Economist Robert Samuelson, writing Americans are historically unhappy. But there’s a lesson to learn here, observes that
The connecting threads of these pessimistic surveys are the novel coronavirus and its devastating impact on the economy. Nearly everyone is affected in one way or another. There’s a clash between America’s individualistic culture (“You can’t make me wear a mask.”) and the need for a collective response (“If we don’t respond collectively to the pandemic — wearing the masks, practicing social distancing — then the virus will explode and make many more of us worse off.”).
Under the best of conditions, this is not an easy message to convey to the public. We need to surrender some of our individual choice to minimize the damage to us as individuals and as a society. Or, to say the same thing backward, if we insist on maximizing individual choice by refusing to follow the advice of doctors and scientists, then we lose control over our destiny. The resulting sense of helplessness and loss of control are deeply discouraging.
The role for leadership in a situation like this is to persuade most of the public about the nature of the paradox: that we protect individuals better when we act together, rather than asserting an artificial freedom that ultimately harms more of us as individuals. This is, in short, a central reason for having reliable presidential leadership.
Samuelson’s observation about temporary, limited restrictions on individual choice (such as something as easy as wearing a mask, of all things) during a pandemic should not be hard for rational people to accept. Indeed, a libertarian (as I am) should embrace these small-but-helpful restrictions for the sake of the individual movement within marketplace today and for a more readily contained pandemic tomorrow.
Mask-wearing and distancing, as tools of continuing, effective personal transactions, should be obvious, desirable options of first resort. Failing to do so reflects a fundamental ignorance about liberty: all liberty claims involve claims within an ongoing, functioning society; a person alone on a island has no practical liberty claim to make.
Just as people (including libertarians) sensibly wear overcoats in January, they should sensibly wear masks during a pandemic. It’s a sign of debilitating cultural decline that significant numbers within a community cannot see as much.