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."