Tuesday, May 05, 2020

COVID-19 Shutdowns By Consent of the Governed? David Hume's Maxim

How do we explain the amazing events of the past eight weeks?  Billions of human beings on planet Earth have been locked in their homes, as much of their social and economic life has been shut down, by orders from their rulers, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Now many people in some parts of the world are beginning to show some freedom of movement, trying to return to a more normal life, but with warnings from governmental experts that such free movement will spread viral infections and elevate the death toll.

David Hume offered one way to explain this, in the first paragraph of his essay "Of the First Principles of Government":
"Nothing appears more surprising to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.  When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as FORCE is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.  It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and popular.  The sultan of EGYPT, or the emperor of ROME, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or praetorian bands, like men, by their opinion."
Hume's maxim that "the governors have nothing to support them but opinion" sounds like John Locke's claim that governmental authority arises from the consent of the governed, or the argument of Michael Tomasello and John Searle that the social reality of institutions depends on our subjective belief that institutions are authoritative.  (I have written about that here.)

Political rulers cannot govern their people by force alone, because they depend upon the voluntary obedience of the people or at least acquiescence to their orders.  "Force is always on the side of the governed," in the sense that if most of the people in a political order resisted the commands of their rulers, the political order would collapse.  Even despots or military dictators cannot rule by brute force if they do not have the support of some crucial social groups, or "minimum winning coalitions," which I have written about here.

We can see Hume's maxim confirmed by what has happened with the COVID-19 shutdowns.  Governments have commanded shutdowns by executive orders.  In the United States, these orders have come mostly from state governors, following guidelines from Trump's White House and federal agencies (like the CDC).  But all of this depends on the voluntary obedience of the people; and as I have argued in earlier posts, the shutdowns will end when people refuse to obey them.

We now have the big data about the patterns of human movement--from Foursquare and Apple--that show this.  Requests for directions in Apple Maps began to decline dramatically in early March, even before the governmental lockdown orders, because once people heard about the COVID-19 pandemic, they decided voluntarily that staying at home and social distancing were prudent behaviors to minimize the spread of infections.  But then, beginning in early or mid-April, people in some countries (particularly, the United States and Germany) have decided to travel more, even if  this meant disregarding the governmental orders.

For example, in my home state of Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer imposed some of the most severe restrictions on travel--even prohibiting people from travelling to visit family and friends.  But if you go to the data for Michigan provided by Apple, you will see the Michiganders began increasing their travel in April, disobeying the Governor's orders.  Last Sunday, I saw over 40 of my neighbors gathering for a church service in violation of the Governor's order that in-person church services are illegal.  She cannot enforce her orders.

The data collected by Foursquare shows the same pattern in shopping and social movement.  In early March, there was a steep drop in trips to casual dining chains, bars, movie theatres, and gyms, and there hasn't been much movement yet to return to pre-COVID-19 levels.   But travel to gas stations, auto shops, big box stores, and discount stores is back up to normal levels.  During this same time--March and April--there was an increase in visits to hardware stores to buy paint, lawn, and gardening supplies, because people have decided to spend their time working around the house and gardening.

The Foursquare data show regional differences in these patterns of movement--people in rural areas and in the Midwest are moving more quickly out of the lockdowns than are those in urban areas and in the West and Northeast.  Here we see what Friedrich Hayek identified as local knowledge--in deciding how to adapt their social interactions to the contingencies of time and circumstance, people spontaneously generate patterns of behavior that are best for them, without any central planning from government, which lacks the knowledge that is dispersed among millions of people facing their unique and variable circumstances of action.

So in this way, deciding how best to adapt our behavior to the challenges of a viral pandemic arises more from the bottom-up interactions of individuals acting for their interests than from the top-down dictates of central planners in government.  The influence of central planners in this evolutionary process of adaptive behavior comes more from persuasion than from coercion.  In this case, the public health bureaucrats can tell us what they think they know about the SARS-Cov-2 virus--how it spreads, its virulence, and which groups are most at risk of being killed by it--and they can make recommendations about how best to fight the virus.  But their influence will depend on how successful they are in persuading us to voluntarily comply with their advice.

Because these governmental experts--even when they are backed up with mandatory orders from political executives--cannot succeed unless they win our voluntary consent.

"The governors have nothing to support them but opinion."


Kent Guida said...

Excellent. And now that the weakness of expert opinion is coming to light -- shoddy models, frequent reversals of policy, and failure to predict anything accurately -- public support for their directives is rapidly eroding. The Neil Ferguson story is the defining anecdote of the times-- useless models, a lifetime record of bad predictions all erring in the same direction, and flagrant disregard of the rules imposed on everyone else. A case study of undeservered authority exposed and public confidence lost.

Roger Sweeny said...

I recently ran across the Hume quote in Kaushik Basu's The Republic of Beliefs. You might be interested, though it's probably a little "outside your wheelhouse".

The title comes from the idea that a republic of laws, a society where people obey the laws, has to be a republic of certain beliefs, especially the belief that other people will obey the laws. (He adds more beliefs later. A weakness of the book is that it starts stark and "rigorous" but adds complications as the pages go on, losing much of its predictive value as it gets more realistic.)

Moreover, those laws have to require something that is possible. It must be in people's self-interest to obey (e.g., drive on the right) or there must be an enforcement mechanism to make them obey (which means some people have to keep the enforcers in line, who in turn have to be watched in an infinite regress).

Early on, Basu observes that there is a contradiction at the core of traditional "law and economics". It assumes that people act in their own self-interest both before and after the passage of a law. But it also assumes that they perfectly obey the law, which often means going against their immediate self-interest. Else, they could have been doing what the law requires already. Particularly in "less developed" countries, people don't obey a lot of laws, nor do the enforcers enforce them.

Basu says that "norms" can be as powerful as laws. If you are a white person living in a southern town in the 1920s, you will not hire black people for high-paying jobs or socialize with them because other white people will "enforce" that taboo, not doing business with you, socially ostracizing you and your family, etc. I can't help thinking that similarly, if you are a "conservative" trying to get a job in academia, you may destroy your chances if you make your sentiments known; lots of people will enforce "we don't have that kind here."

It is hard to enforce a law that goes against what people want to do and easy to enforce one that doesn't. Thus, a "lockdown" law in February would have met a lot of resistance. In March, people were curtailing travel on their own, and much more likely to go along with "stay at home advisories". But by the end of May, they were beginning to chafe at the restrictions and to go out anyway.

Larry Arnhart said...


Thanks for your tip about that book. I'll look forward to reading it.