Why Did Americans Agree to a National Lockdown?

By Jay Richards Published on April 27, 2020

Americans take our liberty seriously. We have the idea of limited government enshrined in our founding documents. We say we don’t like the Nanny State. So, why did we agree without a fight or a protest to shelter-in-place orders? To a total lockdown?

It’s one thing to agree it would be best to work from home and avoid large crowds, or to quarantine people who are sick or at severe risk. It’s another for cities and states to order healthy, low-risk people not to go to work or church, or even to leave their houses, and to arrest them if they don’t comply. States can rightly do this only in the most extreme emergencies. Most Americans have never witnessed this, or anything like it — even in the middle of a hurricane.

Some have fretted that we complied because we’ve all become scared little snowflakes. Perhaps that explains part of it, but not much. After all, we knew in mid-March that the coronavirus poses little risk to children and healthy people under the age of 50. And we all take risks every time we leave the house.

The Lives of Others

Here’s what made the difference: We were told the lives of other people were at stake.

Your right to swing your fist, it’s said, ends at your neighbor’s nose. That’s because your neighbor has the same rights you have, no more and no fewer. It’s one thing for you to take up jiu jitsu. It’s risky, but when you enter the ring, you and your opponent both accept the risks. This doesn’t mean it’s okay to go to a concert and swing your fists and feet wildly into the crowd.

We so quickly surrendered our rights during the pandemic panic because it blurred the fist and the nose. Most of us know the length of our arms and the distance to our neighbors’ noses. But what if you walk around a mall coughing up a deadly mist? Where’s the cut-off? What if some of that mist finds its way into the noses of innocent bystanders, and infects them? What if they go on to infect others unaware, and millions of people die as a result? That’s a huge moral problem. Exercising your liberty can quickly pass over into a death sentence for countless others.

At War

“We’re at war with a deadly virus,” President Trump told Americans on March 31st. “Success in this fight will require the full absolute measure of our collective strength, love, and devotion. It’s very important. Each of us has the power through our own choices and actions to save American lives and rescue the most vulnerable among us.”

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Powerful stuff: more than enough to suppress the liberty-loving hackles of most Americans, at least for a while. It’s one thing to defend your right to religion and peaceable assembly. But what if by going to church, you kill the 85-year-old man sitting in the pew in front of you? The thought doesn’t inspire one to fly a Gadsen flag and shout “Give me liberty or give me death!”

As Senator Ted Cruz put it, “This crisis has shown us the character of the American people. We have seen that Americans of all walks of life are ready and willing to make sacrifices for the public good, to help stop the spread of this virus.”

The danger went beyond spreading the virus. The whole point of “flattening the curve” was to reduce pressure on the health care systems by spreading out the cases of infection. Maybe you weren’t at much risk of death. But if you had gotten sick enough to go to the hospital, you might take a bed, doctor, nurses, medicine, and equipment that would otherwise have saved the life of an old man with diabetes.

Even hoarding, which might look like greed, often involved goods we use to care for those under our protection. Hence, not just toilet paper, but diapers and hand sanitizer.

Avoiding People for Their Own Good

Weirdly, by mid-March, avoiding others became our prime directive. “Proximity is usually associated with intimacy, and distance with strangeness,” noted one anthropologist at the height of the frenzy. “The public challenge at the moment is that we must learn to express our care and concern by maintaining distance, which is counter-intuitive.”

We’ve complied with the pandemic lockdown because it appeals not just to vices — our fear and petty partisanship — but to our virtues — our love of elderly parents and fellow Americans.

Indeed, this logic extended even to those who, at other times, would risk their lives to care for others. “It is one thing to make a martyr of one’s self,” noted Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Joseph White, “and another thing to eradicate a nursing home in the process. In a case like this, priests may only minister to those who are infected if they themselves are taking sufficient precautions not to infect others.” This was a truly acute problem for Catholics. Sermons and prayers can be delivered online. But certain sacraments and rites can only be done in person — through physical contact.

As a result, there’s always some chance that a priest will infect someone. Priests place consecrated hosts in hundreds, even thousands, of hands and mouths every week. They empty the chalice after communion by drinking what’s left. The whole operation is a germophobe’s nightmare. Most Catholics, and priests, take it in stride. They stay home or at least keep their distance if they’re sick. They use hand sanitizer during flu season.

Suspending public Masses, confessions, and baptisms, then, only makes sense if the risk is extreme. For instance, if there’s a highly contagious and uniquely deadly virus that would probably find its way into a chalice.

Should Masses be cancelled if a virus’ case fatality rate is one percent? One-tenth of one percent? One-one hundredth? It’s hard, if not impossible, to say. But it’s no surprise that church closures and stay-at-home orders, to name only two responses, were based on the early, apocalyptic, and wildly inaccurate, predictions about the coronavirus. That’s how authorities persuaded even most priests that they had a duty not to administer the sacraments as they would in a time of war, persecution, or mass starvation.

The Hated Protests

This view persists even as public protests have started. On April 17th, the Washington Post covered “right-wing” rallies in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. “I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks,” reported the Post, quoting conservative economist Steve Moore. “They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.”

Comparing Parks to defenders of the 2nd Amendment earned Moore his Two Minutes Hate on Twitter. New York Magazine columnist Mark Harris summed up the sentiment, “I’ll never forget the day Rosa Parks got on the bus with a submachine gun and refused to wear a mask because of freedom.” Others claimed the protesters had forfeited their right to health care, and even wished sickness and death upon them.

Under Any Other Scenario …

But protests are as American as apple pie. Imagine any other scenario. What if the president, governors, and mayors made us all close our businesses and churches and stay home, not for the plausible good of others, but just for our own good? Perhaps they decided that too many of us take risks when we drive, work, or play in the park.

We would never have tolerated it! There would have been huge, bipartisan protests from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Conservatives would have bristled at the loss of liberty, and liberals would have denounced the fascists in the White House and the state houses.

As it is, however, we’ve complied, for almost two months.

We’ve complied with the pandemic lockdown because it appeals not just to our vices — our fear and petty partisanship — but to our virtues — our love of elderly parents and fellow Americans. Like jiu jitsu, authorities have used our moral weight to hoist us on our own petards.

The question is, how long will Americans stay seated when they realize we didn’t, and don’t, need total lock-downs to save lives? And that some of our response has done more harm than good?


Jay Richards, Ph.D., is the Executive Editor of The Stream, a Research Assistant Professor in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America, and a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute. Follow him on Twitter.

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