The 1776 screed convincing many Americans it was time for independence from Great Britain, Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," bore a title that has always characterized our country. We are a people who have, in general, shunned the kind of ideology that has wreaked havoc in Europe, Asia, and South America, and have striven for practical solutions to political and social problems.
It's time to apply that kind of thinking to our current coronavirus crisis, and to reflect on whether another sort of ideology now poses a great danger to our way of life.
That ideology is not the kind of socialism being advocated by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and others of their ilk; their notions would probably be destructive enough — but we face a subtler menace.
That is the belief in the virtues of "science" to solve all our social problems.
This seems to be what motivates some criticism of President Trump’s recent announcement that he hopes the country will be back open for business by Easter.
A typical blast came from the president’s usual nemesis, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said on March 26, referring to the desire to return the nation to normality, "It won't happen unless we respect science, science, science. And for those who say we choose prayer over science; I say science is an answer to our prayers."
A similar point was made by one of my former law students in response to my last posting on this site, who remarked, "I think we show wisdom and temperance by listening to epidemiologists and not law professors on this one."
But just as war is far too important to be left to generals, what to do about a pandemic should not simply be left to the epidemiologists.
The problem, which was flagged some years ago by former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, is that "[There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."
With the Covid-19 virus we don’t actually know precisely how it spreads, how many Americans are infected, how long it has been with us, or how and when the epidemic will end. And, as usual, we don’t even know precisely what we don’t know about it.
A sign of these difficulties is that one of the UK’s leading epidemiologists, Imperial College’s Neil Ferguson, who had originally predicted that 2.2 million Americans and more than half a million people in the UK would die from the virus, on nearly the same day Nancy Pelosi was praising “science, science," walked back his dire scenario.
Testifying before Parliament, Ferguson declared that "UK deaths from the disease will not exceed 20,000 and could be much lower."
Every death is, of course, a tragedy, but we are learning that most of those who die from Covid-19 have other illnesses. If this virus hadn’t led to their demises, it’s quite likely something else, in the near future, would have ended their lives.
If that’s the case, then one might well ask whether it made sense for the U.S., as we did, to rely on the original study by Imperial College’s Ferguson, which resulted in the virtual shutting down of our economy, to prevent the spread of the virus.
That shutdown reduced the paper value of many retirement savings by one-third or so, we raised unemployment compensation applications to record levels, and we created extreme social distress by extreme social distancing.
This is not to say that common sense measures, involving personal hygiene, self-quarantining, and seeking to avoid infecting those most at risk were not warranted.
Still, technocratic expertise, such as that possessed by epidemiologists, is not the same thing as judgment, and the models they use are only as good as the assumptions they make when setting them forth.
What gives life meaning in this country (and any other) is the free association of each of us with each other, the joint expressions of our faiths, and the collective striving for the best means of meeting the needs of our nation, our families, and, for many of us, our God.
We must, unfortunately, rely on politicians for the manner in which we live our lives.
Still, Mrs. Pelosi may have it backwards to suggest that science is the answer to our prayers. Faith and common sense are equally important guides, and so is the political wisdom the president demonstrates by seeking to quash panic and return us to normality.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). Presser was a Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado's Boulder Campus for 2018-2019. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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