At first glance, it looks as though the coronavirus pandemic has burnished the reputation of authoritarianism. Chinese authorities had the capacity to construct hospitals in a matter of weeks and the mechanisms of surveillance and control to effectively lock down much of their country. Italian society, in contrast, seems to demonstrate the dangers of happy, chaotic, cheek-kissing freedom. At least when it comes to preventing the spread of disease, a political system that centralizes power appears to have a distinct advantage over a free society.
This impression is widely shared and at least partially wrong. The immediate response of the Chinese system — a system built on fear — was denial and deception. No one wanted to carry bad news to their superiors. The incentives were all against taking initiative. Local officials in Wuhan tried to play down the severity of the outbreak. Doctors who gave warnings were detained. Families of the dead were not told what was happening. Numbers of the infected were underreported.
Authoritarians are good at things that require mass action without public input. They are bad at running systems that require early warning of bad news, that depend on transparency and that demand independent action at a level close to problems.
But free nations are facing a test of their own. Can open societies act quickly and decisively against the threat of disease? Can systems based on individual choice take concerted action to achieve the common good?
There is a type of liberalism that rejects the whole idea of pursuing a common good. The role of government, in this view, is to allow individuals the social space to seek their own vision of what’s best. The aggregation of these individual choices converts into general progress. So the common good is achieved without willing it or intending it.
A public health crisis renders this view useless. In this case, there is a technique for mitigating the spread of disease that is dictated by scientific evidence: social distancing. But for it to work, it must be specifically and broadly willed, even by those who might prefer to act otherwise. The common good can result only from millions of conscious choices.
This presents particular problems for our country. When Alexis de Tocqueville described how Americans generally achieve the common good, he mentioned two principles. The first was “self-interest rightly understood.” Americans, in his view, understood how “an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another.”
But the coronavirus is a case where risk is very unevenly distributed. Fatalities start spiking dramatically when an infected person is in their 60s, 70s or 80s. If the risk were more evenly allocated by age, appealing to self-interest would be easier. But people in their 20s or 30s, in our current crisis, must sacrifice primarily for the benefit of others.
Second, Tocqueville observed that Americans achieve the common good through voluntary associations. “In every case,” he said, “as the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.”
But infectious disease advances through association. It is best confronted by withdrawing from your neighbor. By not visiting the sick. By physically avoiding the frightened elderly. In this case, we seek the common good through disassociation, which is hardly the American way.
Even so, the crisis has provoked a broad, voluntary response. In a vacuum of presidential leadership, government agency heads, governors, college presidents, school officials and business leaders have often taken extraordinary initiative. The stigma against complacency has grown steadily stronger. We have seen a nation effectively cancel its social life for the indeterminate future.
I have no idea if these actions came soon enough (though we will know soon enough). But it would be a mistake to underestimate the ability of a free society to take common action. Beneath the ideology of American individualism, there is an implicit theory of the common good — what our ancestors called the “commonweal” or the “general welfare.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made this principle explicit. “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny,” he said, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” At our best, we believe in something greater and higher than personal autonomy. We believe that our national commitment to human dignity requires a special concern for the vulnerable and elderly. We believe that our duty is found in their welfare. We believe that all of us are diminished when any are lost.
And only our best will now do.