With the COVID-19 crisis we are being asked, and in many cases ordered, by the government to drastically change our lives: not to go to work unless it is essential, not to socialize in large groups, or in some places not to go out at all, except for essential trips. The consequences of obeying range from loss of fun to loss of livelihood. Many people are losing their jobs and their health insurance, and many are not able to pay the rent. And all of this is being done because medical experts say we will be better off if we do it.
The pandemic is forcing us to rethink our relationship to the government and how we view scientific and medical expertise. If we do that rethinking well, that is one thing positive that could come out of this horrible situation. In the U.S., as in many countries in the world, the relationship between people and governments, and how we relate to expertise, are deeply fraught.
We were recently on the phone with friends talking about the six-foot social distancing rule. We were all unclear how the virus is transmitted, and keeping six feet away from people seemed a bit extreme. As long as someone doesn't sneeze on you, isn't it OK to simply be sure to not touch someone? Should we obey big brother, the government, and stay six feet away? Should we think for ourselves, not be sheep, and make our own judgements? Or should we defer to the health experts who might know more than we do? How do we sort this out?
How we think about these issues is key, and not just for thinking about how we respond to government action in this pandemic; it is also vital for understanding how the U.S. ended up with one of the poorest responses to the pandemic, and what we change to ensure we do better in the face of the many other crises we face such as climate change and homelessness.
The assault on freedom and science
In the U.S. how we think about the role of government and the role of scientific expertise have been shaped by two successful right-wing projects: the Reagan Revolution and the war on science. The Reagan Revolution argued that the government gets in the way of the "magic of the free market," and that when we allow those with capital to do what they want, we all live better. The right coined the term "nanny state" to describe government as a force that thinks it knows better than we do about how we should live, and it argues that we're better off without its interventions. The rise of neoliberalism, the so called Washington Consensus, spread similar thinking around the globe.
Prior to the Reagan Revolution, the dominant view in the U.S. was that government could serve human needs—that investment in public goods such as libraries, schools, housing, public transportation, and environmental health would serve us all well. This view had been dominant in much of the world as a result of the social movements of the early part of the twentieth century. In the U.S., people fought to transform governments to provide public goods, and to serve human rather than corporate interests. Those struggles underlay the New Deal, which created a whole range of government programs that serve the public: Social Security, unemployment insurance, occupational health and safety standards, and taxes on the wealthy and corporations to pay for programs. Activists in the 1960s expanded those public goods to include free lunch programs, public investment in housing, expanded welfare protections, and more.
The right-wing libertarian thinkers whose ideas supported the Reagan Revolution defined freedom as freedom from intervention. They argued that the more individuals are left to make their own choices, free of government intervention, the better off they are and the better off we all are as a society. This view of freedom is in stark contrast to an older view that defined freedom as freedom from domination, meaning we are free from social forces that limit our human development.
The focus on government depriving people of freedom ignores that powerful businesses, and even individuals, can also deprive others of freedom, and that a key role of government is to reign in powerful interests to protect the freedom and well-being of the rest of us. When the government stops evictions in the middle of this crisis, are they limiting the freedom of landlords, or are they expanding the freedom of people to stay in their homes?
As a teenager, one of us worked in a factory and witnessed a state safety inspector being bribed by the factory boss. The next day the safety guards were taken off of the heavy equipment we were using, and within a week a coworker lost part of his finger in a machine. The government failed to limit the freedom of the factory owner and, as a consequence, the employees all lost the freedom to work in safety, and one worker lost the freedom to have all of his fingers.
With the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders, the government deprives us of our freedom to go out, socialize, and work as we want, with the aim of reducing the spread of the virus, and thereby increasing the likelihood we each will have the freedom to continue living. Reasonable people can disagree about how to balance different freedoms, but the first step in doing that is to acknowledge all the aspects of freedom we face, and to look at ways other actors, beyond just government, can deprive people of freedoms.
As part of the same intellectual assault against government action, right-wing forces have also engaged in a systematic assault on the credibility of experts. This has become extreme with President Donald Trump, who argues that media outlets which contradict the things he says are "fake," and that his gut instincts about the COVID-19 virus are as legitimate as the views of scientific experts. Mistrust in experts has been growing for a long time, and Trump is more the beneficiary of it than its cause.
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The tobacco industry pioneered the strategy of casting doubt on established science. They realized that they only needed a few scientists to disagree with the mainstream view to destroy the belief that there was a consensus that smoking causes cancer. The fossil fuel industry used the same playbook (and even some of the same consultants) to fund and build the climate denial movement and convince many Americans that climate change was a hoax. The Trump administration has taken this several steps further, appointing people with no relevant expertise to high positions, and openly lying about even simple facts, such as how many people attended his inauguration.
As we are all trying to sort out what to do and whom to believe, we are doing that in a time when trust in experts, and trust in government, are at all-time lows. For the past few decades, we have been experiencing what Philosopher Bruno Latour calls an epistemological crisis, where a sense of a common reality, and a common set of facts to describe and understand that reality, are weak. That crisis has multiple causes: Some scientists are in the pay of industries, and many people in government are too. Much of the media does skew toward the views of those with power. But an equally, if not more significant reason that we are in an epistemological crisis is that there has been a concerted assault on our belief in science and on how we understand the nature of freedom from the right. Democracy in Chains by Nancy McLean, and Dark Money by Jane Mayer detail the concerted and extremely well-funded efforts to develop right-wing think tanks, control university departments, and propagate the ideas that freedom means the freedom of those with capital to do what they want, and that you should not believe experts.
Rethinking the role of government and expertise
Governments are not inherently good or bad. They are places where tremendous power is concentrated. Governments can be made to serve common human interests, and they can be made to serve unjust accumulations of power and money. Every level of government is in a constant tug of war between competing interests, some pushing for equity and justice, and others pushing for power, privilege, and domination.
While we should not have a knee-jerk reaction against government regulations as limiting our freedom, neither should we have faith that governments are always on our side. In the U.S. and elsewhere, the threat of the pandemic being used as an opening for authoritarian government is real. Hungary's Viktor Orban has declared a state of emergency that greatly expanded his powers. In the U.S., we have already seen Trump declare that he has "absolute power" over public health in complete violation of the constitution, and the Republican Party opposing vote-by-mail and trying to use the pandemic to aid its long-term strategy of voter suppression.
So how do we evaluate a government action such as a shelter-in-place order? Is it for the public good or for authoritarian control? Some key questions to ask of any government decision are:
- Who is making the decision—do they have a history of acting outside the law, or enriching themselves or other powerful interests at the expense of the public?
- Does the decision increase their own power or financial gain, or that of other powerful interests?
- Is there a legitimate public benefit to the decision?
- And does the decision, while limiting some freedom, increase other freedoms?
Similarly with expertise, yes, there are experts who have been bought by industries. But we shouldn't take that to mean that we should mistrust experts in general. People have a tendency toward confirmation bias, believing experts who say things that accord with their preexisting beliefs, the beliefs of the people they associate with, and the beliefs that are convenient for them. So, when we evaluate the claims of experts, it is important that we check our own biases. Maybe I don't believe the health officials because I'd rather visit my friends. Maybe I don't believe them because my friends don't believe them. Maybe I don't believe them because it is hard to imagine that what they are saying is true.
As with government decision, so with the proclamations of medical and scientific experts, we should always ask questions about the credibility of our sources of information. What are their biases? Are they tied to particular interests? We should ask if our belief or disbelief in a claim is motivated by our own confirmation biases. We should think about who stands to gain or lose from a claim. We would do well to remember that in this epistemological crisis, there are forces working hard to undermine our belief in experts, even as there really are experts wanting to manipulate us.
As we each try to navigate the ideological landmines around our relation to government and experts in the CODID-19 crisis, it is worth remembering that: there are medical experts who are not corrupt; if we listen to their advice, we are going to be safer than if we follow our own uninformed impulses; and we need to sort out which government spokespeople and agencies we should trust with our lives and our livelihoods. And we need to fight against any increased control over government by authoritarian and pro-corporate interests, while at the same time working for more democracy in our governments and fighting for them to serve our common interests.
We shouldn't let simplistic pro- or anti-government positions close our critical thinking. We shouldn't follow like sheep. But we also shouldn't suppose that knowledge and expert information don't matter, or that governments can't be a force for good policies to manage our common public interests in times of crisis.
A misplaced fear of government action and a lack of trust in science have tragically weakened the U.S. response to COVID-19. Widespread belief that government investments in housing, healthcare, and other public goods somehow limit our freedom have resulted in hollowed out government agencies unprepared for and unable to deal with the crisis. Much suffering and many deaths could have been avoided with a well-prepared and well-funded public sector. Similarly, our views of government and expertise are key for how we address the other pressing crises we face, be that climate change or homelessness. To address these issues requires strong government programs and regulations—things like Medicare for All, public investment in housing, and a Green New Deal. To win those programs we need to be able to envision a government that works for the common good, and we need the information that comes from legitimate forms of expertise. If we think well about those things, we will be able to rebuild a common understanding of the problems we face and be in a better position to build a common social fabric that is the basis for deeper forms of freedom.