At last the state has the panic it has tacitly sought, cultivated, and gradually exploited since 9/11. A contagion, or pandemic affects far more people than targeted attacks launched from aircraft, or destruction of three skyscrapers via controlled demolition. These are dramatic acts, but in the end, they are controlled. An invisible killer passed unwittingly from one person to the next – that is the perfect inducement to panic, the perfect foil for government’s insistence that it can keep us safe only if we submit totally to its authority.
Ultimately, government does not have resources to extract unconditional obedience from people. That is why it relies so heavily on fear. Imagine a less centralized response to this disease. Hypothetically, imagine how groups of people would respond in a condition of anarchy, where no government exists. Everything else would be the same: the state of our medical knowledge, a continent with widely varying population densities, efficient transmission of information. The only structural difference would be no public institutions with authority to command, or to enforce orders. We would have self-help groups, and public institutions without that authority.
People would still be fearful, cautious, and anxious. Our society would still have leaders. People would become ill; some would die. I do not believe we would have a national shutdown, nor the sense of helplessness that develops when outside authorities give orders but do not help. The level of anxiety about access to health care would not be so high. In fact, access to local resources of all kinds would be much greater.
We have lived with central control of resources, and direction from remote authority for so long, our imaginations do not readily conjure highly dissimilar alternatives. A few individuals think of freer, less directed states of living together at every opportunity, but when any kind of threat develops, existing authority wins the day. Arguments about alternate worlds seem pointless, a waste of precious time, and an invitation to greater danger.
That is not true. The state – governments and public institutions in general – are not competent to protect us. They give orders, they expect obedience, they punish non-compliance. Not one bit of this coercive machinery suggests that we are safer as a result. Every bit of historical evidence we have indicates that the more powerful governments become, the more dangerous they are. They become incompetent in their self-appointed role of protector, and they become a threat in their own right. Not one story of government growth and pride has turned out otherwise.
Evidence of beneficial outcomes for self-help groups is everywhere. Development of our own country for two and a half centuries illustrates the almost miraculous ability of local leadership, mutual assistance, locally based resource management, self-government, community goodwill and expertise to accomplish good outcomes for all, in emergencies as well as more steady times.
You might still ask, what is the point of all this hypothetical thinking, when we have an emergency right now, right in front of us. How does thinking up imaginary worlds help us make good decisions now? A simple example illustrates how.
We have seen the shortage of assays for coronavirus grow day by day for almost two months. We saw the crisis coming, we knew ready access to tests for everyone who wanted or needed a test would be an important tool to address and manage this public health problem, and to ameliorate its effects. Yet the federal government withheld its approval of these tests for two months, rather than assist emergency development and distribution of coronavirus assays everywhere. Even now, with the pandemic getting worse, the FDA limits access to coronavirus tests.
Now imagine a situation where no person, laboratory, business firm, or institution with resources and expertise to develop and distribute these tests had to seek or gain any approval at all. Does anyone believe we would be less safe without the FDA standing guard? Does anyone believe the FDA acted in our interest when it acted as gatekeeper for distribution of coronavirus assays? Of course not. It acted according to protocols and regulations developed long ago, protocols that above all preserve its role as gatekeeper.
Top-down arrangement of regulations, permissions, and enforcement has actual consequences for a lot of people. We can change this regime incrementally, just as it developed incrementally. In a crisis like the current pandemic, we need to change the state’s historical trajectory from greater central authority to less central authority. The only way to accomplish a change like that is to imagine benefits of such an alternate future, as well as project costs if we stay on our current path. Now do conceptions of better methods, better outcomes, and better means of social organization seem like such a pointless exercise?