I should point out up front that this isn’t my argument against curfews and related government mandates involving forced social distancing. It’s coming from Matt Welch at Reason. But by the time I finished reading it, I was once again experiencing this teeter-totter of emotions and reactions that’s become all too familiar lately. I know I can’t be the only one that’s been going through this, but I’d never yet taken the time to fully spell it out and see if any of our readers have been through something similar.
First, however, let’s give the floor briefly to Matt. Being a Big L Libertarian, he’s been observing the increasingly alarming restrictions being placed on persons and private businesses in response to the coronavirus and let’s just say he’s less than thrilled. Imposing curfews, as many cities have, or even shelter in place orders such as the one currently attempting to lock down the San Francisco Bay area, is a bridge too far for Matt. And since I’ve long had a fairly wide libertarian streak myself when it comes to small-government issues, I can definitely sympathize with what he’s saying here. But on top of that, he argues that many of these prohibitions aren’t even practical in achieving the desired goals.
1) Shutting most everything down creates real shortages, not just the no-toilet-paper-at-Whole-Foods kind. The more people and industries you order locked down, the more supply chains get broken, the more stores shutter, the fewer goods are available. We all still need stuff, even if we’re sitting indoors all day. And in cramped, big cities like New York, where living space is at a premium, there is frequently neither storage space nor predilection for stocking up on weeks’ worth of food at a time.
2) Compressing the commercial day will mean more people shopping together in close quarters. The smart play until now among germaphobes has been hitting up the local Rite Aid in the wee small hours. Mayors, county executives, and governors are increasingly foreclosing that option…
4) Human beings do not have a limitless capacity for self-imprisonment. We are about to see a lot of resentment from the healthy Youngs about how they no longer have jobs or the ability to make student loan payments because of draconian governmental measures to combat a disease disproportionately affecting the Olds. But even setting that aside, in the absence of V-1 bombs flying overhead, people are eventually going to bust out of their containment. Setting up legal regimes in contravention of human nature is a recipe for all kinds of trouble.
I trimmed a bit of that out to conserve space, but I think you get the drift. (Read the entire thing anyway. He’s always worth it.) Now let me get to that conundrum I mentioned at the top.
Right from the beginning, I knew (or at least suspected) that the virus was bad. I mean, that was just a given, right? It spreads quickly and easily. Even for younger and relatively healthy people, it can sometimes sicken them for weeks. For the older folks and/or those with compromised systems, it can sometimes kill us. So it certainly wasn’t good.
But how bad exactly was it? Was this really Captain Trips, preparing to take down the entire system and leave us in some sort of Mad Max landscape if we didn’t take the most draconian precautions imaginable? Or, I wondered, is it possible that it’s not really even close to that and would wind up being something more like the flu? What if what we were really seeing was a gaggle of nervous politicians who were terrified that they would take the fall if they failed to act swiftly and aggressively enough in the early days and then everything went down the crapper? Could they be overreacting and putting us through all of this garbage for no good reason?
In my darker moments, I would sometimes start listening to those voices who are always out there whispering. I would briefly slip down a rabbit hole where people spoke of Wall Street investors who were in the know and got out of the market early, only to jump back in after it crashed and then ride a wave of profits through a revolving door as the Dow Jones turned into a roller coaster on steroids.
But then I’m always forced to stop and look at things like the most recent Imperial College report. Allahpundit described in somewhat understated tones by saying… it isn’t good. And it’s not. Even their best-case scenario is something of a horror show.
Has anyone else been experiencing this? My inner libertarian chafes at seeing the government trying to lock innocent people in their homes and shutting down private businesses. We deserve to live free! But what if the current reality is turning into a modified version of New Hampshire’s state motto? What if we’re reaching the point of “Live Free and Die?” Perhaps that’s an easier trade to make if you’re one of “the Youngs,” as Matt calls them. But it’s a bit more of a pill to swallow if you’re one of “the Olds.”
I’ve written quite a few articles here lately about the coming debate over the limits of executive power during a period of crisis. And those are important discussions to have going forward. But we’re standing on the tracks seeing a light at the end of the tunnel right now, and our lofty libertarian principles won’t be as much consolation if it turns out to be the headlamp of an oncoming train instead of open-air and sunshine.
Your thoughts on this are welcome. I’m past the point of believing that COVID-19 will turn out to be a complete nothingburger. But it’s still impossible to say that it’s the end of the world if we don’t hamstring our economy and the normal ebb and flow of society. It’s all very stressful and I’m not finding any certainty in either side of this debate.