Don't Expect Losers of Shutdown to Sit Idly by Forever
The stay-at-home orders issued by most states have created a puzzling disconnect. On the one hand, opinion polls show the orders to be overwhelmingly popular, but on the other hand there have been protests in states like Michigan and Wisconsin objecting to these quarantines. What to make of this?
Public opinion polls are not, nor should they ever be, the sine qua non of republican government. Public opinion is influenced by the government at least as often as it influences the government. That is probably the case here. For weeks, public health authorities have been warning the people that these quarantines are necessary and prudent. Without disputing their proclamations, it is hardly controversial to say polling respondents are mainly repeating this back to the pollsters.
Dominated as it is by the horse race, our political discourse is so inclined to see the plurality position in the polls as determinative -- what the most people says is what goes, right? This is certainly true when it comes to our first-past-the-post elections, where the candidate who wins the most vote takes the office. But that is not really the way to understand our nation’s current predicament. The issue at hand is not who wins what race, but whether the law will be obeyed. The difference has important implications.
Obedience to the law is bottomed on one of three motives. First, people believe that the law is proper and just, and therefore it is their civic duty to follow its dictates. Second, people expect that obedience to the law will provide them benefits that they cannot otherwise enjoy. Third, people fear that disobedience to the law will impose costs upon them that they can avoid if they follow the rules.
These three motives often reinforce one another. Consider the income tax. The overwhelming majority of Americans voluntarily comply with the time-consuming process of reporting to the government how much they owe. Why? Many expect to get a refund. Many are afraid of being audited or suffering penalties from the IRS. Many believe that it is their obligation to pay taxes regardless of the penalties or benefits they derive.
Far and away, the most important motive for obedience to the law is a conviction that it is just, or at least the regime that promulgated it is just. This is what makes the law, for the most part, self-enforcing. It keeps the government from having to impose draconian restrictions upon violations, as well as creating a massive police state to monitor public behavior. This is one of the main differences between the United States and communist dictatorships. In our country, the overwhelming majority of people have confidence in the justice of our system, so they follow laws even when they think them unwise or imprudent. In the Soviet bloc, on the other hand, a massive police state had to be created to prevent widespread disobedience. And when the Soviets signaled to eastern European nations in the late 1980s that they were no longer going to punish violations with severity, the Iron Curtain fell almost overnight.
Such voluntary obedience to the law requires massive buy-in from the people at large. A minority of, say, 15%-20% may be too small to cause disruption at the ballot box, but it can severely tax the enforcement instruments of the government -- if they are sufficiently motivated. It is analogous to the “heckler’s veto": one person can shout down a speaker if he is willing to endure the disapproval of the others in the crowd.
This is why a continued quarantine may be more tenuous than the polls make it seem. A large majority of Americans approve, which is all well and good. But we should also ask just how intense the opposition of the minority is. If the minority is convinced that the government’s dictates are capricious, arbitrary, and ruinous, we should not expect them to sit idly by forever.
Nor should we! This is the United States of America, after all. We are a nation of hard-bitten individualists, who nevertheless come together for the good of all. This notion is embedded in our very motto — e pluribus unum. The standard of fair public policy in our country is not to pick and choose winners and losers, but to try to harmonize disparate interests. The quarantines may have been necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, but they have created a large and diverse group of losers.
Imagine that you are somebody whose livelihood has been obliterated by the draconian and often nonsensical rules of some state governments. What would you do? What if you make your living selling lawn and garden equipment in Michigan? It is a highly seasonal business, and the governor has effectively killed it off for this year.
What if you own a restaurant in rural Pennsylvania, where the number of COVID-19 cases can be counted on a single hand, but the governor has declared that you cannot possibly reopen until June -- because the virus is running out of control in metropolitan Philadelphia?
As a Pennsylvanian, I have examined in detail the list of essential versus nonessential businesses in our state, and I cannot make hide nor hare of its logic in many respects. Politics seems to be at play -- for instance, the decision to close the liquor stores but keep the beer distributors open. The latter are run by the government but the former are run by politically connected small businesses.
What if you have been deemed an essential worker, and must continue to work, but the schools have been closed and you cannot get babysitting? What if you suffer from depression that has been exacerbated by the isolation of the quarantine? What if you are an addict who, in the midst of the crippling loneliness of the last month, has returned to using drugs or alcohol? What if you were going to get a cancer screening that would have found a tumor before it metastasized?
The list goes on and on, and on and on and on.
The government has effectively said to all such people -- too bad for you. The winners in the quarantine are those who would have been seriously infected by COVID-19 were it not for this lockdown. The losers are people like those mentioned above, and countless more. While the quarantines may have been justified on net, the hard fact remains that the losers are losing a lot. It is naive to expect them to tolerate this indefinitely, especially in light of the actual course the disease has taken (as opposed to the initial estimates), the arbitrariness and political tinge of many government policies, and the uniformity of its imposition within states despite wildly divergent disease trajectories.
This quarantine has been an incredibly destructive policy, and the harms have not been distributed evenly across the United States. Some people are suffering much, much more than others. It is a testament to the American spirit that so many have endured this hardship for so long -- a tribute to our people’s commitment to the good of all. But these protests are an indication that this kind of fellow-feeling only goes so far. Absent a draconian police state or a massive system of bribery and patronage, respect for the law is ultimately premised on the belief that the law is good. If enough people conclude that these laws are ruining them, look out.