imagine if you could just tolerate 4-6 weeks of being locked indoors, and the virus would be virtually gone. Imagine if we had made that choice back in April. Imagine if we could get the last seven months back, and the roughly 200,000 Americans who have since died.
By contrast, if the state dawdles or gets gun-shy about keeping the virus down, disaster can strike in a matter of days. It appears this was the problem in many Western European states, which have poisoned themselves with neoliberalism only somewhat less badly than the U.S. has done. They never quite eradicated the virus entirely, and facing a restive citizenry, political leaders dragged their feet about re-introducing new containment measures like closing bars and restaurants. They had to be forced into it by another massive surge of infection, and once again many Europeans are stuck inside. (To be fair, better late than never, which appears to be what is on the agenda in the U.S.)
Thomas Hobbes noted 369 years ago that if a political sovereign is constrained by absolutist property rights, "he cannot perform the office [the people] have put him into, which is to defend them both from foreign enemies and from the injuries of one another; and consequently there is no longer a Commonwealth." In other words, libertarianism can be a fatal political virus — a prediction borne out by the crumbling American republic, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have died this year thanks to being inadvertently injured by their fellow citizens. To reverse the damage, Americans will have to remember how to demand our government do the things only it can do, so we can find real freedom at last.