Thursday, April 16, 2020

A Successful Protest Against Whitmer's Shutdown and Her Mean Response

I have just returned from the mass protest in Lansing, Michigan, against Governor Gretchen Whitmer's severe lockdown of the state through her executive orders.

All of the streets around the Capitol building were gridlocked with thousands of cars, and probably over a hundred thousand people. Lots of honking horns, American flags, and protest placards.  What was most striking about the placards was how often the word "liberty" was used.  Often it was "liberty" put off against "security" or "safety," and affirming that liberty must not be sacrificed for security or safety.

This afternoon the Governor had a press conference.  When she was asked about the protest, she complained that the protesters were spreading the COVID-19 viruses and thus endangering people.  As a result of this, the lockdown might have to be prolonged because of these protesters.  The tone was mean-spirited.

The Governor spoke repeatedly about "public health" being her only concern.  In saying this, she never used the word "liberty," and so she never spoke to the claim of the protesters that there can be a trade-off between public health and liberty, and that it might be dangerous to say that public health must always justify setting aside liberty.  The protesters were arguing that when people have liberty, and they become aware of the danger from an epidemic, they will voluntarily take measures to protect those most vulnerable to the disease, but without giving up their liberty.  Whitmer never spoke about this issue, which suggests that she wasn't listening to what the protesters were saying.

Notice also that the protesters were openly defying the Governor's executive orders.  They were engaging in public assemblies of people who were not members of the same household.  Under the Governor's orders, this was a crime.  And yet, even though there were police all around the capitol building, none of them attempted to arrest anyone.  This shows the vulnerability of a ruler like Whitmer.  She depends on voluntary obedience.  If too many people disobey, there's nothing she can do.  She has a press conference in a private room shut off from the public.

This shows the Achilles heel of the COVID-19 shutdown: those in power have no response if people refuse to obey and simply begin to reopen society and economic life.  A Governor cannot order that all of these people be arrested.  That's the desperate fear of people like Whitmer--that the people refuse to obey.  That's why the protest in Lansing on Wednesday was so momentous.  It was a beginning of a national movement to reclaim the natural right to liberty.

If the Governor were an intelligent and courageous leader, wouldn't she have come to the steps of the Capitol building to speak with the protesters?  She could have arranged to meet with some of the leaders of the protest, so that she could respond to their questions.  She might not have persuaded them to take her side in this debate, but she might have at least persuaded them that she understood their position, and that they were indeed engaged in debating a profound question of political philosophy--the tradeoff between security and liberty.

A video of her press conference can be found here.  If you go to minute 14 of the video, you will see her arguing that her decision as to when to reopen the social and economic life of Michigan will be based on "facts."  As an illustration of her factual reasoning, she says that the experience of cities in the 1918 flu epidemic prove that the cities that lifted their quarantine and social distancing policies too soon allowed for the appearance of a second wave of the epidemic, forcing the cities to reimpose the restrictions that they have previously lifted.  She claimed that she was determined to avoid this mistake.

To support this argument, she projected a chart diagramming the fluctuations in death rates from flu and mitigation measures taken by the cities.  She showed diagrams for four cities: Philadelphia, San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York.

Oddly, if you look at these diagrams, you will see that they don't all support her interpretation.  In Philadelphia and New York, there wasn't much of a second wave.  In San Francisco, there was a second wave, but there was no renewal of severe mitigation measures.  St. Louis is the only one of the four that conforms to the pattern she claims: St. Louis experienced two severe waves of the epidemic and two impositions of mitigation measures.

It is strange, however, that her chart has no Michigan city on it.  It's particularly revealing that she did not put Grand Rapids on her chart.  As I have indicated in a previous post, Grand Rapids had the lowest rate of deaths from the flu epidemic.  Almost 300 people died in a city of 138,000, which was an excess epidemic death rate of 210.5 per 100,000 population.  No other large city had a lower death rate.  And yet Grand Rapids had only a few weeks of closing schools and banning public assemblies.  Most businesses remained open, although people were warned to quarantine themselves if they were sick.

Moreover, the Governor was silent about the fact that there was no precedent in 1918 for what she has decreed in 2020.  In 1918, no city or state government ordered the shutdown of their economies.  (In St. Louis, there was a shutdown for a few days.)  I have written about this.

Her silence about this is dishonest, because it refuses to raise the crucial question: If a governmental lockdown of social and economic life is a reasonable way to respond to a deadly pandemic, why is it that no government in the history of the United States or the history of the world has ever done this?  Now maybe there is something about this pandemic that makes it so catastrophic that this unprecedented action is justified, but then one would have to make that argument.  And in making that argument, one would have to persuade us that the pandemic of 1918 was not as bad as this one.

As of now, it appears that this pandemic is going to be comparable to the flu pandemic of 1957, when there were over 2 million deaths around the world, and maybe 110,000 deaths in the U.S.  The 1957 pandemic was a serious disruption in American life, but there was no lockdown of the society.  Why is COVID-19 virus different?  Neither Governor Whitmer nor the other governors who have ordered shutdowns nor President Trump have explained why this pandemic is different from all previous pandemics in such as way as to sacrifice liberty for the sake of what our leaders say is necessary for security.

In mentioning Trump here alongside Whitmer as advocates of the COVID-19 shutdown, I stress the point that any protest against the shutdown must be a protest against Trump as well as the governors who have ordered shutdowns.  Strangely, this point has been missed by those Trump supporters who came to the protest in Lansing: they seemed to be unaware of the fact that most of Whitmer's orders follow the guidelines set by Trump and his administration.  If these Trump supporters had read Whitmer's executive orders for the shutdown, they would have seen that she relies on the guidelines set by Trump's CDC and Homeland Security Department executing the policies recommended by Trump on March 16.  For example, if you look at section 8 of Whitmer's executive orders 2020-21 (here) and 2020-42 (here), you will see that Whitmer's distinction between "essential" and "non-essential" activity comes from the memo issued on March 19 by Homeland Security for identifying "Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response."

Whitmer and all of the other governors who have ordered state-wide shutdowns in response to COVID-19 have been following the policy guidelines initiated by the Trump Administration.