Thursday, March 19, 2020

Getting Clarity in 2020 - Coronavirus and the responsibilities of individual rights

This last week was a classic case of "Didn't see that one coming!'", eh? Global Pandemic, travel options being shut down, panicked shortages over what were considered the most trivial of products just a week ago, schools, concerts & conventions being cancelled, social distancing and self confinement being strongly suggested, 'soft' quarantines being applied in cities & counties and the threat of real quarantines in the offing, businesses, bars, restaurants being shut down in several states and economic catastrophe in the wings. Just wow. And of course there is the politics, with plenty of people who're screaming that:
  • "It's the 2nd Coming of the Black Death!', or
  • "Hoax! It's not a crisis, it's no worse than the common cold, they're just grabbing power!", or 
  • "Hoax! They're just trying to hurt this President!"
, and I really have no time for any of them. In the first case the issue is alarming enough without piling hysterical alarmism on top of what is already alarming enough; and in the second & third cases, the notion that this is only political spin & machinations requires such an effort to evade and fake reality as to make the wildest of 'Illuminati!' conspiracy theories seem rational in comparison - as a friend said, 'They're two sides of the same woke coin'. Are politicians & media trying to take advantage of a crisis? Of course they are, they're politicians & media, aren't they? Yes they will do their damndest to not let 'a good crisis go to waste', yes they must be rebuffed, but not at the expense of ignoring the real dangers that will actually follow from a too rapid spread of the Coronavirus disease (see the 'Flattening the curve' links below), or from a mis-identification of what our individual rights are, and require of each of us.

There's no doubt that COVID-19 and the responses to it are going to cause real personal hardships and economic devastation - a hint of which I got to experience myself on Friday 13th when I was let go from my job, and as my wife is a flight attendant, I can see that there are all kinds of ways for things to get much worse, in terms of health & finance - personally, locally, nationally & world wide.

I get it - believe me - if money, yours and your community's, is front and center in your thoughts, with rising concerns over jobs, income, BILLS, liberty, health - everything is slamming into our minds at the same moment... what are we supposed to do with that? While I'll suggest that going into a panic buying spree of toilet paper & disinfectant wipes wasn't the wisest of moves, those who had been paying no attention to the news and went to purchase them yesterday because they were running low, that wasn't the wisest position to have been left occupying. Somewhere between those two extremes lies a more practical course of action, but permit me to suggest that thinking about our current situation in only the economic terms of how best to allocate scarce resources, is also going to lead you way off in the wrong direction - economic thinking is not the type of thinking you need to be thinking your thoughts through right now. Ditto for 'critical thinking'.

In order to be able to take a moment to gather your thoughts, to put them in perspective and order so that you can make good judgments, you've got to be thinking a level above the chaos of the moment. The type of thinking we need to be engaging in right now, is not on the level of how to drive and get gas, because that won't tell you where, if anywhere, you should be driving to. The thinking we need more of right now, is what clarifies the mental map & compass... or GPS if you prefer, to get a grip on where we are, and where we should be going.

So back to basics. First... what should we be thinking about first? Which is a different question from asking about what naturally comes to mind in a crisis, or about what is rightfully a major concern in your life right now; instead it's asking what should we, as human beings, as family, as friends, neighbors and citizens, what should we be thinking of first? And how should those first thoughts, give order to, and prioritize, the secondary considerations of economic thinking?

Those first order thoughts aren't going to be found in the economy. Politics either. Or even in worrying about what you are free, or are not free, to go and do.

Those are important considerations, but something else needs to put them into a proper perspective, and that's got to come from higher on up the mental mountain. I'm sure that many of you are thinking that religious thinking is what should come first (and those tempted to laugh at that, you ought to do so quietly so as not to wave your foolishness about you like a flag), that may well be so, but that still leaves some mental ground between the clouds and your boots on the ground, that needs to be covered. Between theology and economics is philosophy - ethics & political philosophy in particular - and that's where your thinking can find the clarity to order your thoughts for acting in the here & now.

You can't jump right into issues such as Quarantines either, without having given some thought to what makes them justifiable or unjustifiable, and issues about the constitutionality & legality of such actions, are also secondary to understanding why any such actions can and should be thought of as proper or improper, and so guides what goes into federal & state constitutions and laws. Worrying about those issues first, without having first oriented your mind around true north, so to speak, is going to have you wondering off the map. What is most important to be thinking about, is thinking in terms of your being a human being, living in society with other human beings, and the first issue to consider in that context, is what responsibilities you have to yourself, and to your fellows, given the circumstances that we are all facing.

Lets start by leaving COVID-19, and the various letters of the laws, out of it. I've put some worthwhile links at the bottom of this post, but for the moment let's try and come at the issue of responsible actions from a very different direction.

Shifting perspectives
If a person was accidentally drugged & suddenly psychotic, a visible danger to themselves and to those around them, that person would in this situation be blameless, but whoever the people are that are around them - family, friends, bystanders, police - matters little, someone should restrain them (or at least alert someone who can) for their own safety and that of others, shouldn't they? Those people would themselves be blameworthy if they did nothing to restrain them. Is there anyone who'd argue otherwise?

If that person had somehow consciously incapacitated themselves, got stumbling drunk by chugging a fifth of bourbon for instance, while that person in this case is no longer blameless, that would not change what those same people around them should do in acting to restrain that person from driving home - right? If you were unlucky enough to not have those people around to save you from yourself, and your drunk driving caused injury or death to others, those actions would be your responsibility, right? Is there anyone who'd argue against that?

Let's add a bit of the crazy unknown into the mix: Let's say that you're about to leave from lunch at a friend's house, and they've just told you that there's a strong reason to believe that they may have accidentally used hallucinogenic 'Magic Mushrooms' instead of Morels mushrooms, in the meal you just ate, and that it'll take about 15 minutes or so to know for sure whether or not your meal is going to take you for a ride. It would be irresponsible for you to shrug your shoulders, get in your car and begin your long drive home through neighborhoods and past schools and into heavy traffic, wouldn't it?

Those scenarios may be odd, but the issues they raise are fairly clear cut and easy to grasp, right? If you are a threat to others, intentionally or not, you should either exercise self restraint, or be restrained by others, from putting anyone in danger of being harmed or even killed, by you. It would be criminally irresponsible for either you or those around you, to do nothing.

Ok, lets make the issue murkier. Let's say that the police, on the basis of solid information from very credible complaints, are aware of a wildly drunken party by escaped criminals, from which several cars were seen leaving, and are presently driving towards them down a single two lane road. The police would have good cause for stopping cars coming down the lane and for checking the drivers out, correct?

But what if while the police had received very credible complaints, there was no certainty about where the party was located, or which roads the likely drunk driving criminals would be heading down; in that case the police might have good cause to alert people in the city to the potential danger, but they would not have cause to stop all cars on any and all roads, correct?

And finally, what if, with no information, no complaints, just an awareness that it being Friday night and the likelihood that there are parties & drunks & criminals out & about somewhere, the police just decide to set up roadblocks on all roads to stop all cars, test all drivers, search them for any sort of incriminating info, on the off chance they could catch someone at something... most people would say that would be an improper and irresponsible abuse of power, right?

The context and knowledge of the issues, changes what actions are responsible to take, right?

Recognizing the Context
So now lets bring the COVID-19 back into it the mix. If you, through no fault of your own, were exposed to this extremely communicable disease, which, with good reason to suspect you could endanger your community - what is your responsibility to yourself and to your community? You have credible reasons to believe that you might be a danger to others, do you not have a responsibility to protect your fellows from catching and communicating that danger that you might be carrying to infect still others? You can do at least as much, and very likely more, damage to your fellows, and it'd be even worse doing that while sober, than drunk, right?

If you were confirmed to have the virus, wouldn't knowingly exposing others to it, be highly negligent behavior? Wouldn't you be responsible for their illnesses and the effects of them? If your family, friends, bystanders, police, were aware that you were infected, shouldn't they do whatever they can to restrain you for your safety, theirs, and the safety of others?

Now what if you know that there's a likelihood that maybe someone, somewhere is infected, is it right, is it responsible to accost any and everyone for that?

Unlike an analogy of people being drunk, we aren't mentally incapacitated, but we also don't know whether we are infected, or whether or not we are bumping into someone who is, and so passing it onto others. In that situation, it would be wrong for govt to treat everyone as if they were 'guilty', but a responsible person who's aware of the potential problems, should limit their contact with others, because there is a very real possibility that they could be a danger to them. It is right, it is responsible, to advise people to restrict their unnecessary activities, to leave space, to wash & wipe - while it's still questionable whether or not people are infected.

It would be wrong for communities not known to be heavily exposed to the virus, to treat everyone as if they were guilty/infected, without strong reasons for believing otherwise. OTOH, areas around Seattle WA, do have good reasons to believe that large crowds are going to contain several carriers of the virus, and they do have good reasons to take actions that in normal conditions would be egregious abuses of power - the context of the situation matters.

A libertarian minded Facebook friend commented that '...rights don't have asterisks after them saying you can't exercise your right in certain conditions', which is another example to me that he's never given any real consideration to what rights are, and a symptom of a far more worrisome viral infection of our understanding of individual rights, that stems from the J.S. Mill school of 'liberty' meaning nothing more than 'freedom from restraint'. Your individual rights are yours by nature of being a human being, and that, so long as you're of sound mind, your having the power to exercise your rights is beyond challenge. But your ability to exercise your rights, most definitely is affected by the context of the situation that you would be exercising them within. What actions you have the power to exercise, changes from one situation to the next, even in normal circumstances, depending upon the context of the situation. Your power to speak your mind on a soapbox in the park, becomes restricted when in a theater full of people who have paid to peacefully watch a show without interruption, and your power to exercise that right is even more restricted in a hospital where patients' health depends upon their being able to rest, and those powers are still further restricted in a war zone where what you are saying out loud, could give a lethal advantage to the enemy.

Your power to exercise and enjoy your individual rights, is most definitely affected by the context of the situation you find yourself within. What powers the state is able to exercise over you, also varies with the context of the situation.

A policemen cannot claim to be exercising his powers responsibly, when stopping cars for no reason, subjecting people to blood alcohol tests without cause, or searching you or your property without just cause, but if you are weaving across the road and sideswiping parked cars, if you smell of alcohol and slur your speech, if a description of your car and you match that of an assault that was reported around the corner just moments ago, then the police most definitely have cause to detain you, test you, and search you and your things, and it would be irresponsible of them not to do just that.

Context matters.

The St. Louis area, for instance, as of yet (and that could change within hours) has no reason to believe that 'the infected are among us' in worrisome numbers. However because of how the virus is known to spread, and is known to be spread by people who have as yet no reason to think of themselves as being carriers, people should be making an effort to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus to others; businesses should be making an effort to reduce the likelihood of providing a means to the spread of the virus, and it would be irresponsible of them to ignore that. The government should be making an effort to encourage individuals and businesses, to help slow the spread of the virus, and it would be irresponsible for them to not supply guidelines for that. But while making suggestions is appropriate in the current context, taking action, at this stage, to order businesses to close down, is unwarranted.

In the current context.

But once it does become a reasonable probability that any sizable gathering would contain numerous carriers of the virus and spread the disease to those most endangered by it, then if people fail to responsibly restrict themselves, authorities do have the responsibility - and the police power - to protect the public and limit, close, or quarantine them. They also have a legal responsibility to conduct such quarantines with due process - in normal circumstances. If emergency situations escalate, that may very well be determined by that context as well.

When President Trump shut down travel into America from Communist China and other countries which had large numbers of populations infected, that was the right, responsible, action to take. When President Trump was advising people to limit their activities, that was the appropriate and responsible thing to do. Trump engaging private companies in the process, Trump reducing or removing penalties & burdens from daily norms, from regulations to taxes & IRS due dates, is appropriate for him to do. Romney, Cotton, Trump, offering 'Cash for Corona'... those are not appropriate or responsible actions for government to take - removing burdens is good, increasing govt burdens on us all, is not! Govt shutting down govt colleges & public schools, that is appropriate (permanent would be better, but... that's me). But New York, Illinois & St. Louis, San Francisco, shutting down restaurants & gatherings... is not - yet - appropriate or warranted actions to take.

But honestly, I'm less interested in turning thumbs up or down on what responsible people, private and public, are attempting to do. I'm interested in you, We The People, giving careful thought to what is, and is not, appropriate and responsible behavior. What is your responsibility, what is your right, what power is it just for you to exercise? If you don't have that understanding, can those you elect to office be expected to understand - or care about - limiting governments powers to respecting and upholding your rights? If your answer isn't no - then why the hell not?!

Knowing what your individual rights are, the reasoning for them and for recognizing and defending them, and having some clarity of mind regarding the actions and circumstances where exercising them is responsible, and when it is not, is of fundamental importance, and the fact that your school may not have bothered teaching you that, is no excuse for your not making yourself more educated upon the matter.

You cannot truly enjoy your individual rights, if you don't consider the context of the situations you are exercising them in, and your not doing so endangers my ability to enjoy those rights as well. You, as a citizen, are responsible for knowing what your individual rights and responsibilities are, and not being aware of that, is inviting a dangerous context where all of our liberties could be lost to us, and to our children, and their children as well. That's the 'disease' that scares me the most, and I heartily wish there were a way to quarantine that.



tom said...

what a load of shit !

Van Harvey said...

Hey tom, I've no doubt that you've perfectly expressed your mind! Got plenty of toilet paper, I trust?