Adversity II: Politics and COVID-19



I’m going to continue on the theme of adversity, this time focusing on what might be some of the political consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic we’re all living through. Experiences of socially shared adversity can bring about a kind of reflection that seldom happens under more normal circumstances. It can also be an occasion to rethink some things. I want to focus on a couple of political themes that we’ve been hearing a good deal about lately and a couple more that we haven’t.

Let’s start with freedom. Emergency measures that include temporary business and institutional closures and stay-at-home orders have occasioned a moderate amount of protest, mostly in the United States and mostly among conservatives. On a recent podcast on the ethics of emergencies I suggested that while freedom is a value we would do well to worry about in the current state of our democracies, I’m not particularly concerned about the kind of emergency measures that have been put in place in so much of the world in recent weeks. I’m also not in a hurry to remove these measures, protecting the public health and keeping people alive being rather important values that conflict with personal liberties and, in my view, can well outweigh them provided we have a genuine emergency and that any such measures are truly necessary, proportionate, and also temporary—and not temporary in the way that income tax was. We do need to be watchful that governments don’t use this emergency as a way to rationalize longer-term curtailments of our freedoms. Emergency measures are justified for as long as emergency conditions remain in place and no further. Once the emergency is past, we wouldn’t want our rights to become contingent on politicians’ day-to-day utility calculations; or once our rights do depend on nothing more than calculations of this kind, they’re no longer rights. As I’ve suggested before, what I worry about far more than the temporary measures that have been put in place, which are there for everyone to see, are the myriad small liberties that are either removed or not recognized in the first place on the grounds of social utility and which don’t attract notice for the reason that they’re small and mundane. They also accumulate. Ask anyone who owns a small business exactly how many regulations they have to deal with, how many government inspectors they’ve had the pleasure of doing business with, how much they pay in taxes; ask anyone who’s tried to build a garage or have an addition put on their home how many regulatory hoops they had to jump through, how many bureaucrats they had to deal with, how many forms needed to be filled out, licenses needed to be obtained, fees paid, and so on. The iron cage of regulation, management, bureaucracy, inspection, and taxation doesn’t take away your freedom in one fell swoop. It’s the death by a thousand cuts, each of which purchases some small utility, that I worry about.

The second theme I want to talk about is the divisiveness that has increasingly come to characterize our politics, not only in the Unites States. It’s a multifarious and base phenomenon: hyper-partisanship, politics as a zero-sum game, culture wars, identity politics, the idea that the individual citizen is in their heart of hearts a member of a group of one kind or another, that their thinking can only be a form of group-think, and that the business of politics is for everyone to retreat into their tribe and come out fighting, always to be angry and aggrieved at something. Nietzsche’s will to power springs eternal and now is primarily a group phenomenon visible on both the right and the left. Socially shared adversity on a large scale might remind us all of something that politicians sometimes say but probably don’t mean: we are in this thing—this experiment in democracy—together, for better or for worse. We are, and we don’t need to share an identity or an ideology for this to be the case. In an emergency situation we often see people coming to the aid of strangers, whoever they are, with no particular motive but to help, and we’ve seen a lot of it lately. There’s a nobility in this, and it’s not limited to first responders and health care professionals. People working at some risk to themselves in grocery and drug stores for minimum wage, for example. Many a good citizen labors in obscurity, earns a modest income and never hears a thank you. A decent society has a lot of people like this—people who are able to see beyond themselves and their group. Before the end of the Cold War, we heard a lot less about identity differences within our societies than we have in recent years. There’s nothing like real adversity to banish the pettiness that consumes so much of our politics. Maybe a global pandemic will motivate some of us to worry a little less about whether my identity group is climbing the ladder any faster or slower than yours.

Another issue that’s worth thinking about is whether the current crisis might affect some change in the short-termism of our politics. As a rule, politicians in any democracy deliberate about any and all issues with one overriding goal in mind: winning the next election. They care about other things, but nothing takes priority over this. The name of the game is gaining power, and once you gain it, holding it for as long as you can. Since the next election is never more than a few years away, all deliberations happen within this time frame—including when the issue we’re thinking about has consequences a decade or a few decades down the road. This is one reason why action on environmental issues or national debt has been so ineffectual and is likely to remain that way. Long-term goals that conflict with short-term ones lose out, more or less always, and we pay a high price for this. Speaking of long-term thinking, more pandemics like COVID-19 are likely to happen again over the next several decades, and short-termism isn’t going to prepare us for it.

One final issue that ought to come into question in a new way after this crisis is our relationship with China. In recent years many social critics in the west have been slow to criticize the Chinese government in any meaningful degree, in part likely because they don’t want to be accused of racism or mistaken for Trump supporters, however, we need to take a clear-sighted view of the Chinese government and the party that controls it. This nation has been enriched economically and emboldened on the world stage largely due to trade with the west and the wholesale transfer of manufacturing industries from western nations, with our high labor costs, to a nation with dramatically lower labor costs and a radically different business climate. The Chinese Communist Party remains as oppressive an institution as ever it was, and in the event of future outbreaks that originate in that country we can assume that it will follow a similar pattern of denial, saving face, and covering their tracks when the whole world has suffered tremendous cost because of their failure to contain this virus at an early point. Authoritarian regimes face a permanent imperative not only to retain power but to legitimatize themselves in the eyes of their people—ideally foreigners as well—and the way this is achieved is through a combination of seeing to the basic needs of the people while controlling their behavior and access to information and ideas, and the CCP is second to no institution in the world in the art of control. Even in the unlikely event that serious consequences come to bear upon the Chinese government for its handling of this crisis, we can expect that government to follow a similar pattern of behavior in the event of a future outbreak of this kind. They will do what authoritarian governments everywhere do when this kind of thing happens: deny, obfuscate, cover their backside, and do everything possible to hold onto power. One day, I hope and believe, the CCP will meet a similar fate as the old Soviet Union, but don’t hold your breath. In the meantime, governments around the world ought to rethink our relationship with this state and also get serious about incentivizing companies that moved their operations to China to return home. The Chinese government holds a permanent position on the UN Security Council and was recently appointed to the UN Human Rights Panel. Does anyone believe that their rights are more secure now that the CCP will be offering advice to the UN about human rights policy?

There are many other political consequences that might follow upon the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve mentioned what I see as a few of the major ones. Next time I’ll talk about a couple of possible consequences that are more sociological and that concern issues of lifestyle.

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