Navigating the facts and opinions of Our Current Moment can be a daunting task: you can always choose one news source, I suppose, but that becomes it’s own echo-chamber. So it’s nice to find sources that can give a critical eye without registering too much contempt for any one side. Yuval Levin (of The Fractured Republic and A Time to has been that for me, I think. A fellow for a DC think-tank, Levin writes well from a conservative perspective that seemed balance because it is wonderfully realistic. Last week, Levin wrote about the federal government’s initial response to Covid-19. What he says is true of leadership on many levels:
So how is the executive branch doing in responding to the crisis? The easy answer is that it seems to be struggling and overwhelmed. But it is worth thinking through just what ought to seriously trouble us about the failures of mobilization against the pandemic so far, and what would be better understood as an unavoidable consequence of the sheer immensity of the problem—which, after all, the president didn’t cause.
Disaster response confronts modern, liberal societies with a profound challenge. On the one hand, the core promise of Enlightenment, liberal civilization is that it will build systems—scientific, technological, and political—that will protect us from the ravages of nature and keep us safe, healthy, and prosperous. When nature threatens to overwhelm our defenses, we expect and demand that these systems will mobilize to respond. However immense and unexpected the danger, we treat failures to answer it swiftly and effectively as instances of gross incompetence.
On the other hand, the same liberal framework also promises us a great deal of personal freedom. And that sort of freedom requires constraints on what government can do to us, and even for us. To foster an environment friendly to liberty, competition, and dynamism, government will, we expect, mostly enforce uniform rules, address unmet needs, and let a hundred flowers bloom.
But a government friendly to freedom in these ways will have real trouble responding to massive, unexpected dangers on our behalf. It won’t be able to instantly mobilize so as to flawlessly evacuate millions from the path of a terrible storm or to swiftly rescue earthquake victims, or to stop an aggressive pandemic in its tracks. We wouldn’t really want a government that could do all that at the drop of a hat—after all, what would that government do with all that power the rest of the time?
What we should want, therefore, is a government that may be overwhelmed by a vast, unforeseen problem at first but will then be able to quickly mobilize, learn from mistakes as it goes, and in relatively little time work itself toward massive and effective action. Such a government could capitalize on the advantages of freedom to deliver on the promise of keeping us safe. This is a lot to ask, but it has been the general pattern of successful American government responses to crises—be they wars, economic calamities, or natural disasters.
This is the standard against which to measure our response now. That our lives are disrupted is not a failure of government. That it takes time to gear up is not the president’s fault. The question to ask is not what our very way of life prevents us from doing, but what we should be good at that we aren’t doing well.
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Yesterday Levin posted another piece over at The Atlantic that is a good and appropriate follow-up, I believe. Part of what has made Our Current Moment so frustrating, at least when attempting to consolidate things, is the realization that experts from multiple fields should be considered into the mix: nothing exists in a vacuum. And that’s a big reason why ethics is so important . . . and why differing categories of ethics can be both illuminating and frustrating. In this piece, Levin speaks of the “hard pause” and the “soft start” and the need for some kind of framework moving forward. (Turns out I’m a big fan of framework, and every day at work shows it – though not always as clearly as some might like.) He writes:
We know we need to keep people at home to slow the spread of the virus and ease the strain on hospitals. But then what? This is where a general definition of success can help, allowing decision makers to prioritize among discrete political, scientific, economic, and logistical steps.
In the absence of such a framework, the purpose of some of the government’s policy responses has been unclear, as has the relationship between the public-health and economic measures Washington is taking. Policy makers are acting as if we face a binary choice between letting a deadly disease run rampant or strangling our economy, making every proposed course of action seem irresponsible. In fact, their objective should be precisely to avoid such a trade-off, by defining the relationship between our aims.
The purpose of our strategy should be to create a sustainable way to live with the virus, not secure its total defeat. We could not have achieved that sustainable balance by gradually gearing down our society from normal life, because in the meantime we would be erring on the side of danger and exacerbating the enormous burdens on our health system. Instead, we need to gear up from a drastic shutdown of American life. That drastic shutdown is what we are now engaged in, and it makes sense. But gearing up from that, starting relatively soon, has to be our goal.
Right now, we need to pause. In order to restrain the spread of the virus, we have put our lives on hold—with work, school, and play all shut down to let us keep our distance from one another. That means that public policy intended to enable this phase must aim to let people keep their place in our national life until they can return to it.
I like the idea of “on hold and keeping place” for times like these.
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If you’re more of a video person, here’s a recent C-SPAN interview with Levin. It’s just under an hour, so it’s long, but it also builds on the things he has said over the last week.