Two technologies made the COVID-19 pandemic the crisis it has become. Inexpensive global air travel assured that the new coronavirus would spread quickly to nearly every part of the world. The internet assured that the panic would travel faster, penetrate further, and mutate more than the virus itself. It’s the speed of infection and (mis)information that knocked us off our footing as much as anything.
That’s the opinion of a Mackinac Center friend I caught up with by phone the other day. Coming from an 88-year-old entrepreneur, the hypothesis is entitled to a little respect and fleshing out. Air travel and internet communication are valuable mainly because they’re configured in the form of networks. And networks compress time.
Trips (before current restrictions) that would take weeks now take days. They can be scheduled in moments for departure in hours. Many trips we’re now accustomed to taking simply never would have happened before air travel became so fast and cheap.
Mail that once took days is now email that takes seconds, thanks to internet pulses that take milliseconds. What had cost a few nickels is now indistinguishable from free. Build these global networks, slash their costs, accelerate them exponentially, and time and friction shrink. Travel and communication haven’t just sped up and become cheaper. They’ve become whole new things.
But viruses are very old things. So are human misunderstanding, fear and panic. Even though we are learning quickly about the transmission, effects and eventual treatment of the virus, bad information is overwhelming the useful information. It shows how “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” People don’t know who to believe, what to do, how bad things can get, or how long until there is relief.
Governments, especially here in Michigan, have imposed a heretofore unimaginable, prolonged crackdown on virtually every aspect of human interaction in the name of preventing virus-caused deaths. To call it an economic lockdown is to miss a much larger point about society. We are social creatures with inalienable rights who need physical resources in order to have healthy bodies and full lives. We are complete beings, with physical, emotional and relational needs.
Our well-being cannot be reduced to one dimension (such as physical health). Nor can it be precisely calculated by the experts on whom government officials say they rely to craft “scientific” and “data-driven” restrictions on our lives, liberties and happy pursuits. For our own good, they imply.
We expect government to wield some clearly defined emergency powers in genuine emergencies. It must be done without abrogating the rights of the governed, and it must be done to reduce overall harm, not just some harms. Enacting policies that maximize responding to the virus at the expense of earning a living and being with loved ones is like saying people need air but forgetting they also need water and food.
The virus is a serious threat, yet we can’t expect to eliminate its risks. Free people balance hundreds of large and small risks every day. It’s part of life. Anyone might prefer to require their fellow neighbors to treat every risk as conservatively, or liberally, as they do. But nobody gets their way all the time. In a free society, that includes public officials, which is what limited government is all about.