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Come Home, America

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared at realclearpolicy.com and is part of a special series of the American Project (sponsored by the Pepperdine Public Policy School) that seeks to address the crisis of loneliness during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

We are now embarked, again, on what William James called in a 1910 essay “the moral equivalent of war.” Nature has instigated it, but our government has issued the formal declaration. It’s become a familiar posture, although wars on poverty, racism, crime, drugs, terrorism, etc., are often fought by others and seem to require little from us. Not this one. Americans are summoned to a grand domestic project that will require military-like discipline and purpose, led by the federal government. We will fight this through pervasive isolation. The near-term devastation of our economy, particularly for many small businesses, will follow. We will live online. Even our churches and religious institutions are closed.

Should we fail, many will die, many others will get sick; the health-care system will be overwhelmed, harming others still. Even if we succeed — however we define victory — a large proportion of the population will get sick. And no one can state with precision how long this continues. It’s the full “moral equivalent of war” experience. A nation ravaged by deaths of despair, opioid abuse, declining rates of family formation, banal secularism, loneliness, gray divorce, high levels of private and public debt, irascible political disagreements, among other unpleasant trends, has been enlisted to fight it. You go to war with the army you have. And we don’t look so sturdy.

Every crisis is clarifying, generative, and destructive. If the Coronavirus War is the supreme conflict — and our leaders are making it such — then it will prove no different. Assume we go into economic and social isolation for three, four, 18 months. What follows? The assumption is that we take our lumps now and then we can move forward virus-free. But there are always tradeoffs. Political leaders seem surprisingly indifferent to the effects of isolation: increased suicides, drinking, drug-use, depression, anxiety, and ailments going untreated under a health-care system that could be at maximum capacity for months.

The fact that our politics has been rather evenly divided for the past few decades will likely evaporate. As Ross Douthat has observed, social media tends to absorb our worst political tendencies. What if the energy in that equation swings? Our lives under quarantine would then become almost epiphenomenal creations of the internet. Instead of social media receiving our passions, social media would become the springboard for our passions to jump out of the online world, and into the streets.

After the war, the economy will be in shambles. Loneliness and alienation — already evident in our society — will worsen and find relief in spiritualized politics. These are the kinds of socio-economic conditions in which a political leader may emerge and force our country in a new direction, making a future course-correction by an opposition party difficult, if not impossible. Think Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

For those of us who still believe in decentralization, civil society, markets, and disciplined government, I’m afraid the path home is increasingly narrow and winds up a rocky defile. After the pandemic, we will likely see certain collectivist trends in our politics solidify into policy settlements. I can envision some pro-market and decentralizing ideas becoming acceptable to Americans not previously persuaded by them. But, unfortunately, the evidence from crises past suggests that the state will grow, and principles of a free and responsible society will recede.

The costs won’t be merely deficits and dollars, rather the reshaping of America’s civic mores. The line between government and civil society will unravel further.

America will move from trillion-dollar annual deficits incurred in peace and prosperity to at least two trillion-dollar deficits during a recession. Bailouts, which were contested in 2008, are the first thing on the menu for this crisis. The debate will be only about the size of the bailout and how inclusive it should be. Besides bailouts, there will be monetary easing, and a propped-up equities market to “stabilize the economy.” After all, our leaders have put us on leave, ruined businesses, and caused unemployment to spike. Shouldn’t they pay us for it? This will set the stage for the next crisis and its round of bailees, the states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, and other states who will soon be unable to meet their unfunded public-sector union obligations because they are impossible to fund. Freedom without responsibility has led us to these outcomes. Instead of moving from strength to strength, we move from indiscipline to fundamental weakness.  

The costs won’t be merely deficits and dollars, rather the reshaping of America’s civic mores. The line between government and civil society will unravel further.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic will further tighten the screws on the parts of our health-care system still responsive to market forces. We will be told that “times have changed in our global world. We must prepare for the next epidemic, and that requires a government-directed health-care system.” The national community that “came together” to fight off the virus will be a symbol evoked for this purpose, with health care as the central weapon in the fight. Consequently, the reasoning will go, we must now make it available to everyone with public dollars and federal regulation.

The isolation economy will place almost crippling stress on many middle and working-class families particularly single-parent households — from multiple directions. Their children are now home from school, and they will struggle to oversee their children’s education and care while trying to maintain livelihoods. Unlike members of the knowledge class, who flip open their laptops for work, many parents in this cohort roll up their sleeves onsite. Their situations are sticky. Will the political and bureaucratic classes judge their child-care efforts during this crisis to be deficient and in need of government intervention? We will likely see a broad insistence that after-school programs, daycare, and other intensive social and familial government ministrations are required. In effect, state agents will be integrated further into the lives of many working families.

Finally, there are our churches and religious houses, which made the costly decision to close. As such, their role will be limited during this crisis, and that is a tragedy. Perhaps worse, their imperiled position in the culture will be worsened as a result. For what will be crucial in this war is to detach minds and wills from anxiety, fear, and loneliness. Who better to do that than a pastor, priest, or rabbi who can speak ancient biblical wisdom about the suffering that produces true life? Who and what fills this void? The answers unsettle.

Is a more optimistic future imaginable in the aftermath of the Corona War? A more hopeful vision might build on the notion that markets are about more than just wealth creation. They’re also forces of decentralization and social instruments that connect and match us together more adequately than government.

Assuming this pandemic is an extended crisis, we might see greater flexibility in health care, labor, and education regulation, so that a cash-strapped government in a recession facilitates cheaper options for Americans. After the war, many may realize that consumer-driven health care with certain backstops for the chronically ill would be the better method for lower prices and delivery of care. Many will be looking for new work opportunities. So perhaps we’ll finally shed burdensome licensing regulations.

What about education? Perhaps more parents will notice what those who homeschool their children already know from experience: that it only takes about 3–4 hours of instruction per day to educate a child. Why, then, do we have a seven to eight-hour public school day? What is really going on at my kid’s school? I’d like some choices. As for higher education, many parents may observe their young adult children being educated at home. They may wonder why that alternative isn’t available at a fraction of the cost. The point is not about online education so much as choice: Many parents might well conclude that the service of higher education doesn’t necessarily justify the price, or that there should be alternatives to the current model.

Yes, we’ll still get progressive calls for those measures outlined above, but Americans will also learn something about themselves, their families, their neighbors, and their communities that they didn’t know before. Americans will learn that while, yes, we’re all in it together, we’re also all in it as particular people with particular neighbors, situated in particular places, communities, and homes. We’ll remember that these are the things worth protecting more than progressive abstractions. America will come home to herself.

These realizations would only become clear over time, not immediately. And they would require that we think deeply in the middle of a global pandemic about what we really want as citizens and as humans — a better way to live, one that would be served by our politics. The easier path — especially when citizens are isolated and alone and wearied by fighting the moral equivalent of war — would be to acquiesce to the loud voices of soft despotism. Those voices prey on our faltering beliefs in the nobility of freedom and responsibility. Let us hope that those beliefs are steeled rather than weakened by our present crisis.

Reader Discussion

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on March 27, 2020 at 07:16:24 am

Nice piece, I hope much actualization of the optimistic view but don't know what to expect.

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Daniel Klein
on March 27, 2020 at 07:49:37 am

I see something rather different in the community where I live. Neighbors helping neighbors. An increased concern for the welfare of others. More frequent conversations with children who have moved away. Contact restored with friends who have been too busy to keep in touch. Rising contributions to local charities.

I have identified most of my life as a libertarian. Now at age 77 I see a younger generation who call them selves "libertarians" at the front of a new Brave New World movement that tells us not to worry about a few deaths, especially if they are people like myself, who selfishly cling to life even though, if we would just get out of the way, budget deficits would be smaller and GDP would be larger. No wonder I no longer use the label.

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Ed Dolan
on March 27, 2020 at 09:12:40 am

I said recently on this blog, "This pandemic will exert an acute shock to the nation's political and economic institutions and its moral foundation, a shock which, after 60 years of severe moral atrophy, the nation will be unable to withstand without suffering permanent, frightful damage. Richard Weaver's "Ideas Have Consequences" and Camus' "The Plague," may support my thesis. Their intellectual and creative insights are the consequence of WW II which, while vastly different in death, disruption and horror, may not be economically and psychologically dissimilar to the worldwide inferno we now enter.

The negative effects of the Red China Attack on World Health and Stability will include major further weakening of the embattled middle class, the expansion of the entitlement class, further empowerment of major international corporations, the weakening of small business, the further impairment of our now-enfeebled federalism, the further empowerment of our over-centralized, super-charged bureaucratic government and the increase of crimes of economic corruption and the further weakening of the nation's atrophied religious faith and moribund moral fiber."

Yet, in recent days the moral fog of medial and economic war has begun to lift, if only ever so slowly, and my prior nagging nabob of negativism" spirit has begun to dissipate, if ever so lightly. Rather, one might well now say "Goodbye to All That" and see with the Corona Crisis the passing of America's recent blighted era of a "new normal'' of national failure, of cynical unpatriotism and mockery of Americanism, of cultural decay, political rot, racial division, class resentment, elitist ignorance and greed, K-16 educational dysfunction and of blighted religious faith and community spirit .

Instead, as Instapundit commenter Bart Hall recently posted on Facebook, we might well see a rebirth of American greatness:
"Truckers are saying “fuck the log rules, I’m hauling” and they’re getting supplies to the stores. People are stocking the shelves all night and letting old people shop first. Folks are buying meals for truckers, who (obviously) can’t go through the drive-ups. Asking ’em what they want, then buying it for them.
Carnival Cruise Line has told Trump “We can match those big Navy Hospital ships with some fully staffed cruise ships”.
GM and Ford have said “hold our cars and watch this — we can make ventilators where we were just making car parts, starting next week” — by re-engineering seat ventilators which their engineers hacked together for a new purpose. In under a week.
In a project with which I’m loosely associated, a very-effective agricultural disease-control agent was re-purposed and re-labeled specifically for Corona-virus control by the FDA and EPA in under ten days, from initial request to distribution.
Restaurants and schools have said, “we’ve got kitchens and staff; we can feed the poor kids who used have school lunch.”
NBA basketball players have said, “Hold our basketballs while we write checks to pay the arena staff.”
Construction companies are saying, “Here are some high-end masks for medical staff and doctors”.
Distilleries are making sanitizer out of distilling “heads and tails” which are normally discarded. Nasty shit to drink, but effective sanitizer.
People are tipping grocery check-out clerks and thanking them for taking the risk.
Local, state, and county governments are taking control of everything the feds cannot do. Some are doing it wrong, but for the first time in decades … they’re doing it. Federalism is re-emerging, and the smallest unit of government is the individual and the family. This, too, is re-emerging after decades of dormancy.
As Japanese Admiral Isokuru Yamamoto said, after Pearl Harbor … “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
I sense this has just happened. We have a wonderful country, the greatest single force for good in all human history. We have closed our borders, with good reason, yet we have top medical people now assisting North Korea in their response to the virus.
Many things have been re-set, and will never be the same.
By microbiological accident, we are living in profoundly transformative historical times."

Perhaps America's defensive war against the "Red China War on World Health and Stability" will help President Trump Make America Great Again.

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Paladin
on March 27, 2020 at 14:23:12 pm

It is both true and encouraging that the acts of kindness and community you cite in your post are occurring and undoubtedly will continue to occur.
Me, I am still "stuck" on the image of the "slowly boiling frog" who may initially feel comforted by the ever so slight increase in temperature but who after a time comes to the realiziation that he is trapped in a boiling cauldron from which there is no escape.

Bit by bit, our Masters are slowly conditioning us to the possibility, all in "good cause" of course, to heretofore unimagined (damn it - the spelling IS correct) restrictions on liberty while simultaneously cultivating methods on the most efficient implementation of possible future application(s).
And not at all dissimilar to the noted and pronounced enhancement of governmental powers and intervention under wartime protocols some number of these "emergency" measures are sure to survive the end of the emergency.
What they are, I can not tell, nor would I hazard a guess but...
A bottle of excellent Walla Walla Valley Petit Verdot should I be wrong.

Can it be that our Masters are apt to (willfully ?) confuse American's inherent cooperativeness for compliance?
Will this be viewed as a signal indication of our purported desire for more governmental "beneficence"?
Not just a question; perhaps, more of a fear.
Now back to my government mandated, albeit NOT gubmnt provided, Hobbit Hole

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gabe
on March 27, 2020 at 09:42:50 am

Your essay starts out so pessimistically I almost didn't read to the end. But every crisis is both challenge and opportunity. The progressive left knows how to leverage the opportunity of a crisis. We had better learn to do the same.

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Al
on March 27, 2020 at 23:48:02 pm

Political leaders seem surprisingly indifferent to the effects of isolation: increased suicides, drinking, drug-use, depression, anxiety, and ailments going untreated under a health-care system that could be at maximum capacity for months.

If political leaders were more sensitive to these issues, how would we know it? Reinsch already concedes, “Americans are summoned to a grand domestic project that will require military-like discipline and purpose, led by the federal government.... Should we fail, many will die, many others will get sick; the health-care system will be overwhelmed, harming others still. Even if we succeed … a large proportion of the population will get sick.” Thus I don’t see evidence of political indifference; I see evidence of necessity and constrained options.

For what it’s worth, the NYT offers support for the idea that the best way to minimize deaths—even include deaths by suicide—is to control the disease, and the best way to reduce depression is to reduce the number of people who will be killed by the disease. Note that the recent spike in “suicides of despair” occurred during an economic boom with few constraints on social mobility.

[E]vidence from crises past suggests that the state will grow, and principles of a free and responsible society will recede.

America will move from trillion-dollar annual deficits incurred in peace and prosperity to at least two trillion-dollar deficits during a recession. Bailouts, which were contested in 2008, are the first thing on the menu for this crisis. The debate will be only about the size of the bailout and how inclusive it should be…. This will set the stage for the next crisis and its round of bailees, the states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, and other states who will soon be unable to meet their unfunded public-sector union obligations because they are impossible to fund. Freedom without responsibility has led us to these outcomes.

I share the expectation that we’ll see a growth in government.

But I don’t share much expectation that principles of free and responsible society will recede—because those principled died long ago. As Reinsch hints, the Republican Senate stonewalled many efforts to provide an economic safety net during the largest recession in 75 years—yet was only too happy to plunge the nation into trillion-dollar deficits and business subsidies when Trump came into office. And yes, since the dawn of our republic, the 50 states have now amassed pension debts that have surpassed $1 trillion—the same amount of debt that our federal government has been accruing EVERY. SINGLE. YEAR. So I find this professed umbrage over state pension debts to be laughable.

Fiscal responsibility comes solely from the conscience of the executive—and solely if the executive is a Democrat.

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nobody.really
on March 27, 2020 at 23:48:42 pm

After the war, the economy will be in shambles.

Maybe.

Or maybe the richest nation in the world will find the will to subsidies its unemployed population through this process, thereby keeping large parts of the economy going.

Maybe we’ll discover that people who have had the virus acquire immunity. As we test more people, we’ll discover that this virus has been around longer than we had realized, and that we already have a substantial share of the population with immunity—and we’ll get more every day. Under this scenario, we’ll have difficulty restraining impatient people—especially young, healthy, working-class people—from rushing out to infect themselves in order to accelerate their process in getting immunity, thereby gaining an advantage in the labor market. (Rather like high schools and colleges competing to be the first to conclude their school year so that their students can get into the job market sooner than their rivals.)

Hard to say.

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nobody.really
on March 29, 2020 at 07:05:25 am

Blessed with oenophilia while suffering house arrest during the "Red China War On World Health and Stability," I offer this as a means of staying mentally and physically fit:
COVID 19 EXERCISE ROUTINE.mp4

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Paladin
on March 28, 2020 at 15:30:11 pm

The easier path — especially when citizens are isolated and alone and wearied by fighting the moral equivalent of war — would be to acquiesce to the loud voices of soft despotism (or the loud voices of hard (exclusionary) nationalism).

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Anthony

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