This week, again letting politics take precedence over science, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards continued until Jan. 13 an unproductive and intrusive set of government restrictions on public behavior to address the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. To understand why he and many on the political left persist in promoting and imposing this erroneous policy, an understanding of their ideology illuminates their mistaken actions.
Because the data show they clearly are mistaken. After many months, data have accumulated about the consequences of economic and behavioral restrictions, to the point from a public policy perspective we can draw certain conclusions: (1) degree of restrictiveness doesn’t vary with deaths caused by the virus (established through quasi-experimental methods), (2) as a corollary, excess deaths not attributed to the virus rose more the more restrictions existed (3) the relative ineffectiveness of wearing face coverings makes their mandatory use effective only in environments where inside recommended physical distancing for longer lengths of time cannot be established or for high-risk medical facilities, (4) in this pandemic hospital system capacity has not been significantly more strained compared to recent influenza seasons and the last (2009 swine flu) pandemic, and (5) deaths and hospitalizations for those under age 20 are almost nonexistent and extremely few occur among adults under 65 who don’t have some underlying co-morbidity factor.
To put it in public policy terms, nearly universal restrictions reaching far that match what Edwards has promulgated have produced essentially no additional societal benefits than policies with much less restrictiveness. As a point of departure, these restrictions include a statewide mask mandate when in public indoor and some outdoor locations; restaurants, gyms, salons, casinos, malls and other nonessential businesses must limit customer numbers to 50 percent of their occupancy rate; churches are restricted to 75 percent of occupancy; and venues like outdoor sports stadiums are set at 50 percent; bars are limited to takeout, delivery and outside seating, if parishes don’t meet the low percentages of coronavirus tests returning positive required to allow indoor drinking at bars; and indoor gatherings for weddings and events are restricted to 75 people or a maximum of 25 percent occupancy, whichever is less.
By contrast, following the science would suggest face covering mandates only in a few instances, such as on public transportation, large involuntary institutional settings such as jails, or where the sick and elderly congregate. Capacity restrictions of no greater than 50 percent in large venues would cover the rest.
But Edwards and other lackeys in his administration responsible for formulating and implementing his promulgated restrictions ignore the science because it contradicts the leftist ethos that permeates Edwards’ political beliefs (compatible in many cases with their own). Understanding why begins with a temporal comparison of societal attitudes as these existed during the last major pandemic of a century ago, the Spanish flu.
At that time, western (thus American) attitudes about death were in flux. For centuries prior, death was conceived as something neither normal and familiar, but nevertheless inevitable and could strike anyone at any time, regardless of age, wealth, or station in life, and typically occurred in a personal setting. But a transition from this conceptualization was underway, as medical technology improved that expanded greatly lifespans and reduced ordinary suffering, and as secularism decreased faith in a munificent afterlife, people began to see death as something aberrant if not forbidden that occurred typically not inside a person’s home life but in an institutional setting.
A century ago, the idea that government, much less the federal government, should provide protection against death essentially was minimal. More generally, far greater importance was placed upon the individual, his actions, and the voluntary associations he made, to secure the blessings of life without making claim to the resources of others and through the mechanism of government.
The response by New Orleans in 1918-19 illustrates this. Although the third-worst hit city in the country when all was said and done, the city – as agreed upon by local, state, and federal health officials with the acquiescence of state and local government – introduced draconian restrictions (similar, but not quite as drastic as those experienced in Louisiana earlier this year, and didn’t include any required masking) for only a short period less than a month after introduction of the virus. These lasted just over a month, when few restrictions remained as officials decided to let it burn through the population, and three months later the pandemic subsided.
Notably, the reaction then was much more nongovernment-driven than today’s. As well, the fatality rate (as of this writing) today is only half of that a century ago and in total deaths per capita (the city’s population is almost identical to what it was a century ago) only a fifth as much now, demonstrating all of the greater severity of the Spanish flu, its propensity to affect deleteriously across all age groups, and the lower effectiveness of medical science back then. The decision to have restrictions relatively briefly obviously shortened considerably the duration (five months; the current crisis has about doubled that and will go on for months more) and also likely led to more deaths.
Then, not encountering the virus was considered much more the job of the individual than of government. But as liberalism has evolved as an ideology in the decades since, it has more enthusiastically embraced the narrative that the individual has little agency over his life. The outcomes of your life, including indemnity against death, the left preaches is mainly a function of what government does for you, not what you yourself do because (in America, unless you are any or all of wealthy, male, white, Christian, and heterosexual, or in other words a winner of life’s lottery) the deck is stacked against you and you are less responsible for where you are in life than where systems have placed you, which only powerful government can redress.
Thus, in the eyes of Edwards and his ilk insofar as the pandemic, exercise of freedom by others poses a graver threat to your life than your own choices, or those made by those supposedly close to you. Even if, as typifies the vast bulk of the population, you have a microscopic chance of having anything worse than a mild case, you’re restricted where you can go and what you have to wear. Even if masks don’t provide much protection nor stop transmission well outside the confines of the lab, you have to wear them. Even if during most commercial transactions little in the way of transmission will occur (and to a population almost unaffected significantly even if it is transmitted), you still can’t operate at a capacity that would permit you to earn enough to keep the doors.
If you’re allowed to operate at all, which few bars in Louisiana can under Edwards’ current restrictions. But telling bar owners they can’t earn a living or you can’t patronize a bar isn’t justified if properly understanding that people have to take responsibility for their own actions rather than have government interfere with people’s right to assemble and move freely in the name of indemnification against difficult-to-acquire sickness.
In Edwards’ ideology, you can’t go to bars because you have too great of a chance of getting the virus and then spreading it. And it is the case that bars and restaurants, by the nature of their businesses, are super-spreaders. But it isn’t government’s job to usurp individual responsibility on this matter by stealing the rights of others.
Let all bars open. If you go to one, you know you have increased your chances of catching the virus. If that worries you, don’t go, but don’t spoil it for owners trying to run a business, workers there who choose that way to earn a living, or other people less risk-averse than you who want to hang around in bars by saying in order to protect you, government has to step in and close them all.
Your personal responsibility doesn’t stop there. Let’s say people who go to bars then man the checkout line at the grocery store you patronize, clerk at a bank you have to visit, and work with you at your employer (if you aren’t lucky enough to have a government job but still have one outside it). In that case, (1) keep six feet away from them if you’re around them for more than 15 minutes, (2) wash your hands frequently and watch what things and spaces you touch, and (3) wear a mask. If you live with people who go to bars or hang with people who do, if they won’t quit those associations then you do those three things around them. The times such as they are, it’s not the responsibility of other people to protect yourself nor the job of government to circumscribe others’ basic liberties to protect you, it’s first and foremost on you – not government – to keep yourself safe, and those you love.
The reason why Edwards and his kind have gotten away with their behavior is too many people in society disclaim personal responsibility in favor of government control over lives – and then inappropriately export the consequences onto others. The debasement that ensues stems not just from the fact that at a practical level much of what Edwards has ordered is of dubious effectiveness the costs of which exceed the benefits, but also at a philosophical level where it offends human dignity.
But that is what the left is all about – command and control to convey power and privilege to its members. It has become a defining characteristic of it over the past few decades to demand that those who do take responsibility for their decisions and actions pay for those who don’t, because the latter are an easily-mobilizable base that allows elites to achieve this command and control. As with every issue involving politics, the fault line has become all too clear through Edwards’ poor virus policy-making.