What’s for dinner? How fast should I drive? Should I go to work or stay home with a mild cough? We face these choices every day, and everyone’s objective function is different. Some freely smoke, even though the data says that every pack takes weeks off their life. Most drink alcohol, trading the future for the moment. Some childless folks work from home with almost no social contact during the winter and still get flu shots. This is all what freedom is. This leads us to live enriched lives, and makes markets work. Unfortunately, some get sick. Some die. Some find love. Some find riches. A free and just society has feedback loops that lead to these results, and accomplishments that centrally controlled societies can never even imagine.
Our mixed priorities and ability to learn from the consequences of our actions are a tremendous blessing for our society, not a curse.
When news of Covid-19 first hit, nobody knew how to assess the risk and consequence of business as usual. Immediate, stern measures were effective in quelling an invisible and exponential outbreak around the world, while more lax approaches may not have imparted the seriousness of the situation. States such as California and Washington, where illness was visible and governmental measures were more abrupt, appear to have jolted the populace into needed behavioral changes more quickly. Now, continual coverage of the virus by a free press has given us all a first hand look into the seriousness of the illness, and provided needed perspective on the importance of adhering to behaviors that slow the spread. But at this point, the public is aware of the risks, and decreed shutdown is not a long-term solution to solve anything in a free country. Each day it continues challenges the very definition of freedom. What should we do?
These are difficult times, but not impossible problems. We are not helpless. Letting individuals make their own decisions is a critical part of reaching new and innovative ways of improving society. It’s our First Amendment right to look at kids on beaches in Florida during the onset of a pandemic and call them idiots. It’s our right to shun the litterbug, or switch to paper straws, or cast fascists out of our social group. It’s very much our right to avoid any person that we believe might cause us harm, or make us sick. But these are natural functions each person is capable of and do not require a government mandate. A woman with liver issues should be careful even being in the same room as Tylenol. Are there risks? Of course. But complete avoidance is rarely the right plan. Tylenol can still be useful, but in small doses. A 16 year old driver is at a high risk of being in a car accident. It doesn’t mean they should avoid driving entirely until they are 25 and the numbers look better. If we don’t trust that the person next to us is healthy, we should feel free to keep our distance until we have better information. We do not need politicians to ground us and send us to our room. As we learn, we make better decisions with better information - not with absolute decisions from central planning. We learn that skin color is not a predictor of anything meaningful. We learn that girls don’t actually have cooties, and that looking different doesn’t mean acting or thinking different. We don’t need to be told all this, we just need to live it.
It’s absurd for any civil rights advocate, or gun rights advocate, or fill-in-the-blank rights advocate to willingly accept a government mandated isolation or forced closure of one’s business, and if we do, we deserve the mediocre existence that comes to us.
Which of our Constitutional rights do we want to suspend today in the name of absolute public safety?
I don’t blame public health officials - they have a clear objective: find ways to stop the virus. It’s their entire job and often life’s work to figure out how to do this. When medical measures fail, it’s perfectly reasonable for health officials to issue strong and clear guidance for how to stay healthy. It’s in society’s best interest to have such officials - they provide facts and models on a grand scale that help citizens assess risk. But it’s imprudent to blindly follow recommendations that optimize for a 0% chance of illness, lest we settle for a life with a 0% chance of joy.
Give people the facts, and let them innovate.
If the government deems it best to close their offices or other public facilities, that’s a fine choice. It may be prudent. If a small business sees their foot traffic dropping to zero, they should be free to make adjustments to their offerings, store configuration, or process to serve customers. If an outdoor business in Arizona wants to shut down for the summer because of heat stroke risk, they certainly can - but they may lose business to the innovator next door that buys his staff cooling vests. If switching a business to a drive thru to maintain social distance is limited by your personnel’s safety or your tablet’s battery life, you can of course shut down, but solutions exist that make it so you don’t have to.
It’s reasonable to expect the Federal government to coordinate resources for testing (which provides better information, driving better decisions), as well as coordinating resources for response (like the US Army Corps of Engineers is doing). Both of these can be done in coordination with the private sector, harnessing innovation for the good of the nation, without imprisoning it.
Social distancing during flu season may become ubiquitous for us all leading a healthier life...but maybe we are willing to risk it to have a hug every once in a while, or share a moment with a stranger that we will remember forever.
“What are you going to do with this one wild and precious life?”
Sit around and wait for it to be safe? Or step up and make this world a better place?
J.D. is Co-Founder and CFO of Qore Performance, Inc.