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Self-Interest, Wrongly Understood

Covid-19 and the limits of individual liberty


Back in April, when New York City was the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis, The New York Times’ Bret Stephens published a column entitled “New York Rules Can’t Apply to All.” The inset quote that Stephens’s editor had pulled out to summarize the column was, “A national lockdown is bad medicine and worse politics.” Stephens argued that the only reason New York City was in such dire straits was that the New York metropolitan area is the most densely populated in the United States; absent that degree of congestion, Stephens maintained, there would be no need for extreme measures such as lockdown quarantines to contain Covid-19.

Stephens opened the article with a sly reference to Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover, “View of the World From Ninth Avenue,” showing everything beyond the Hudson River and a nondescript New Jersey as a hazy blank. New Yorkers, by implication (and particularly those liberal intellectuals who populate the Upper West Side), were so self-involved as to believe their personal experience was relevant to people in other parts of the country.

Stephens recited statistics from the time: There had been more Covid-19 fatalities in Nassau County on Long Island, with a population of 1.4 million, than in all of California, with a population of 40 million. More people had died from Covid-19 in Westchester County (989) than in all of Texas (611). The number of deaths due to Covid-19 in New York City (132 per 100,000 residents) was more than 16 times that for the country’s next largest city, Los Angeles (eight). If New York were a separate country instead of part of the United States, the fatality rate among the remaining states, Stephens calculated, would be about 7.5 per 100,000, about the same level as in Germany.

Stephens then went on the attack. “No wonder,” he wrote, “so much of America has dwindling sympathy with the idea of prolonging lockdown conditions much further. The curves are flattening; hospital systems haven’t come close to being overwhelmed.... Right now, there’s a lot of commentary coming from talking heads (many of them in New York) about the danger of lifting lockdowns in places like Tennessee. Perhaps the commentary needs to move in the opposite direction. Tennesseans are within their rights to return to a semblance of normal life.... I don’t see why people living in a Nashville suburb should not be allowed to return to their jobs.”

Bret Stephens got his wish: For the following two months, political authorities throughout large swaths of the country declined to impose strict quarantines or even to mandate the wearing of masks. And this approach to handling the virus has proved disastrous. The curve of coronavirus exposure, far from flattening or staying flat, has skyrocketed nationally. Hospitals in California and Texas have run out of ICU beds, and that will soon be true in Tennessee as well. Tennessee was listed in mid-July as among the states with the highest daily rate of increase in identified Covid-19 cases in the country.

How did Stephens get it so wrong? He is an intelligent and well-educated person, with college and graduate degrees. He’s an accomplished journalist, with long experience in the gathering and checking of facts (which his position on global warming shows sometimes does fall short). But he did not call on either his intellectual resources or research skills before launching into his condescending and ill-informed peroration. The explanation, I think, might be found in his statement, during a discussion at the Aspen Institute, that the essence of true conservatism is “the principles of 1776”—meaning “classical liberalism” with its focus on “maximizing individual liberty.”

Could it be that Stephens is really a refined and articulate version of the folks you see on TV ranting and gesticulating at city council members or journalists or passersby in the street over donning masks in the service of public health? These self-styled sons and daughters of liberty insist that being required, or even asked, to wear masks and socially distance (let alone to observe a quarantine) is a violation of their constitutional right to do whatever they want, wherever they please, even if it endangers other people in the community, or themselves.

The claim that America’s political heritage is based solely on individual rights is a misinterpretation of history and philosophy. Thomas Jefferson, the tribune of classical liberalism, was equally an exponent of classical republicanism, with its emphasis on the obligation of citizens to participate in the political life of their community and attend to its collective needs. Alexis de Tocqueville, when he studied the United States in the 1830s, concluded that Americans had achieved a unique balance between these two conflicting traditions, and called the synthesis thus produced “self-interest rightly understood.” As Stephens’s colleague Paul Krugman has argued, it is Donald Trump’s fusion of irresponsibility and incompetence that has prevented the nation from mobilizing effectively to contain the spread of Covid-19. To his great credit, Bret Stephens has been one of Trump’s implacable enemies on the right. But in the same op-ed section, on the same day Stephens published his libertarian diatribe, former Republican congressional staffer Drew Holden, in a column titled “Why Some Conservatives Resist the Lockdown,” offered more nuanced reflections on the American libertarian conservative’s dilemma. “Conservatives shouldn’t conflate the ephemeral necessity of collective sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good with an assault on individual freedom, particularly in moments of crisis,” Holden wrote. “Not every compromise is a harbinger of tyranny.... As we attempt to marshal a collective response to the virus, our own instinct to see the world through only our own eyes presents yet another impediment that we must confront together.” Had the leaders of the right heeded Holden’s counsel instead of Stephens’s, the country could well be in far less treacherous, and lethal, straits today.