When will social distancing end? The unfortunate truth is that we were already socially distant, and we were already suffering for it.
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.
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.