If you had asked me six months ago to predict which party would display extreme levels of concern about a deadly pandemic and which party would downplay the risk, I’d have thought you were tossing me a softball question.
A disease that makes China look bad for a hapless initial response that let a new virus get established, followed by a coverup that let it infect the world?
A disease that exposed the dangers of sourcing essential goods such as medical protective gear from a strategic rival?
A disease that has restored and hardened borders, halted migration, and demonstrated how toothless and ineffective transnational institutions are at dealing with mortal threats?
A disease that has killed almost 100,000 Americans — which is approximately 100,000 more than the 2014 Ebola outbreak that Republicans thought President Obama didn’t take seriously enough?
Republicans, I’d have said, will be the party of total war against the virus. How could it be otherwise?
Yes, well, I’m still trying to figure that out, too.
I am struggling to understand how the conservative movement got to this point. Even the most hard-core conservatives and libertarians have always recognized that all liberties have some limits — your right to roam ends at my property line. For years, conservatives have explained that public health efforts are a legitimate exercise of government power.
Sure, this was usually a prelude to complaining that public health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were neglecting this vital mission in favor of paternalistic nannying. But given the CDC’s many boneheaded errors over the past six months, conservatives were in a position to score some political points by shouting: “CDC, you had one job!”
Instead, far too many Republicans are suddenly arguing that public health efforts are not a legitimate exercise of power. The government, they complain, has no right to tell them what they can do, even if what they plan to do comes with some risk that a deadly disease will spread.
I’m not talking about the people who simply make the reasonable, indeed indisputable, argument that we cannot shut down the whole economy until a vaccine is developed. I’m talking about the ones who refuse to make even small compromises for public safety, such as wearing a mask — and especially conservatives who complain when store owners exercise their right to require them on store property.
This doesn’t just eviscerate generations’ worth of arguments about public health. It also undercuts a more central claim of conservatism: that big, coercive government programs are unnecessary because private institutions could provide many benefits that we think of as “public goods.” For that to be true, the civic culture would have to be such that individuals are willing to make serious sacrifices for the common good, and especially to protect the most vulnerable among us.
If conservatives actually want a smaller, less-intrusive government, then they cannot talk only about liberty and rights; they also have to talk about duty and obligations.
Conservatism has always understood that duty without liberty is slavery, but liberty without duty is a Hobbesian war of all-against-all; indeed, this has been one of their major arguments against the steady relaxation of sexual mores and familial obligations. But this principal applies equally well to government, because people will always demand safety, predictability and security, and if the private sector isn’t providing them, they will turn to the state. That’s why shrinking the government leviathan requirescitizens who worry more about the welfare of their fellow citizens and are more willing to sacrifice for strangers who share their flag than those who outsource those duties to a professional bureaucracy with enforcement powers.
Reasonable people can of course argue about how much economic sacrifice citizens can be asked to bear for the common good, or whether that good is best served by lockdowns. But I submit that if you are not willing to endure the minimal inconvenience of wearing a piece of cloth across your nose and mouth while shopping, you’re unlikely to make the really big sacrifices that a smaller government would require.
Conservatives would have many responses to this: that the fault really lies with the experts who have flip-flopped about the virtues of masks; and with the media, whose endless gotcha games have vaporized any credibility they had left with President Trump’s supporters; and with the social media hysterics who hurl obscene charges at anyone who questions the wisdom of lockdown. How could I expect conservatives to put on a mask just because those people say so?
I’d answer that conservatives have always insisted that it was a left-wing pathology to believe that people merely react mindlessly and helplessly to environmental stimuli, like amoeba. We of the right believe in small government and a robust civic society sustained by the private actions of free and equal individuals. So of course I thought that whatever the left might get up to, conservatives would take personal responsibility for doing what needs to be done to make America safe again. Thus far I’ve been unhappily surprised.