Most of us have no idea whether to fear the coming coronavirus pandemic or to scoff at what seems to be a panic, complete with toilet paper buying sprees. I find myself mostly in the latter camp, due not to some great scientific knowledge, but as a matter of general disposition. But I’m also a father of young children, so a touch of protective instinct kicks in whenever a big outside force that could harm my family rears its head.
With much I don’t know, there is something I do know: If forced to weather a pandemic, I’d rather do so in the United States than any other country on earth.
Watching news coverage, I cannot help but notice a subtle message underlying the words of far too many in the political commentariat. Many seem to speak about China’s management of the outbreak with envy. Their analysis is that because we are a big, unruly, open society, we cannot hope to make people to do what is necessary to stem the spread. The old “China for a Day” fantasy of Thomas Friedman is apparently alive and well, and has infected (poor pun intended) the coronavirus conversation (actual 2009 quote from Friedman: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.”). Some seem to regard the Chinese government’s ability, and eager willingness, to shut down society and force its citizens to take government-prescribed health measures as the only tool capable of truly addressing the problem.
I find this baffling.
For one, it didn’t work. Despite subsequent Chinese propaganda and the kowtowing of world health officials intent on avoiding criticism of the Chinese regime, it is clear that the authoritarian government badly botched its management of the Wuhan outbreak. This should be unsurprising for any student of 20th century history (or casual fan of HBO’s Chernobyl). Corrupt authoritarian regimes, especially of the communist variety, do not have a pretty track record when their peoples’ life and limb are on one side of the ledger and their own prestige and power are on the other. We will likely never be able to quantify the needless suffering and death visited on the Chinese people during this epidemic, but we know enough of China’s silencing of doctors, the outright lies they told their people to keep them in the dark, and the failure of their “quarantine at the point of a gun” strategy to counsel against believing theirs is a model to emulate.
More importantly, consider what voices in the West are advocating when they daydream of a government with enough power to take the type of decisive action taken by the communists in Beijing. In short, these voices are seeking Utopia. And their methods for achieving it reliably produce a certain flavor of ideology and oppression.
It is true that the brutal regime in Beijing (and others like it) possess an ability to move quickly and decisively (China reportedly restricted the movement of some 760 million individuals, in what the New York Times has called “Mao-style social control”). But the same system that enables this speedy action comes with other features that far outweigh any advantage. Such a system produces a ruling class that cares little about its peoples’ lives beyond their ability to strengthen and glorify the state. It produces a government that lies and obfuscates, keeping its people in the dark, in order to deceive the rest of the world and cover up its own inadequate, inept response. Indeed, it usually produces an inept government response to begin with. It produces a backward, economically stratified society where maintenance of public health is virtually impossible, allowing these strange new viruses to take hold and affect the rest of the world. It produces a government that tramples its citizens freedoms, and decimates their dignity as human beings. It is a corrupt, and corrupting, system.
This is not something to envy.
In contrast, while we have our faults, on the whole we are well-prepared to respond to this challenge because of the nature of our system, not in spite of it. We are the wealthiest nation in human history not because we are resource rich (we are) but because our free enterprise system allows us to exploit those resources. We have the best doctors, hospitals, technology, and private caregiving network on the planet not because we mandate it, but because providers seeking a profit meet consumer demand (though we are trying our best to destroy this remarkably successful health care system, we haven’t managed to do so yet). We have ample food and other necessities of life for the same reasons.
As for the government, we have political leaders who must respond to public pressure. Our government may royally botch its response to a given disaster, but if it does, our system very soon gives us an opportunity to throw the bums out. They know it, and generally respond accordingly. We have a free press, a First Amendment, and a culture that likes to exercise it. An American government could never get away with the lies and obfuscation the Chinese regime regularly employs, even if our politicians are prone to spin. In case those things are not enough to remind our officials who is ultimately in charge in this arrangement, we have a Second Amendment to jog their memory.
We rely on voluntary cooperation in just about every facet of our lives, and to great success. We know the truth of Adam Smith’s idea that by pursuing our own self-interest we usually end up advancing the interests of society at large, because we see it every day. Why would it be any different with our response to a pandemic?
I’ll admit, I have been more than minorly annoyed with what I have mostly considered little more than thoughtless overreaction. I found the event cancellations and panic shopping to be unbecoming, and rolled my eyes every time I received yet another email (apparently from every corporation I’ve ever given my email address to) explaining X brand’s policy on coronavirus. No, I don’t need to know how Office Depot plans to respond to the virus, and the email assuring me that the company places my health and safety above all else has no impact on any office supplies buying decisions I will make. My favorite was the coronavirus policy statement I received from an online clothing company with no physical stores.
However, in my more generous moments, I can acknowledge that this flurry of activity could actually be a sign of something positive about the American way. No one told Hilton Hotels they need to be responsive to public fears about corona, except for maybe their marketing team. No one forced the NCAA to cancel March Madness. No one commandeered newspapers and television stations to use their public megaphones to broadcast useful public health information about handwashing, social distancing, and the like. I should say, no government forced those things to happen, not directly.
No, these companies, and the free individuals working for them and consuming their products, were largely left to their own devices. And guess what, they are trying to do the right things. I may blanche at the nervous nellies on social media who seem a little too excited to finally have a socially-acceptable excuse to scold everyone about personal hygiene (you will wash your hands!), but they’re not wrong. I still question the long-term wisdom of urging everyone to put life and business on hold via shutdowns, but I am encouraged that such decisions remain (mostly, and for now) individual decisions. Only time will tell whether we have overreacted, underreacted, or gotten it about right. But whichever is the case, we will have arrived there largely on our own.
America will survive its latest crisis, even if we have difficult days ahead. Of that, I am confident. When we someday resume normalcy, I hope we remember how good we have it, and why.
Benjamin Lepak is Legal Fellow at The 1889 Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.