Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Quotes & Commentary #76: Thucydides

Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected.

—Thucydides

In my previous post I bemoaned the conversion of a public health crisis into yet another partisan fight—with those on the left for the lockdown, and those on the right against it. In this regard, I think it is striking to reread this passage of Thucydides, as it encapsulates a common occurrence in times of crisis: the preference for extreme measures over moderation, for decisiveness over prudent hesitation.

The reason for this is our very human need to feel safe and secure. Having a plan, especially a drastic plan, is one of the ways we accomplish this. Carrying out extreme measures at least gives us the illusion of control; and control is what everyone craves in an emergency. But I do not think we should let this very human need prevent us from being critical, open-minded, and moderate. These are good qualities in the worst of times as well as in the best of times.

My main concern is that I think that too many people—especially on the left—are advocating long, strict lockdowns as the only possible option. Calls to reopen are being dismissed as irresponsible or even nefarious, and respected epidemiologists like David Katz (who advocates more measured policies) can only get a hearing on Fox News and Bill Maher’s show. This makes me worry that the left is backing itself into an ideological corner, insisting that lockdowns are the only way to fight this virus.

There is certainly a noble impulse in this: valuing human life over profit. But I think that the situation is far more complex than this dichotomy implies. A narrative is starting to emerge that it is our evil corporate overlords (Elon Musk, most notoriously) who want us to return to work in order to satisfy their greed. Already in Georgia, people are compiling lists of businesses which are reopening with the intention of blacklisting them for doing so. But are we really willing to vilify people for reopening when remaining closed would mean bankruptcy, financial ruin, and losing their livelihoods? The anti-corporate, pro-lockdown messaging is ignoring the simple truth that the economic effects of the lockdowns will hurt the poor far, far more than they will hurt the rich. 

Granted, we could and should be doing much more to help the poor and disadvantaged during this time. Also granted, our economy was rife with structural inequalities before all of this, which ought not to have been there to begin with. But we must work with the economy we have and with the options that are politically possible—not with the economy we should’ve had and the things we should be able to do. And we also must be sure that our policies are shaped by prudence rather than fear or ideology.

So here is my worry: if the left (of which I consider myself a member) becomes the party of lockdowns, this may not appear so wise in retrospect. This is because the efficacy of our anti-virus measures is still very much an open question; and it is thus very possible that some of our policies will have done more harm than good.

As a prime contender for this, I would submit school closures. As I noted in my previous post, young children seem both safe from, and hardly able to transmit, the virus. The idea that they were major transmitters was an educated guess, and it seems to have been wrong. Keeping children out of school, however, will undoubtedly be harmful to their development and detrimental to their futures. And it will most certainly do the most harm to the poorest among us. Furthermore, keeping children home puts more pressure on parents, and may take some doctors and nurses out of commission.

At the very least, I think it is wrong to close schools in a “better safe than sorry” mentality, without very thorough consideration of the costs and benefits. As a teacher myself, I can say with confidence that virtual learning is no substitute for being in the classroom. If my students must miss class, I want to be sure that it is to protect them, and not simply to make us feel safer. I am not willing to sacrifice their education to satisfy my panic.

Here is the trouble with a total lockdown: it combines so many different measures into one sweeping global approach that we have no opportunity to see which specific parts of the lockdown—closing restaurants, canceling concerts, calling off school—have the highest cost-benefit ratio. It simply cannot be taken for granted that a total lockdown is the single best strategy going forward. In the absence of more data about the virus’s lethality and total spread, we cannot even be confident that it was even a wise strategy to begin with. (A study by the Wall Street Journal—which admittedly has its own biases—found that there was no correlation at all between coronavirus mortality and the speed of lockdown in U.S. states.)

The case of Sweden should give lockdown advocates pause. Sweden has become notorious for its lax coronavirus measures. Shops and restaurants are open, and life carries on without masks or gloves. Meanwhile, most other European countries instituted strict lockdowns. Spain had one of the strictest lockdowns of all. Parks were closed, and people were not allowed to go on walks or to exercise outside. All non-essential businesses were shuttered, and people could only leave the house to go to the pharmacy and the supermarket. Police patrolled the streets, giving out hundreds of thousands of fines, and making hundreds of arrests, in enforcement of the lockdown.

If lockdowns were really an effective way of controlling the virus, then one might expect Spain to have a substantially lower death rate. On the contrary, Spain has suffered twice as many deaths-per-million as Sweden. Indeed, Sweden is in the ballpark of Ireland and Switzerland, two countries that took swift, decisive action to shut down their economies. And Sweden’s “curve” seems to be leveling out anyway. To say the very least, it has not been an unmitigated disaster in the country. 

Admittedly, if you compare Sweden to its Scandinavian neighbors, Finland and Norway, you can see that their lax policy seems to have resulted in a higher mortality rate. Does this prove that Sweden has taken the wrong course? I think we should not rush to judgment. First, it is easily possible that, as Finland and Norway open up, their death rates will climb to approach Sweden’s. Furthermore, by minimizing the damage done to their economy, there is a very real possibility that Sweden inflicted less total harm on its society.

(We also should not rush to declare New Zealand’s tough policies a success, which for the moment seems to have eliminated coronavirus from their shores. While this is impressive, it remains to be seen whether this was the best strategy for the long-term, since it is possible that it will only make it that much more difficult to reestablish open channels with the outside world.)

My own personal fear—which apparently is not shared by many—is that the left will put itself in a bad position if it becomes the party of the lockdown. At the present moment, there is an awful lot of fear of this new virus. But in six months, when the elections roll around, what will be at the forefront of people’s minds: the virus, or the economic depression?

My guess is that, as time goes by, fear of the virus will fade, and concern for ruined businesses, blasted retirement accounts, and lost careers will only grow more acute. So far, it seems that Republicans have shifted most decisively in the direction of economic concern, with Independents shifting somewhat in that direction, while Democrats have hardly budged.

Such flagrantly political concerns should not guide our policy. Concern for human welfare should. And I am afraid that we may be developing myopic and unrealistic ideas about the lockdowns in this regard. First, somewhere along the line, many people seemed to have forgotten that our original idea of “flattening the curve” was to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed. The idea was never that we would absolutely prevent people from getting sick. Unless we are willing to stay inside until a vaccine is widely available—an unknown timeline, but still many months away—we are simply going to have to accept some risk from the virus.

Now, perhaps some rich countries could afford to stay shut up indoors until we have a vaccine. And maybe this would benefit these rich countries (though I doubt it). However, I think such a prolonged and severe period of economic inactivity would be horrendous for poorer countries. Telling people to stay inside is simply not feasible where people live in shacks and have no savings. And governments in poor countries could not afford drastic social policies to keep their people fed, especially during a severe depression. (Remember that a depression in richer countries means a depression everywhere.) A months-long lockdown could easily result in food shortages in many parts of the world, which might claim significantly more lives than the virus itself. 

What is more, prolonged economic depression has serious political repercussions. Economic instability easily translates into political instability, and political instability easily translates into violence—even war. The 2008 financial crisis has already had an awful effect on worldwide politics, eventually resulting in waves of populist right-wing parties, and a growing polarization which has resulted in increasingly dysfunctional governments. And this is only to speak of rich countries.

In countries already struggling with low standards of living and ineffective governments, what will be the results of an economic crisis much more severe than 2008? Will every government be able to take the pressure? We must keep in mind that, if any government fails, the consequences will be bad for everyone. As we have learned, power vacuums leave the door open for the most dangerous among us to gain control.

For those of us on the left, I think it behooves us to examine the complete picture, and not to fall into easy rhetoric about workers being sacrificed for the economy. These are the hard facts: the virus is here to stay; and if the economy is not working, it will be very, very hard on millions of people—especially poor people all around the world. Our governments could and should do more to alleviate the economic suffering. But many countries around the world simply do not have the resources to do so, and a severe depression will only make this more true. Of all people, we on the left should know that poverty hurts and kills, and we cannot afford to turn this into yet another purity test.

The hardest truth of all, perhaps, is that we are in a horrible situation that requires us to make painful compromises. An ideology that promises easy answers and readily-identifiable villains will not get us very far.