Friday, April 17, 2020

20 Natural Desires Will Motivate People, Not Politicians, to End the Shutdown and Restore Liberty

American politicians have been debating amongst themselves as to which ones will decide when and how the COVID-19 shutdown will end.  They are wrong about this, because people, not politicians, will decide this.  And the 20 natural desires of our evolved human nature will motivate people to end the shutdown and restore liberty.  (A similar argument has been made by Ira Stoll.)

At first, Trump declared that he alone had the "total authority" to decide this.  But now he says the state governors will have to decide this for themselves.  If the governors refuse to lift their shutdown orders, they might provoke resistance from other public officials.  Two days ago, the sheriffs of four Michigan counties announced that they would not enforce those orders of Governor Gretchen Whitmer that were unjust and showed her "overstepping her executive authority."  They appealed to a higher law--constitutional law and natural law--as a standard for judging Whitmer's orders: "Each of us took an oath to uphold and defend the Michigan Constitution, as well as the US Constitution, and to ensure that your God given rights are not violated.  We believe that we are the last line of defense in protecting your civil liberties."

They are certainly right that sheriffs can be one line of defense for civil liberty against a governor who abuses her powers, and this shows the impotence of a governor who cannot persuade other public officials to obey her unjust orders.  And yet the last line of defense for the liberty of the people is not any politician but the people themselves, who have the natural right to resist governmental oppression.  All government is rendered impotent when the people disobey its orders, and it is this right to disobey unjust orders that confirms the principle that all government ultimately rests on the consent of the governed.

The social and economic life of a country is not centrally planned from the top down by government, because any social order evolves as an emergent order from the bottom up from the actions of individuals, families, businesses, clubs, schools, religious organizations, and other voluntary associations.  It is impossible for government to centrally plan a social order.  And therefore a government can neither shut down nor open up the social life of a country.

Even the recent governmental shutdown orders were not really complete shutdowns.  The state governments had to leave open all "essential business activity," which has continued to operate through the emergent order of market exchange and the voluntary cooperation of individuals and groups.  And while many state governments tried to shut down all "non-essential" social activity, they failed, because many people have disobeyed those orders.  The people themselves will always decide which activities are "essential" for their lives.  And as was said in one of the popular signs at the Lansing protest on Wednesday--"Liberty is Essential."

Now, those people who have voluntarily obeyed the shutdown orders will decide when and how to disobey those orders.  It will be easier for people to resume their normal lives if the governmental shutdown orders are lifted.  But even if those orders are not officially lifted, or if they are only partially lifted, people will choose to disobey those governmental orders that impede the satisfaction of the 20 natural desires of human nature, which I have written about here and here.

Human beings naturally desire to live healthy lives.  This will motivate them to minimize the risks of sickness and death from contagious infectious diseases.  Knowing what they now know about the COVID-19 pandemic, they will practice social distancing and the quarantining of those infected and those most vulnerable to the disease.  But they will not seek to completely shut down their social and economic lives in the effort to avoid infection, because this would frustrate many of their most important natural desires.

Human beings naturally desire familial bonding and friendship.  This will motivate them to seek out personal gatherings with their families and friends, and meeting people online or by telephone will not satisfy them, because they will want face-to-face interactions and physical contact.  They will want to shake hands, hug, and kiss one another.  So when Dr. Fauci says that Americans should never again shake hands--even after this pandemic is over--people will recognize how ridiculous this is.

For the same reason, they will recognize how ridiculous many of Governor Whitmer's orders are.  In her most recent order, she declares that, subject to some specified exceptions, "all public and private gatherings of any number of people occurring among persons not part of a single household are prohibited," and when individuals do leave their homes, they must remain at least six feet "from people outside the individual's household."  Notice what this means.  When I meet with family members and friends who are not part of my household, I am engaging in criminal behavior.  Obviously, most citizens of Michigan, like me, have regularly violated this order and will continue to do so, because this order denies our nature as familial and social animals.

This order also frustrates our natural human desire for sexual bonding, because it makes romantic dating and sexual mating outside one's immediate household illegal.  Here again, I assume many Michigan citizens have regularly violated this order and thus engaged in civil disobedience.

Human beings also naturally desire property.  They engage in economic exchange to equip themselves and their family and friends with the wealth required for a good life.  It was predictable, therefore, that when Whitmer ordered all "non-essential business activity" shut down, many of the workers and business people in those "non-essential" sectors have ignored her order; and as time goes on, we will see many more people doing this, and thus most of the economy that Whitmer has tried to shut down will open up.

As businesses open up, employees and customers will demand reasonable health safety measures.  So, for example, bars and restaurants will have to arrange their drinking and dining areas so that customers are confident that there are no great risks to their health.  This will be enforced voluntarily without any need for governmental coercion.  In many cities, illegal "speakeasies" have already been operating, and I assume they probably are designed to avoid unnecessary risks to health.

Human beings also have a natural desire for religious understanding, and for many people this becomes a desire for religious ceremony and sacred gatherings of believers.  This can happen through online religious services, but most religious believers need to meet with others in a house of worship.  Governor Whitmer's order prohibits this.  Some Michigan churches have continued to meet in defiance of her order, and one can anticipate that over the next few weeks those churches that have voluntarily followed his closure order will begin to disobey, with the argument that this is an expression of their religious liberty.  One can also anticipate, however, that as long as the pandemic remains threatening, these churches will organize their services to minimize the risks to health.

Because of such natural desires, people have already begun to end the shutdown, and they will continue to do so.  Governors like Whitmer cannot stop this from happening.  Their only choice is whether they will legalize it or force people to do it illegally.  Whitmer's government by executive decree is being overturned by the natural right of the people to govern themselves.

We should also recognize the natural desire for intellectual understanding in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  When the plague swept through Athens in 430 BC, Thucydides was infected but he recovered, and then his immunity allowed him to safely study the disease--its epidemiology, its symptoms, and its moral impact on Athens--and to preserve his observations in his history of the Peloponnesian war.  Those of us who are not killed by the COVID-19 virus will have a similar opportunity to study this pandemic in all of its biological, political, and moral consequences.


Xenophon said...

One doesn't need a worked out theory of "natural desires" in order to see that nobody wants to be quarantined, even on an interim basis. But that hardly settles the question. I also have a natural desire not to be dead, nor to see my family, elderly parents and others in the community die or become ill suddenly, which may in the interim surpass other natural desires and require me to defer their satisfaction. I recall in the past you quoted MacIntyre's return to the view that virtue ethics is not enough- the virtues must be understood in conjunction with biology and in particular with human vulnerability and frailty.

So for example, human beings may have a natural desire, as Adam Smith says, to truck, barter and exchange. But this free operation of the market may be limited by my ability to trust the other party or to enter into exchange without risk. I am not going to risk my health and life unnecessarily to enter a store when I can do so online etc.

One may say that ordinary human prudence is enough to allow people to make these judgments as to the safety of public gatherings or transactions. But human beings can also be impulsive, irrational, thoughtless and ignorant and poor judges of risk- as e.g. were many of those who gathered in Florida for spring break in March, and spread the virus at the public expense. Any theory of rights must recognize emergency conditions in which those rights and natural desires are put aside and left to the prudence of government, what Locke called prerogative.

Many responsible religious communities are performing their services online rather than gathering in person and risking the lives of their own congregations as well as the larger community. The Jewish laws, for example, recognize that the commandment to preserve life (Pikuach Nefesh) overrides nearly all of the other religious laws that are recognized (the only exceptions being laws concerning forbidden sexual relationships like incest and bowing down to false gods). So there is no question that religious services in person can be suspended. Those who of whatever faith continue religious gatherings, far from exercising natural rights are endangering the entire community as well as their congregants.

You imply that Thucydides got the plague, got over it and then everything was fine. But the plague he described was not merely a widespread illness but caused a deep moral change that undermined character and the entire civic order of Athens and brought it near to collapse. As Thucydides describes it,
"And moreover it was the plague which first fostered greater lawlessness in the city in other respects. For people now blithely ventured what before they would have done covertly and not just as they pleased, seeing the sudden changes and how, some rich person dying suddenly, another man who before possessed nothing now straightway owned what had been the other's. And so they decided to spend quickly and for the sake of enjoyment, holding their bodies and their wealth to be alike but things of a day. And no one was keen to persevere in what had been reputed noble ], holding it un- certain whether they would survive to achieve it. But instead the pleasurable and what- ever procured it, these were established as both noble and useful. Fear of gods and law of men deterred no one, for as to the former, people judged it all the same whether they revered [the gods] or not, seeing that all died regardless, and as for crimes none expected to stay alive long enough to come to trial or pay the penalty, but held rather that a much heavier sentence had been decreed against them, and that before it fell, it was only fair that they enjoy life a little.."

And it is arguable, that on Thucydides telling, Athens never fully recovered from this overturning of the character of the community.

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