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Socially Distant

The social nature of human beings is the bedrock of our existence. We’re built by and for our relationships with other human beings. As Adam Smith tells us in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, human sociability develops through a subtle, continuous exchange of words and gestures between human beings that includes everything from raising an eyebrow to buying a car. From this process, each human being develops an “impartial spectator” or “man within the breast” who informs him about what is and is not acceptable to his fellows and colleagues based on the often nearly invisible cues we receive in response to our words and behavior. Through the pleasures and pains of human relationships, we are trained in the complex dance of social life.

Perhaps the largest, most important, and most pervasive effect of the COVID-19 pandemic—aside from illness and death—is the way that it interacts with and, in many cases, runs head-long into Smith’s insights about our nature and developmental process. Simple behavioral changes like masking and social distancing interfere with the close, continuous interaction with family, friends, acquaintances, and even strangers that we rely on to gain maturity and maintain psychological and emotional health. This is not a peripheral concern. Our natures propel us into the “dance” of sociability; we are conditioned to it by instinct and life-long experience, and we require it in order to thrive—both personally and in our social and economic relationships. Without the dance, we suffer.

Seen from this perspective, COVID-19, while certainly not the worst pandemic in history, has been highly disruptive to human social relations at every level, from simple neighborliness to international trade. The close, interpersonal relationships that enrich our lives and guide ordinary commerce have been severely limited in order to reduce the spread of the illness. Social media—which had already assumed an outsized role in substituting for in-person exchange—has accelerated and expanded wildly as much of our work life has moved from office buildings to living rooms and kitchens. Rather than gaining and growing from our social exchange, we experience a new kind of “Zoom fatigue” that results from too many hours electronically connected yet socially isolated. We are surviving physically, and that’s important, but the longer-term effects of social separation on our vitality as individuals and communities are yet to be discovered. They are unlikely to be helpful.

What happens in our social interaction locally is mirrored in more distant matters of economic exchange. Smith held that economic development, what he called “opulence,” was limited chiefly by the breadth of our markets and our ability as individuals and nations to maximize our comparative advantages. Pre-COVID, globalization had connected the world with resulting leaps in knowledge, wealth, income, and human well-being. When we ask, “Who made the pencil (or the PPE)?” for the first time in human history, the answer truly is—or was—that we all did. The disruption of these patterns of exchange and trade is also no small matter. Our health and well-being depends upon the knowledge, labor, skill, and manufacturing capacity of communities across the globe. COVID has disrupted more than just dining out—it is eroding the economic gains that have pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty. COVID has made us sicker, and because of the way it is disrupting economic exchange, it is likely to make us poorer.

If Smith could apparate into our midst, what might he have to say about the coronavirus crisis and our response to it?  I suspect he would agree with social distancing and masking if for no other reason than that they would have been familiar to him as practices that help reduce the spread of disease and preserve human life. He would probably regard efforts to spare family, friends, associates, and those working in business and services as a matter of manners and consideration, fully supported by traditions that he esteemed highly.

Smith likely would be appalled at the idea of economic “lockdowns” that inhibit the human instinct to “truck, barter, and exchange,” recognizing that perfect laws tend to go beyond what human beings can bear.

At the same time, Smith might be shocked and mystified by some of the violent, if performative, reactions to these practices caught on magical devices called “iPhones,” themselves a case study in what happens when human ingenuity meets comparative advantage.  What had gone wrong, he might ask, in the development of the “impartial spectator” that freed individuals to engage in this kind of coarseness, cruelty, and lack of mutual deference? How, he might wonder, had a nation with such eroded social reciprocity—the very heart of his moral and economic philosophy—achieved its political and social stability as well as its staggering wealth? He might also caution that should such a nation continue on its current trajectory, prosperity and liberty might be at risk to public disorder and an increasingly intrusive government that had to enforce through coercion what might and should have been achieved through personal restraint. His alarm might be increased by the knowledge that some jurisdictions here and elsewhere had already moved to impose authoritarian controls to compensate for the increasing erosion of mutuality and self-control.

This line of questioning might inevitably lead Smith to ask questions about the influence of the aristocracy. Who is providing the signals to the rest of the society that self-restraint was no longer desirable or necessary? In our era, there is no dearth of candidates from Spring Break Week to Page 6 to Twitter. Senior government officials abuse the privileges of their office with few, if any, consequences. Political log-rolling yields corporate cronyism and tax legislation that channels benefits to favored classes of the uber-wealthy and politically au courrant. And, then, there’s the problem of the chief magistrate himself, Donald Trump, and his personal comportment refracted through the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It would be difficult to imagine a leader more deprived of the salutary effects of Smith’s “impartial spectator” than the current occupant of the White House. He embodies a state of nature that Smith posited was impossible in the actual world: a man who, lacking social mirrors by which to mediate and shape his attitudes and behavior, arrives in the world’s most powerful office utterly unprepared and unable to respond effectively to the social dimensions of the pandemic, much less provide practical leadership to the body politic. In an historic moment where effects of widespread trauma and social isolation would tax the capacity of any leader, Trump is caught emotionally and psychologically flat-footed and appears one-dimensional under the klieg lights of public scrutiny. Imagine, by contrast, what Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or George W. Bush, all skilled at sensing and responding to the national mood, would have done with this moment.

Many leaders in the Western world, from presidents to governors to big-city mayors, have gotten a significant and mostly sustained bump in public approval from COVID-19 just by channeling the fear and grief of the public and providing moderately competent administration—except Trump. When he stood before the lectern a few weeks ago and speculated on why he had become so unpopular he said, “It can only be my personality.” This was a signal moment in the life of Donald Trump: a completely novel encounter with the “impartial spectator” telling him a truth about himself. Alas, it passed as quickly as it came.

The fracture in our social condition, then, runs from the bottom of society to the top, and the signs of it are all around us. The protests, demonstrations, and riots of the past two months are at least as much a product of the social distress created by the pandemic as they were of the tragic death of George Floyd, amounting to a primal wail by people who have had no leader giving them voice and who have been cut off from communities with which to share their frustration, fear, and grief.

As a man who thought broadly and observed the human condition minutely, there is almost no end to the way the COVID-19 crisis might have engaged Smith’s attention and interest. A skeptic of the “man of system” who pretends to knowledge he can never possess, he likely would be appalled at the idea of economic “lockdowns” that inhibit and even prohibit the human instinct to “truck, barter, and exchange,” recognizing that perfect laws tend to go beyond what human beings can bear. He might doubt the idea that the central government could, via subsidy, accelerate the scientific method in the production of drugs and vaccines or directly manage a national test-and-trace program, pointing to the problem of contingency—the unknown unknowns—that surround us. He likely would call for a careful weighing of the trade-offs in public health and economic policy, recognizing that “prudence” lies as often in taking necessary risks as it does in avoiding unnecessary ones.

But mostly, Adam Smith might be content. He would be pleased to see how well his theory and insight into human nature have helped to create the prosperity of our age and explain the trials and tribulations through which modern humanity is passing. And he would have some hope that the irresistible forces of human nature that draw us together might eventually overcome the immovable object of our viral contagion.

Reader Discussion

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on August 26, 2020 at 09:43:00 am

"In an historic moment where effects of widespread trauma and social isolation would tax the capacity of any leader, Trump is caught emotionally and psychologically flat-footed and appears one-dimensional under the klieg lights of public scrutiny. Imagine, by contrast, what Bill Clinton, Barack Obama or George W. Bush, all skilled at sensing and responding to the national mood, would have done with this moment."

Could it possibly occur to anyone at the American Enterprise Institute that a rather large reason why Trump got elected in the first place is because the American people were sick and tired of the previous era that got "skilled in the moment" presidencies like Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama? And that, despite Trump's "personality" or "deficiencies," Trump will still be re-elected, and rather easily at that? There was something (or a few things) about the previous era (call it the Indispensable Nation era) that neither Left nor Right want anymore.

BTW, I will humbly submit to you that, despite being "skilled in the moment," there would be easily 100k more deaths in the US from COVID-19 if the disease happened either during Clinton's, Bush 43's, or Obama's terms. And this is because, knowing what we knew about the economy during the times of those presidencies, there would have been No Way On God's Green Earth that those presidents would have allowed a lockdown of the nation's economy. There would have been mask requirements, social distancing guidelines, and that would've been the end of it. Along with at least 100k more deaths.

Again, we're in a somewhat different era, and started it before COVID-19 hit.

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Brad2971
on August 26, 2020 at 11:40:35 am

First, the economic shutdowns & mass house arrest orders happened at the state level. No POTUS has the Constitutional power to do those things or stop them, so the assumptions about what would have happened in early admins is non sequitur.

Second, Oxford U created and maintains a government stringency index that ranks the severity or laxity of government response by nation. Plotting the relevant deaths/capita for the same countries shows absolutely no correlation between the two - severity of policy does not predict lower deaths/capita anymore than laxity predicts higher deaths.

In short, the virus doesn't care about government policies...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on August 26, 2020 at 14:36:48 pm

It is impossible to truly establish an historical counter factual, but I suspect Presidents Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama would have delayed or fore-sworn any travel ban from China and later Europe, to the point that more infected people distributed over a wider geographical area would have created more cases sooner. We may end up with some minimal net number of cases (and deaths) no matter what, but the bans instituted by Trump (which might have been legitimately implemented even sooner) has provided some breathing space, probably saving several fold more lives than the 100K number you have estimated.

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R2L
on August 26, 2020 at 09:53:45 am

Is it so obvious Smith would have agreed to the enforced regimens we've been subjected to? I don't know might be a better response to such a question.

The original N. Ferguson projection was 2.2 million fatalities in the U..S. This together with the idea of an overrun health system was the original rationale behind the measures taken. Neither of those foreboding predictions occurred.

Too, the Hong Kong flu, 1967, with 100,000 fatalities and the Asian flu, 1957, with 120,000 fatalities is comparable to what we're presently experiencing. Adjusted to today's population numbers on a per capita basis, the '67 flu would adjust to roughly 170,000 and the '57 flu to about 220,000 fatalities. Again, comparable, very comparable indeed, to the numbers we're presently experiencing. (The same type of adjustment for the 1918 Spanish Flu would raise the fatalities to 2.4 million, from the actual 675,000 number.)

I.e., "I don't know" would be the better answer. But more critically it leaves open the question of how appropriate have our arguably draconian and certainly authoritarian measures been?

Highly inappropriate by my lights. And a strong indication of social and cultural dissolution and debasement.

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Michael Bond
on August 26, 2020 at 11:49:55 am

The available data from Oxford U's stringency index, when plotted against the relevant countries' deaths/capita show no correlation between policy and outcome.

So, the lesson is that no policy (shutdowns, mass house arrests, mask mandates, limits on public gatherings) were no worse in outcome than than the most severe policies...

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Image of OH Anarcho-Capitalist
OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on August 26, 2020 at 10:23:22 am

This essay is a political hit job on the President masquerading as professional analysis of the psychology of Adam Smith and the psychology of group behavior. The author is professionally unqualified to psychologize and a patently poor political analyst. Yet, it is apparent that he harbors a serious "Orange Man Bad" grudge, a personal contempt which he seeks to disguise as academic insight.

No one should be fooled. The essay is intellectual garbage. Send it to the Biden Campaign or, perhaps, to Slate Magazine; they may use it, although Adam Smith 's "The Theory of Moral Sentiments" is an intellectual stretch for most college-educated Democrat voters. While they are conversant in Marx and critical race theory, they lack psychological self-awareness and are ignorant of political economics, both of which are needed to grasp Smith.

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paladin
on August 26, 2020 at 11:47:01 am

Agree - The Theory of Moral Sentiments hijacked to smear Trump...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on August 26, 2020 at 12:15:39 pm

In Oregon we've seen the disconnect between the governor, Kate Brown, and the citizens of Oregon. Because of her many weird, excessive, dishonest, irresponsible, and perhaps criminal actions, she will likely face recall by the citizens. The recall petition requires 228,000 valid signatures. We currently have about 390,000 signatures. About 30% will be invalidated, so 400,000 are needed. At the rate Oregonians are signing we should have at least 411,000 by the deadline for receiving signatures. If enough signatures are gathered Brown will face a recall election. If she doesn't face a recall election it will almost certainly be due to some political gamesmanship from the corrupt-acracy.
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Brown seems to me and many others to be profoundly disconnected from Oregonians. She appears oblivious to the effects of her actions on everyday citizens. The consequence is her likely removal from office. I'm quite sure that politicos across the nation are watching these events because this action is a very real and substantive measure of how angry the public is. We are demonstrating a ready willingness to start removing politicians from office in large part because of her mishandling of covid and her disconnect with the citizens. The politicos will connect with that if nothing else.
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Adam Smith would be most satisfied.

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Scott Amorian
on August 26, 2020 at 14:49:27 pm

I am glad to hear about this recall campaign on-going in Oregon, as I haven't seen a whiff of it in the national media. Nor if there are any corresponding campaigns in WA, CA, MI, IL, NJ, or elsewhere where the spirit of Napoleon (or worse) has made its appearance. But given the proclivities of the majority of voters in these locales there is no guarantee their replacements will be any less "wokitarian", but perhaps only less obvious in their respective power grabs.

At the same time every state probably needs to reexamine their respective constitutions for the nature, timing, degree, etc. of the police powers they grant their executive branch(es), with or without follow up by legislative concurrence after declarations of emergency, as appropriate.

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R2L
on August 27, 2020 at 10:28:12 am

There is (or was) one in Washington to recall our Governor, Malcolm Milquetoast, Oops, I mean Jay Inslee but it has not gained any momentum , owing, I suppose to the "proclivities" of those voters in the Western part of the State which represents a majority of State citizens.

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gabe
on August 26, 2020 at 13:34:29 pm

"Many leaders in the Western world, from presidents to governors to big-city mayors, have gotten a significant and mostly sustained bump in public approval from COVID-19 just by channeling the fear and grief of the public and providing moderately competent administration—except Trump."

Oh, Yeah! Orrell is obviously referring to Cuomo, DeBlasio, Whitmer, Lightfoot and other "competent" politico's who have imposed near martial law on the citizenry, severely restricted liberties, enjoined the profession and practice of religious activities and stood by while their own ChiComm Flu protocols were violated in order to support rampant lawlessness as opposed to The Trumpster who has done none of the foregoing.
YEP!
At long last, we come to the crux of the matter: The Never Trumpers hate The Trumpsters personality and will consequently support anyone who is NOT Trump.
Yet, here we find Orrell recognizing (praising) Smith's likely disapproval of economic lockdowns while simultaneaously praising those Non-Trump politico's who are engaged in that very practice.
Oh well - anything, I suppose, to denigrate that defective personality, otherwise known as Donald Trump.

What is Law & Liberty engaged in and exchange of writers with National Review? - Weiner to NRO, Orrell to LLB.
How about we "designate [all] for assignment" as is done with failed baseball players.

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gabe
on August 26, 2020 at 15:04:45 pm

If the Republican Party (or the "Republican Party") is undergoing shifts in the coalition of its adherents, we probably still want to keep our pulse on the views and ideas of those who are leaving and those who are arriving. The rumblings of 2024 and beyond are already being seen/ heard. NRO and others may be realizing that no matter what the candidate(s) are available, we are faced with less than perfect choices in all cases - some being more tolerable than others across the corresponding spectrum of voters. (There is probably a pithy statement I could make about Liberty right now, but I am drawing a blank at the moment.)

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R2L
on August 26, 2020 at 14:32:43 pm

NR has dumped some of its dead weight; not enough yet to lift itself in the division. NR and The Weekly standard are stand-outs for a self-induced rush to the bottom. Yet, I doubt NR would make the trade Gabe suggests. L&L needs a talent scout and better editing.

Among think tanks, AEI, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings, and, most recently, even Heritage have fallen into the same pit of self-decline that bedevils NR. And look what has happened to the reputations of the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress as a consequence of choosing poor leadership!

It is amazing the damage that just a few mentally-fogged, uninspired, uninspiring thinkers can do to an entity's reputation. And how fast they can do it! Bad leadership, poor talent, bad results. Yet they all routinely point the finger at Trump, whose excellent leadership is demonstrable and talent unequalled. The finger-pointing is mere projection.

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paladin
on August 26, 2020 at 16:13:09 pm

"L&L needs a talent scout and better editing". Yes, more essayists and reviewers at the level of Amy Wax, David P. Goldman, Heather McDonald, et al. would be most welcome, along with more tightly focused and shorter essays. My quick search suggests that several good writers have said: "if it reads easy it wrote hard". Perhaps you should make a submission of your own for publication (compliment, not snark).

"choosing poor leadership": over the years I used the phrase "a company is known by the management it keeps" to express a similar idea. Good companies retain good managers/leaders; poor ones push them to the competition.

But the lack of real competition and suitable metrics (such as profit and loss) to really measure success in the political realm may be part of the problem. A number of issues should be relatively easy to solve, even if undesirable compromises are required:
1) comprehensive immigration reform.
2) a proper/wise balance of free/fair/managed trade agreements.
3) defining the necessary strategy for foreign affairs and defense planning, coupled to a proper role and authorization for DOD acquisitions and kinetic actions, plus correcting its out of control accounting systems.
4) some modification of the national healthcare system that balances private and public support so all are covered at less than 18% of GDP (Dr. Atlas' ideas, or others?).
But some issues seem to have no ready solution and that is where we are struggling, no matter how competent our leaders.
1) the decline in the moral certainty previously provided by traditional Judeo-Christian scriptures and practice, leaving so many willing to adopt any "ism" or cult that comes along, rather than aligning towards a socially accepted common outlook.
2) how to address the coming impact on lower talent human capital as automation and money capital continues to dominate our economy compared to labor [my view: promote savings and investment, but that may still not be enough].
3) what to do about the 3rd rail of SS and other debt/ entitlement programs looming on an ever closer horizon. Currently we are bankrupt but not yet broke, so we should face the coming defaults honestly. The first major nation that "solves" its debt problem will probably lead the world for decades to come.

We can all probably add items to both the "easy" and the "hard" column here. The hard items are going to require levels of personal and political trust and tolerance not seen in America in a long time (close to a war time footing).

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R2L
on August 26, 2020 at 17:27:18 pm

Ausgezeichnet!

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paladin

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