Counting the Costs of Overreaction

Politicians must keep their heads in times of crisis. They must react sensibly to circumstances and events as they occur, and keep in mind the wide range of consequences involved in both acting and not acting. They must also realize that acting will have negative or unintended consequences. Like Augustine’s just judge, they have to fumble around in the nether world of making decisions while lacking the knowledge they need to do so.

Not only politicians must keep their heads. A pandemic brings with it renewed attention to the public sphere and the ways in which private decisions affect public goods. Especially at a time such as this, with easily attainable information and hard to come by knowledge, individual citizens may often feel paralyzed in their decision-making. They fear contracting the virus, but also fear having their lives too profoundly altered. It doesn’t help when the nation’s top public health official gives us contradictory advice. Most citizens will respond to public cues, but they will always do so with an eye toward their own well-being as well as that of their particular communities. When those cues communicate doomsday scenarios and demand enormous sacrifices, public panic is sure to follow. Our tendency will be to assume we know more than we really do, in part to reconcile ourselves to our fate. Suddenly everyone seems to fancy himself an amateur epidemiologist. A panicking public will produce bad consequences, and we are already seeing its destructive effects on our economy.

The situation is not helped when we are discouraged from acting sensibly. The most prominent expression of this tendency is the insistence, oft-repeated and seldom questioned, that “overreaction is preferable to underreaction.” The case for overreaction seems valid on the surface, for it avoids the most negative consequences we associate with underreacting, in this case causing preventable deaths. Even if our measures were a little extreme, they kept a full-blown public health catastrophe from occurring. Of course, we don’t have the counter-factual to compare it to, so the overreacters find themselves in an enviable position. They’re always right because they can never be proven wrong. As Ian Bogost argued in The Atlantic, things “seem like overreactions, so long as they work.” He further pointed out that we “allowed overreaction” to become synonymous with “crazed, irrational” action rather than “a legitimate way to respond” to “our inability to understand and process stimuli.”

I have no expertise that allows me to speak authoritatively on Covid-19, or what might be the best way of dealing with the disease, either clinically or from a public health point of view. But as a political philosopher, I am interested in how concepts get used, particularly when employed in the service of a tremendous exercise of political power that will have significant long-term consequences. Indeed, it would be unusual for political actors not to see crises as opportunities to expand and entrench power, particularly when their acts attenuate the strength of social and economic institutions.

While the elderly and infirm are the most vulnerable populations, small businesses, low wage laborers, and less healthy social institutions are the most likely to succumb to the economic consequences of the reaction to the virus. This will result in greater concentrations of wealth and political power, and consequently in a political economy that is more centralized and fragile, and less flexible and adaptable. The result will be, as we already see, a call for more government programs to aid those made destitute by the government’s reactions. As Farhard Mango put it in the New York Times: “Everyone is a socialist in a pandemic.”

We are not inclined to ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” —a typically sensible question—when the answer is an untimely death, no matter how unlikely it is.

Here is where the justificatory language of “overreaction” makes a difference. Whereas an individual overreacting affects only him, and maybe a few others around him, when a government overreacts it affects everyone, regardless of the sorts of risks an individual might be willing to take. If my government overreacts, I am put in a disadvantageous position, especially if the overreaction a) doesn’t comport with my assessment of either the disease or the cure; or, b) does me grave economic harm. If I’m a healthy middle-aged person, I might prefer to take my chances with the virus instead of the possibility of economic ruin. Granted, in wide-scale public crises such as this one, you can’t isolate your actions. Nonetheless, you are constrained by the system’s lack of flexibility, by which I mean the expectation that there must be a “one-sized-fits-all” solution from a centralized government. Note, for example, the claim that Trump is somehow fully responsible for the problem. One (salutary) aspect of this crisis is that it has renewed our interest in national borders and has demonstrated the vital relevance of state and local governments, who have proved much more adept at responding at the point of impact.

The key thing is how we understand the word “reaction.” What does it mean to react to something? It means that we are, as situated beings, often confronted with unexpected circumstances that demand a response from us. These can be pleasant (an attractive woman coming on to you at a bar), or unpleasant (the emergence of a new virus). In both instances, the trick is to react properly, which is to say that our reaction takes a full accounting of circumstances and possibilities, draws from the hard-won wisdom of experience, sorts carefully through the evidence, considers what ends we want to achieve, and calculates the best means to achieving those ends.

Consider Aristotle. One term he uses to describe decision-making is prohairesis, usually translated as “choice” as it relates to deliberation (pro – either before or in favor of; hairesis – to take or grab, choose.) It refers to the person’s ability to deliberate and to engage action on the basis of free choices. This distinguishing feature of adult reason ought not be handed over to so-called experts, nor subordinated to techne. Aristotle demarcates it from orexis (desire), epithumia (appetite), boulesis (wish), doxa (opinion), or thumos (spiritedness). While those terms indicate a lack of unity between deliberation and desire, prohairesis always operates as the decisive factor in virtue that unites means and ends. Indeed, as he argues in Nichomachean Ethics Book 6 Chapter 2, prohairesis is “desire invoking deliberation,” thus uniting logos and orexis.

Plato argued in the Phaedrus that logos intends to tame thumos and orexis. Moral action properly directed to its ends on the one hand, and not fall subject to akrasia (a weak will) on the other, requires the unity of reason and desire. An excess or deficiency of thumos or orexis distorts moral action. Likewise, when faced with difficult and unexpected circumstances, we must react sensibly and rationally, with neither an excess nor deficiency of our spirited elements. When those elements overwhelm reason, we are guilty of overreacting.

We overreact when we experience epistemic uncertainty. Inasmuch as a sensible reaction requires us to reason properly, when we don’t have enough information or experience reason is at a disadvantage. When coupled with fear—that is, a sense that the stakes are extraordinarily high and harmful—our tendency is to go into flight mode. We are not inclined to ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” —a typically sensible question—when the answer is an untimely death, no matter how unlikely it is. In a secular age such as ours, which regards suffering and death as the worst evils that can befall us and ones we believe we should be able to avoid, the fear increases exponentially. Conversely, our secularism increases our materialism, which may induce us to put physically vulnerable people at risk in order to maintain a standard of living.

The combination of fear and ignorance typically leads to panic or hysteria, both extreme manifestations of overreacting. Rather than an individual overreacting, where the consequences are limited, collective overreacting has profound social, economic, and political effects. It’s why we expect statesman to exercise prudent and calm judgment, particularly during times of mass hysteria and media overplay. Those engaged in overreaction either don’t have decision-making authority, are incapable of looking at the big picture, or succumb to fearful impulses. Or they don’t have as much at stake. Members of the knowledge class, who can work at home, may be reduced to eating take-out instead of sitting in their normal booths, but the people who typically serve them might not be able to pay the rent. They’ll sit in their nicely apportioned offices in their apartments, expecting “background people” to keep their door handles and mailboxes sanitized.

Good leadership neither overreacts nor under-reacts but reacts sensibly. This means balancing a panoply of claims and sorting through available information to reach judgments concerning the various goods necessary to maintain political order. Here, as always, language matters. Calling something a “pandemic” excites public fear, even if the majority of the population is unlikely to be either directly or indirectly harmed. Clearly there is a need for serious public health policies, but this is only one good alongside many others a political leader must consider. For many people in this country, the prospect of losing their business or their job is far more frightening and harmful than the prospect of getting infected with the virus. An already insolvent government is hardly in a position to get this economy up and running, particularly if its policies create massive economic dislocations.

Sound decision-making always requires attention to cost-benefits analyses. In some ways, these make us uncomfortable. Who wants grandma to die when it could have been prevented? How are we to evaluate the relationship between mortality rates and unemployment rates? How are we to balance the health risks of people with already short life spans against our concerns for material well-being? What demands may generations make upon one another? Such questions have long bedeviled ethical and political thinkers. One of the appeals of utilitarianism is that it actually provides a functioning calculus, however imperfect in implementation, that allows us to believe we have a workable heuristic for sorting through confusing dilemmas. Whatever our answers, the questions can never be dismissed, and they can’t be answered with absolutes, as much as we love them. For example, the idea that one life might be saved can’t justify a government-imposed shutdown. And that’s a hard truth to bear. As Max Weber said, “No ethics in the world can dodge the fact that in numerous instances the attainment of ‘good’ ends is bound to the fact that one must be willing to pay the price of using morally dubious means or at least dangerous ones ­­and facing the possibility or even the probability of evil ramifications.”

From no ethics in the world can it be concluded when and to what extent the ethically good purpose ‘justifies’ the ethically dangerous means and ramifications. One thing clear is that the costs will not be equally distributed. The economic hardship being unleashed on this country is real, and will have long-term consequences, and could itself lead to serious health problems. A person who loses his or her livelihood, or the business they’re worked so hard and so patiently to build, suffers not only economic harm, but serious psychic harm as well. All of life is a risk, and we calculate our risks every time we step into a car or light up a cigarette, and America is far more likely to have more people die this year from those acts than from COVID-19. Such risk calculations cannot exist without an accounting of the full range of our interests, moral demands, and the best knowledge we have of what faces us. Again, I’m not in a position to say what the right policy is, but I can insist that those charged with making policy, as well as those subject to it, neither overreact nor underreact, but react sensibly and responsibly.