With COVID-19, Civil Discontent Must Not Lead to Civil Disobedience Ira J. Bedzow, Ph.D. Adam E. Block, Ph.D.
Medics and hospital workers tend to a COVID-19 patient outside the Montefiore Medical Center Moses Campus in the Bronx, New York City. Medics and hospital workers tend to a COVID-19 patient outside the Montefiore Medical Center Moses Campus in the Bronx, New York City. Photo: John Moore, AFP The government’s role is to take on challenges that are larger than ourselves. COVID-19 is one of those challenges, requiring us to sacrifice our basic freedoms to engage in the outside world and destroy millions of businesses and jobs to ensure the pandemic does not kill millions in the next few months.
Photo Credit: Jeff Kowalsky, AFP
People all over the United States are voicing their anger over some of the public health policies that states and local governments are enacting to slow the spread of COVID-19. They are protesting and calling for public demonstrations of civil disobedience. American 19th-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s essay Civil Disobedience is one of the great pieces of American political literature. It influenced not only today’s opponents of COVID-19 oppression but also leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Thoreau’s words inspire, and in them, one can see both the desire to fight against injustice as well as a motivation to take respiratory risks by gathering without keeping social distancing. He writes,
“I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest.” Yet, while Thoreau’s message can be best summed up in his introductory motto, “That government is best which governs least,” we must recognize the limits of an ineffectual or absent government when it comes to issues of common goods – things that provide public benefit yet are nevertheless limited.
Government’s Role During COVID-19 Governments are not good at figuring out whether a town can support a new pizza place or whether iPhones are superior to Androids. Private goods are best left to the market to determine their value and their supply. However, when events occur that demand massive coordination of millions of people and an intensive shift of resources, markets have limited power and ability to achieve the best possible outcomes. Individuals act in their self-interest, but when a community requires real sacrifice from those who are able to supply necessities to others, it is government alone that can succeed.
No company wants to shut down, and no person wants to be shut in, but without a vaccine, with no real treatment, and with virulence and lethality we have not seen in a century, only government with its power to keep people at home can solve this problem.
U.S. Government Response Today, in response to the challenges brought on by COVID-19, the U.S. government should do what it does best. It should fund and prioritize the allocation of resources to ensure individuals’ sacrifice is minimized and the public will successfully weather the current hardship. Specifically, the government should make rules that are best for the community, not for particular individuals. Individuals will always oppose regulations that they do not like, and some will do so even at the community’s expense. The authorities should not place the priorities of the few over the interests of everyone. The government should fund science to expedite a cure and vaccine, and use the Defense Production Act to ensure health care workers are protected when they put themselves in harm’s way to care for others. Lastly, the government should borrow and print money and distribute it liberally to those who can no longer pay for food, shelter, and utilities because of the pandemic.
Not Unprecedented We have leveraged the power of the American government to save the nation from physical and economic threats before. This is not unprecedented. In World War II, a generation of men was drafted and sent overseas to fight for the preservation of freedom and democracy in the world against an enemy focused on domination and subjugation, who were guilty of actual atrocities against liberty and humanity. The U.S. government not only mobilized a military force, but also created vast networks of funding through war