FDR nailed it: There is nothing to fear but fear itself.
The world is facing twin crises — one of health and one of behavior. The health crisis came first. A new strain of coronavirus originating in Wuhan spread quickly around the globe. Much about it remains unknown. It appears to be highly contagious but dangerous only to those with weakened immunity systems. We have yet to find either a cure or an inoculation. Though we learn more about it with each passing week, it remains a source of deep uncertainty — and thus of fear.
That fear gave rise to the behavioral crisis: closed cities, canceled events, shut businesses, and widespread quarantines. Authoritarian states have imposed these responses by fiat; freer countries have made many of them voluntary. In either case, the results have been much the same. Social distancing and hoarding have become the order of the day. Supply chains have been disrupted. Goods and people have stopped flowing. Tumbling financial markets have reflected this behavior — not caused it.
Which of these crises is likely to prove more damaging, more consequential, more transformative? While events could easily prove me wrong, I am far more afraid of the behavioral responses than I am of the virus itself.
I am not a public health expert. I concede freely that there are aspects of the health crisis that I do not understand — above and beyond those that are simply unknown. But I am a student of behavior, risk and rationality, as well as of politics, economics and history.
What I see is a civilizational inflection point. I see a world making widespread, fundamental, consequential decisions with minimal analysis and debate. Perhaps those decisions — at least in the aggregate — are wise and necessary. Perhaps — like so many decisions made in haste — they are not. Either way, there is no going back.
Take, for example, the idea that we must slow the viral spread without regard to costs. It's a noble sentiment, but should cost ever be irrelevant?
We've never closed the roads to minimize traffic fatalities. We've kept our schools running through bad flu seasons and previous epidemics. Our major sports leagues have kept playing even as many of their brightest stars shipped off to war. Yet in the face of this viral threat from Wuhan, we've already devastated the travel industry, disrupted education, terminated spectator events, encouraged telecommuting, and warned the faithful to avoid their communities. These moves have yet to ripple through society .
Are there any real surprises here? A culture that recognizes the right not to be offended glides easily into recognition of the right not to be infected. A culture that imposes broad liability teaches companies and organizations to elevate safety far above effectiveness. A culture whose media has ceased reporting facts in favor of shaping narratives has made itself easy prey for charlatans. A culture that promotes atomization and individual tastes sees minimal downside to increased isolation. A culture that denigrates God can never see the spiritual benefits of communal worship. A culture that takes abundance for granted will happily abandon the systems that created it.
Because American culture is all those things, the big decisions were easy. Arguments — even the nastiest, most defamatory partisan mudslinging — are at the margins. No prominent voice has argued against widespread shutdowns and isolation.
We have raced ahead without considering costs — and without considering another aspect of our own culture. Over the past 50 years, America has dispensed with the notion of temporary emergency measures. One man, one time, hid explosives in his shoes; 20 years later, we all remove our shoes at airports. Dismantling Jim Crow required setting aside hallowed notions like federalism and freedom of association; any attempt to reference them today is challenged as racist.
Today's emergency isolation measures will indeed reduce many risks in potentially beneficial ways; their future advocates will again ignore their costs. Telecommuting and distance learning will take huge leaps forward. Increased atomization and anomie will follow. The loneliness and meaninglessness that feeds suicide, mass shootings, and drug addiction will become the new pandemic. Because this plague is spiritual and emotional, however, many will deny its existence. Many more will deny its connection to our current behavioral epidemic.
Even more worrying is the economic effect. For two centuries, Western right and left have debated the role of economic growth. Karl Marx derided capitalists as growth addicts. A class in constant need of creative destruction to feed its growth addiction could never sustain its dirty habit indefinitely, he argued. Eventually, growth would reach its limits, the capitalist class would turn on itself, and those that it had discarded as obsolete would bring it down.
The growth addiction proved far more sustainable than Marx predicted. The American-led capitalist boom of continuous growth has taken humanity from a history of scarcity to an era of abundance. Pollution — the undesirable byproduct of production — replaced hunger as the quintessential human problem.
Throughout, the anti-capitalist left has complained that though today's lower classes enjoy unparalleled health, wealth, security, the constant pursuit of growth is inherently inequitable. The left has always argued against growth, preferring to distribute what already exists and hoping that scarcity will never again prove problematic.
A decade ago, in the wake of a global financial crisis, the left seemed ascendant. But from 2017 through 2019, President Trump brought growth back into the forefront. As recently as a month ago, while the left pursued its mad impeachment project, record numbers of Americans agreed that his growth-oriented policies had improved their lives.
Until it came to a screeching halt. Growth stopped mattering. We simply shut things down in the name of public health — with blissful disregard for the centrality of growth to our welfare as a society.
History has clear inflection points. Over the past quarter century alone, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Arab Spring reshaped broad swathes of the globe seemingly overnight. Americans like to believe that such change can't happen here, but it could. Before anyone notices, America could come to resemble Venezuelan anarchy, Syrian violence, or Chinese authoritarianism
Such a future is by no means certain. But in the space of a few weeks, with zero debate, we have made decisions and unleashed forces that make all three outcomes far more likely. And we have done it all out of fear.
FDR nailed it. We should indeed be afraid of fear itself.
Bruce Abramson is the President of Informationism, Inc., a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and the founder of the American Restoration Institute. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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