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.

Reader Discussion

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on March 23, 2020 at 07:06:06 am

This is one of the smartest and balanced pieces of writing that I have read since the crisis broke.

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Image of Chris
on March 23, 2020 at 07:52:41 am

This is an excellent, carefully reasoned essay.

How would these principles be implemented? Current leaders have demonstrated their inability. And there’s likely a bias in favor of overreaction; even completely ineffective measures allow policy makers to show they are “doing something,” and it is nearly impossible for most people to discern effectiveness in cases like this. No one knows the counterfactual case in which nothing was done.

It could be useful if we would think about how to constrain government officials to act in accordance with greater prohairesis.

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Charles N. Steele
on March 23, 2020 at 10:11:36 am

How many lives will be lost due to the reactions we are making? Cancer screening are not happening. That will lead deaths from cancer caught too late. The financial damages that are occurring will prevent people from being able to afford medical care they need to treat or prevent disease. That will lead to more deaths and more misery.

In the long run, the most important count of lives saved will result from the the lessons learned about how government and the public reaction to real epidemics. The Covid-19 flu is relatively mild compared to some diseases, both the currently known ones and new ones that can evolve. What lessons can be learned that can prepare us for a more transmittable and fatal disease? How should government prepare and how should individuals prepare (like, always have a two month supply of TP and canned and dried goods put away in storage)?

What lessons can be learned about abuses of government and citizens? Citizens hoard TP and government leaders hoard power. Both abuses cause difficulties. What can be done to address that?

After this madness is over, sociologists, economists, and psychologists are going to have a lot of raw data to look at. Their studies will make fascinating reading.

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Image of Scott Amorian
Scott Amorian
on March 23, 2020 at 11:02:04 am


There is a difference between a fifteen day voluntary shut down to try to contain the yearly virus pandemic, along with washing hands, keeping things clean, isolating oneself if one is sick, and protecting the elderly, infirm, and those susceptible to infections due to compromised immune systems, AND, shutting down an entire Nation in order to contain them.




During this diversion, let us Pray that our homeland security has their eye on containing the anti Christ globalists, and not on containing those who desire to receive Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Salvational Love, In The Year Of The Holy Eucharist, And In This Season Of Lent, Let Us Not Forget:

Christ Has Revealed, Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, that it is possible to have Liberty And A Happy Death, because No Greater Love Is There Than This- To Desire Salvation For One’s Beloved.

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Image of Nancy
on March 23, 2020 at 11:34:31 am

Hmmm, author is from Hope College, an apt appellation for an essay that brings forth "much" to think about in our COVID - 19 moment - our COVID - 19 social/moral/economic moment.

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Image of Anthony
on March 23, 2020 at 11:47:33 am

It would appear that following the habit of ESPN's NFL LIVE, we, as a polity are engaging in an nationwide exercise of Overreaction Monday.
The essayist is quite correct. Sensible, defined and limited restrictions applicable to those most likely to be affected are in order. Indeed, many of those so categorized are voluntarily imposing such restrictions on themselves. As an example, two of my golfing familiars are 87 / 88 year old men, one in excellent health, both of whom have self quarantined as a precaution. The remainder of we younger hackers are still out hitting the links.
Why would we not expect that those most at risk would not act sensibly and instead require a massively intrusive government program of restricted liberty?
Essayist is also correct - "Never let a good crisis go to waste? - the modus vivendi (and operandi) of would be tyrants everywhere.

Well, I am going out to play golf.

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Image of gabe
on March 23, 2020 at 12:10:32 pm

“Behold your Mother.”

Dear Blessed Mother Mary, Mirror Of Justice, Destroyer Of All Heresy, Who Through Your Fiat, Affirmed The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, And Thus The Fact That There Is Only One Begotten Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Take Away The Sins Of This World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, Thus There Can Only Be One Spirit Of Perfect Complementary Love Between The Father And His Only Begotten Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And His Only Begotten Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Please Intercede for us❤️

And for those who did not see the final red flag going off when they placed pachamama in The Holy Place, the anti thesis to Our Blessed Mother, they need to understand that denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, is the source of all heresy, including the modernist heresy of a globalism that in denying Genesis, and worshipping Mother Earth, denies the fact that The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage.

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”
Thomas Aquinas

“REMEMBER, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly to thee, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to thee do I come; before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.”

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Image of Nancy
on March 23, 2020 at 16:52:54 pm

I think the author premature in offering philosophical reflections as to "Red China's Attack on World Health and Stability." (My words.) He discusses Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, normative and virtue ethics, utilitarianism and pragmatism all of which are, to me, interesting but unhelpful abstractions under the actual circumstances "on the ground," which are the nation's inadequate scientific understanding of the anatomy, strength and vulnerability of the corona virus, of the epidemiology of its physiological effects and its transmission and of the means for controlling its spread or mitigating its physiological and economic impacts. In that context, that lack of significant material facts, the essay seeks to bring a philosophical perspective to the subjects of government over and under-reaction and, implicitly, to matters of necessary government practices and even best or appropriate action.

And, to me, it seems too soon for all that intellectualizing to be of philosophical value or of regulatory significance. Even Thucydides, an Athenian General who commanded soldiers in the war, had to await its end in order to find the facts, analyze the evidence, evaluate what was done wrong, right and inadequately and by whom and render his famous reality-based judgement of history as to the Peloponnesian War, even as to the plagues of Athens.

Yet philosophical and ethical abstractions aside, Professor Polet raises some facts worth discussing, even disputing. He accuses the Trump Epidemic Control Team (my words) of contradicting itself by virtue of stating on February 7 that the virus was "no reason for considerable anxiety" while saying a month later that the best response (economic shutdown and social distancing) is one people would find "too drastic." It is unfair, indeed, inaccurate to call the change in language by the Director of NIH (one member of the Team) a ''contradiction" under the circumstances: Red China's obdurate insistence (from day one until now) on obfuscation and opacity, the daunting scientific novelty of the corona virus, the historically-unprecedented newness of the ever-widening medical and economic crisis; and the reasonable promise in early February of the ban on foreign travelers from Red China and later from Europe, the airport screening of all passengers from Asia and the quarantining of US citizens returning from Red China and those with whom all symptomatic travelers had been in contact.

The essay also mentions (but does not endorse) those who would blame Trump for America's epidemic (and anything else "bad," whether or not it has actually happened.) I raise that point only because it relates to the matters of alleged under-reaction and over-reaction discussed in the essay. I do not agree that the President has under-reacted in any significant way. Nor, as to his alleged over-reacting, do I agree that the President has over-reacted. I do know, however, that whatever he has done Trump has been criticized by the Democrats for doing it, and that whatever he has not done Trump has been criticized by the Democrats for not doing it. In that circumstance, under that factual reality (not philosophical abstraction,) one would expect, and perhaps even be sympathetic with, any over-reaction that may occur and any hesitation to act that may delay acting appropriately. Yet, I have seen none of either.

Finally, and this is truly the most important point which Professor Polet raises in his thoughtful essay, the author notes the risk that we may "...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.”

Never let a crisis go to waste, an adage coined by Machiavelli, used by Churchill, plagiarized by Obama's main White House man, Rahm Emanuel, and perfected by the modern Democrat Party, is, perhaps, for those of us who still love and long for our lost constitution ''The only thing we have to fear..." from those who would scourge us in order that we may be saved.

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Image of Paladin
on March 24, 2020 at 11:15:17 am

I think this is an interesting comment and one in particular I wanted to reply to. It is true that my essay runs through a number of ethical theories, which the commenter regards as "intellectualizing" and "abstraction." That was my point. Our theories, if they operate as mere abstractions, have little real-world value. The Thucydides example the commenter gives is instructive. It is true that the owl of Minerva spread its wings only after the coming of the dusk, but political leaders and soldiers the war were faced with making real world decisions even if, or especially if, they didn't have the benefit of hindsight. There's a lot going on right now that we simply don't know, and we don't know if any particular strategy we pursue is the right one. In this instance, we might never know what the right strategy was. Nonetheless, I do believe Aristotle's account of decision-making does have immediate import. First, it has real world implications in terms of acknowledging the role of experience, trial and error, marshaling evidence, and costs benefits analyses within a context of ethical deliberation. Second, as the commenter acknowledges, it helps keep those in power accountable by holding their reactions to both a procedural and a substantive standard. It is true that we are operating with "an inadequate scientific understanding," but that was again my point. We are operating with all kinds of knowledge deficits here, most notably not knowing what a good response looks like, and we are panicking. I'm simply trying to tell people to calm down a little and not overreact.

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Jeff Polet
on March 24, 2020 at 12:36:00 pm

We agree, and that's a good thing since we both appear to think that President Trump is on Kipling's right track:
"If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you..."

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Image of Paladin
on March 23, 2020 at 17:12:47 pm

Would your feelings change of this was affecting children rather than elderly?

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Image of Amber
on March 24, 2020 at 06:53:32 am

Of course you would and should. The additional life expectancy of children is measured in decades vs years for the elderly. We, as a society, do value children’s lives more highly than adults. The old call, “women and children first” (say into lifeboats off the titanic) deeply reflects that. I’m not sure that has the same pull these days, but we do have policies that favor children: e.g., SNAP, DACA (in all its forms), etc.

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Image of Steve
on March 24, 2020 at 11:35:58 am

This is an entirely fair question. In terms of an absolute ethic no life has any more value than any other. I'm not a utilitarian, but I understand the nature of its appeal. This question raises what, for me, is an interesting existential issue. What would upset me more, the death of one of my parents or the death of one of my children? My parents are in their 90s. If they succumb to this virus I would certainly mourn their passing, but that mourning would be mitigated somewhat by the knowledge they have lived a full and rich life. If a child gets cut down, all the promise of that life dies with the child. The potential never becomes actual, and on philosophical grounds that's a whole new issue. It's why the death of children strikes us as fundamentally wrong in a way the death of elderly people doesn't, something Dostoevsky understood well.

There's also the larger societal view, and here's where things get uncomfortable for us. The ACA was predicated on one simple proposition: elderly people are drains on a health care system and younger people aren't. It's part of a system that is enormously expensive and very inefficient, and the bulk of that cost comes from our inability to manage end of life issues. The ACA responded to this problem by transferring costs across generations, but really did nothing to address the enormous costs being generated by an aging population. That's a real-world problem, and any ethical deliberation we engage in has to acknowledge the fact that we have choices to make and any choice we make is probably going to have effects we have a difficult time squaring ethically. Those in government can't avoid looking at things such as costs, and weighing relative claims, and deciding between this good and that good, and accepting some regrettable consequences in the process. Would it be ok, for example, for a 95 year old person who, in the interest of extending his life another 6 months, took on $15,000 a month chemotherapy treatments, with the result of bankrupting his children in the process? I dunno, but it strikes me that our answer would be different if we were dealing with a 15 year old. While often we are insulated from such decisions, we have to make choices like this all the time.

Government is dealing with large aggregations of these kinds of dilemmas. Part of what they have to consider is that old people are costing them money and young people are supplying that money. From a government's point of view, which life matters more? My own sense is that government is not entitled to impose unlimited costs even if it is accomplishing something absolutely good. For example, after 9/11 millions of dollars was being spent on putting defibrillators in schools. The justification I often heard from school superintendents was "If it saves one life, it was worth it." I'm not sure that's right. You can't save every life. You are dealing with limited resources and you are acquiring those resources in a coercive fashion. I'm not sure how you could possibly construct a world that protects us from every eventuality, and certainly not how you could do this while still retaining some respect for human freedom.

As my essay I hope makes clear, I don't have good answers to some of these things. I do insist, however, that we not crush good questions under the weight of absolutes.

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Jeff Polet
on March 24, 2020 at 08:54:22 am

Often a single event will completely change a person's life's direction because most of what he does is in context with that life-changing event. Trump appears to have experienced one such event. It is likely why life is so important to him and why he has a heart of a father. So mental exercises of who is more valuable and who is expendable don't seem to register in his mind. Ayn Rand didn't appear to have experienced a similar life-valuing event, or at least, she didn't apply it in the same way.

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Image of Will
on March 25, 2020 at 00:00:58 am

I'm 70, run many calculated risks in my time. Volunteered for the draft during Vietnam, marriage,family, self-employmen,etc., drive daily.
My daughter got laid off her job due to this, a good friend is going bankrupt. I'm won't sacrifice anything but I'm willing to take another calculated risk to put America back to work. I should be free to do so.

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Image of Solymar
on April 28, 2020 at 23:38:28 pm

[…] Polet, a political scientist at Hope College, also explores the adverse consequences of an economic […]

on June 30, 2020 at 08:46:49 am

[…] “Counting the Costs of Overreaction.” Jeff Polet warns about the consequences of public overreaction to the virus: […]

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