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There are no good choices

In shifting so much responsibility to individual people, America’s government has revealed the limits of individualism.

A man wears a protective mask as he sits in Times Square in New York City.
Land of the free, home of the failed.
Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images

Where I live, the sky is choking. Wednesday was the worst. The day was a dark, burnt haze; red as the end of the world. My dogs paced and barked. The animal in me panicked, too. If the sky couldn’t breathe in the light, how were we to breathe in the air? My son is too young to wear a mask, too energetic to trap inside. How could I protect him? We wanted to flee, all of us. But where were we to go? We couldn’t shelter indoors, taking refuge with friends or family, because of the coronavirus. We couldn’t slip into nature because of the fire. There were no good choices.

This is the era of no good choices. Take schooling, for example. Keeping children home robs them of education and socialization. It scars their futures, steals their joys. It makes it impossible for their parents to work, or even to rest. But sending them to school endangers their health, and that of their teachers and their families. The argument is so heated because the choices are all bad, at least by the standards of the lives we used to lead. We battle like there is a good answer, like we will discover one side is right and the other is wrong. But we won’t. There is no answer. Whatever we pick, it will be horrible.

Everything is like that right now. Do you visit your parents, let them see their grandchild? How do you weigh the risk of contagion against the risk of isolation? If they’re sick, does that make visiting them more dangerous, or more necessary? How about your friends? What is the cost to your child of growing up without community, without other hands to take care of them, without other adults they’re allowed to hug, to play with? Do we reopen restaurants? If they do reopen, do we go to them? The risks are terrible, but so is the thought of losing an entire industry, of seeing all those dreams die, all those futures shatter. As the Senate dithers, these decisions are being left to us, and it is tearing us apart.

In America, our ideological conflicts are often understood as the tension between individual freedoms and collective actions. The failure of our pandemic response policy exposes the falseness of that frame. In the absence of effective state action, we, as individuals, find ourselves in prisons of risk, our every movement stalked by disease. We are anything but free; our only liberty is to choose among a menu of awful options. And faced with terrible choices, we are turning on each other, polarizing against one another. YouTube conspiracies and social media shaming are becoming our salves, the way we wrest a modicum of individual control over a crisis that has overwhelmed us as a collective.

“The burden of decision-making and risk in this pandemic has been fully transitioned from the top down to the individual,” says Dr. Julia Marcus, a Harvard epidemiologist. “It started with [responsibility] being transitioned to the states, which then transitioned it to the local school districts — If we’re talking about schools for the moment — and then down to the individual. You can see it in the way that people talk about personal responsibility, and the way that we see so much shaming about individual-level behavior.” (You can hear my whole conversation with Marcus on this podcast.)

But in shifting so much responsibility to individuals, our government has revealed the limits of individualism.

The risk calculation that rules, and ruins, lives

Think of coronavirus risk like an equation. Here’s a rough version of it: The danger of an act = (the transmission risk of the activity) x (the local prevalence of Covid-19) / (by your area’s ability to control a new outbreak).

Individuals can control only a small portion of that equation. People can choose safer activities over riskier ones — though the language of choice too often obscures the reality that many have no economic choice save to work jobs that put them, and their families, in danger. But the local prevalence of Covid-19 and the capacity of authorities to track and squelch outbreaks are collective functions. They rely on competent testing infrastructures, fast contact tracing, universal health insurance, thoughtful reopening policies, strong public health communication, reliable economic support for the displaced, and social trust. Managed well, they lower the background risk, making more activities safe enough to consider, making the decisions individuals face easier. But in America, that public infrastructure has failed most people, in most places. The result is a maddening world of risk that individuals have been left to navigate virtually alone.

In the absence of an effective public response, we turn our frustrations on each other, as we fail to navigate the impossible choices we’re left with. We shame each other for going to beaches, to protests, to bars, to schools. We’re angry at college kids attending parties and bikers attending rallies and runners who don’t don their masks as they speed by, each exhalation a threat to ourselves and those we love.

“The way that we get control of fear, which is driven by this sense of uncertainty, is we put the locus of control on individuals, because then we can be angry at people,” says Marcus.

Like everyone else, I have my views on which activities should be sanctioned and which should be shunned, but I also have my lapses, my compromises, my trade-offs. We all do. And as the pandemic wears on, those differences sharpen, cutting into even loving bonds. I know families being torn apart, and friendships and relationships fraying over differing views of risk and reward. Politics, too, is tipping into a darker, more dangerous place, with President Trump preemptively undermining the election, with millions out of work and furious at those they see as causing or dismissing their pain.

There are dozens of ways the government could make it easier for individuals to make safe choices, ranging from effective policies to control the spread of the virus to a renewed economic support package that would allow people to protect their health without sacrificing their livelihoods. This is how other countries are responding to the crisis, and it is working. But Trump has refused to put forward — much less follow — a plan to suppress the virus, and congressional Republicans have insisted on withdrawing support from the labor market, in a bid to force workers to return to jobs. In that way, the impossible choices being forced on Americans are a policy decision being made by their elected leaders.

We have been set up to fail

The closest thing the GOP has to an actual policy to suppress the virus was articulated by Vice President Mike Pence at the Republican National Convention. “America is a nation of miracles,” he said. “And I’m proud to report that we are on track to have the world’s first safe, effective coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year.” But even if that’s true — and that remains a big “if” — it does not mean the crisis will end, or that our former lives will resume, in the fall.

“Even if the vaccine were to come this fall, it would take us over a year to get the number of doses needed to vaccinate the population,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “A year from now we’ll still be dealing with this situation. So I’m not here thinking about how to get through the next election. I’m thinking about how to get through the next few years.”

Imagine Joe Biden wins in November, and Democrats also take the Senate. What options will be open to them? Would the nation follow a lockdown, if one were needed? Would disappointed Trump voters heed a renewed push on masking, or would that simply feed the arcane phantasmagoria of QAnon? Are we prepared, socially and psychically, for a vaccine that fails, or even just disappoints? Will enough of us even trust a vaccine given the Trump administration’s relentless promotion of untested cures?

We have been set up to fail. Admitting that may, at some level, help us be more compassionate toward each other. We have been left without good choices, and so we are upset at the bad decisions our neighbors, friends, and families are making, even as they are angry at the trade-offs we choose. We are right to be upset. Our reality is enraging and terrifying. But more of our ire should be directed at the government that has left us in these straits.

Governmental failure has paved the way for social fracture. If the US government had succeeded as Canada or Germany’s governments succeeded, it would be easier to trust each other because we would pose less danger to each other. If we could depend more on the state, we could make more reasonable requests of ourselves. In the wreckage of state failure, though, it is nearly impossible for us to thrive.

This is a lesson the coronavirus is, or should be, teaching us, but it applies to far more than this moment. I began this column with the fires that have burnt my region; fires worsened, year after year, by unchecked climate change. There, too, our failures as a polity have left us adrift as individuals — free to flee our homes, but not free to breathe air that doesn’t leave us choking. It is a thin form of liberty, but it is all we will have left if we cannot govern collectively. We all want to be free to make our own choices. But we need government that works well enough so we have good choices to make.

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