Masters don’t ask. They know they don’t have to.
Last year, through an excellent HBO miniseries, the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernobyl disaster came to life. Lies about risk were widespread. People were told for years that science proved the reactors were safe, only to be dragged from their radiation-contaminated homes with only the clothes on their back. Certain observers, particularly on the Right, saw the series as a lesson in the evils of communism. While it was indeed that, things also looked rather familiar.
Like our country today, the Soviet Union was full of hard-working and patriotic little people, whose lives and fates were controlled by authorities more concerned with saving face than doing the right thing. As the series dramatized, individualized justice and truth were often suppressed in the name of ideology and scientific progress. Rank and title counted for a lot, while common sense was often neglected. The Soviet Union was a Communist regime, but it was chiefly a bureaucratic regime, where the bureaucracy’s managerial class had privileged lives and a hostile relationship to the common people.
The United States has long been a more individualistic, entrepreneurial, and freedom-loving people than those in Europe, whether East or West. Our national life is much more than an abstract creed. Our culture can be found as much in the Federalist Papers as in the advent of the road trip, music festivals, and, in the days of Prohibition, the speak-easy. We are a restless, energetic, and unbridled people. We are wont to question authority and bend rules that seem stupid and meddlesome.
Public health has always had an uneasy relationship with that culture. At its worst, public health expresses a censorious, cautious, and schoolmarm instinct. It is the force behind book-length warnings on the side of lawnmowers, the demise of dodgeball, and Prohibition itself. If it is an American impulse, it’s the dark side of America; the perversion of our “can do” spirit into relentless crusades against fun in the name of safety and science.
We all have our own priorities, weigh risks and benefits differently, and, until recently, were allowed to decide these things for ourselves. The public health ideologue does not agree that risks of various kinds—including the voluntary risks of smoking, drinking alcohol, or driving motorcycles—are things that a free people should be allowed to do.
The lockdown crowd will invoke a countervailing principle: even people who believe in freedom will concede that you do not have the right to endanger others.
In the abstract, this is true. But is anyone endangering others if they fail to abide by these lockdowns? Setting aside the modest coronavirus risk for the vast majority of people, we have been told that social distancing is the means of safety. If you avoid others, wash your hands, and wear a mask, you will be safe.
If avoiding others, wearing masks, and social distancing are so effective, then—like refraining from smoking or skydiving—the people who feel strongly about risk have the means of protecting themselves. Perhaps vulnerable populations are well-served to follow these precautions. Just as people can choose not to get on a motorcycle, the vulnerable and cautious can engage in voluntary masking and social distancing.
The risks and benefits of living normally can be borne by those who want to live.
Read every word of this one, folks.