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Make America Selfish

"You can’t build a 'no peeing' section in the swimming pool."
May 12, 2020
Make America Selfish
(Hannah Yoest / Shutterstock)

The images of a packed restaurant in Castle Rock, Colorado, shoppers in Arkansas, and crowded beaches in the midst of a spreading pandemic felt like a turning point, because, let’s be honest, they were.

The social contract is unraveling.

While most Americans continue to tell pollsters they are worried about re-opening the country, a substantial number have simply decided they are done with it. And by done with it, they mean done with it all: the social distancing, the wearing of masks, treating the pandemic as a BFD. We’re not talking about the protests or the politics here, but rather the jail-break-like decision by millions to defy the quarantines.

As Reason magazine reports:

Visits to fast food restaurants and gas stations have already returned to their pre-coronavirus baselines in rural regions, Foursquare reported. While suburban and urban areas are still below normal, those areas have seen 15 percent growth since the end of March.

This is understandable, because the social, personal, and economic costs of the shutdown have been extraordinary; and nothing this inconvenient can last forever. People want to get on with their lives, and really, who can blame them?

But there’s another undercurrent:  We aren’t all in this together anymore, are we?

As Dr. Anthony Fauci will warn the Senate today, a premature return to normalcy “will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”

So when the president declares that Americans are “WARRIORS,” he redefines the word to mean a willingness to risk getting sick and to infect others. That chorus has been taken up by other “thought leaders” who conflate American Greatness with going to Arby’s; and who seem to have confused recklessness with courage, and freedom with me-firstism.

This is not how healthy societies respond to a crisis.

Imagine for a moment London during the Blitz, and thousands of residents simply decided to turn on the lights and open the shades because they were tired of the blackout. Imagine a nation in the grips of a plague where the public decided that only cucks took precautions . . . oh, wait.

The essential element in all of this is voluntary compliance. There are simply not enough cops, not enough bureaucrats, and not enough monitors for it to be otherwise.

But the problem now is not the lack of cops, it’s the erosion of a culture that calls us all to common purpose and sacrifice. In other words, a culture bound by a social contract that says we are in this together.

Conservatives used to understand this. Insisting on responsible self government is not the opposite of freedom, it is the essential predicate. Freedom-oriented conservatives used to argue that individuals and non-governmental institutions would act in their rational self interest and would do a better and more effective job than bureaucratic top-down fiats.

But this requires responsible and credible moral leadership to reinforce responsible conduct.

Those norms (like simple good manners or even rules of gun safety) are enforced both formally and informally; by public exhortations to responsible conduct, but also by the informal values of peer groups that quietly urge us not to give into our dickiest impulses. These norms may have been codified in formal rules, but they were enforced because they were accepted, honored, and reinforced on a daily basis informally. We can all remember some older individual or colleague who quietly cautioned us against taking a rash action telling us that it was a bad idea or that it was not the way to do things.

Which brings us to the masks.

For most people wearing a mask is neither pleasant nor natural. Nor is isolating oneself.

Peer pressure is crucial. If you walk into a room where everyone is wearing a mask, you are likely to comply; walk into a room where only a handful are wearing one, and you are more likely to keep it in your pocket.

So it is all the more important for social networks and trusted voices to more or less constantly reinforce the importance of such actions. People need to be persuaded, encouraged, and reminded by trusted voices that this is a good idea. When that social network turns against the sacrifices, the process falls apart, no matter what the law says.

But if you spend any time on social media, or have watched the president’s latest press conference, you know how this is going.

Obviously, this breakdown is going to have huge consequences, because the key to fighting the pandemic is not simply technical (testing and tracing) but also political and social.

This is a useful thread. Stanford professor Keith Humphreys warns that countries that have successful testing programs not only have more deference to government, but also more of a sense of communal social responsibility. Testing programs, he notes, “depend on people being so compliant that they will stay home for 14 days because a health worker told them to. Meanwhile, in Detroit last week a grocery store security guard was shot in the head for asking someone to wear a mask.”

Health professionals, he writes, have not yet asked hard questions such as “What do you do when millions of Americans refuse to take your tests?” and “What do you do when many of the people you order to isolate, or to close their business, angrily refuse?”

Here is his kicker: In a mobile nation like ours, “you can’t build a ‘no peeing’ section in the swimming pool.”

“That’s why America is more or less going to end up with Swedish coronavirus policy, not because we universally agreed to consciously choose it, but because we couldn’t universally agree—and never have—about fundamental issues surrounding politics and health.”

Meanwhile, even as COVID-19 spreads through his own White House, Donald Trump will never wear a mask.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.