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The American crisis

By Frank S. Robinson

These are the times that try men's souls. "Try" meant "test" when Thomas Paine wrote those words. Now we're having extraordinary health and economic crises combined. On top of what was already a political and leadership crisis, testing America's moral soul.

China's authoritarian regime sneers at governments hamstrung by democratic accountability. China was able to impose draconian measures to contain coronavirus. On the other hand, it wouldn't have been such a big problem if they hadn't initially just silenced doctors who raised the alarm. China also failed to properly alert the world.

Still, the disaster here did not have to happen, and being a democracy wasn't the problem. Unlike governments in South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, ours bumbled and fumbled in disorganization  for months because Trump refused to heed experts ringing alarm bells. Costing us many thousands of lives, untold other human suffering, and trillions of dollars. 

Even sensible libertarians want government to deal with threats like this virus, organizing and mobilizing a societal response. Those protesting this as an assault on freedom are misguided. Government's chief remit is protecting us against harm by others. Nobody has "freedom" to flout rules to protect others against disease.   

Meantime though, we're also seeing government's role ballooning to support the economy in ways unimaginable just weeks ago. It's not socialism, exactly; more like state capitalism. We may imagine this is just a temporary emergency response. But expansions of government don't have a tendency to reverse themselves.

Covid-19 undermines our national security. Trump fetishizes the military, imagining this conveys strength. Actually, the bulk of our giant defense budget is geared toward re-fighting WWII (all those aircraft carriers, etc.), not the real threats of the modern world — like pandemics. Wasting all those resources on useless "defense" actually weakens us. A tiny fraction of that money spent on defense against threats like Covid-19 could have made all the difference. We didn't do it.

This American failure affects other countries too, and they've noticed. A real blow to our international standing.

Coronavirus is also changing us as a society. Sociologist Robert Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone  pointed up a trend toward atomization. That preceded the smartphone era, which has prompted vast handwringing about growing solipsism. Strangely, on one level, it's all about human connectedness, with people fixated on phones mainly for stimuli from others. Most of whom, however, they hardly know. Our Facebook "friend" rosters grow while real friendships contract.

Now we have "social distancing" — as if that hadn't already been an apt way to describe what was happening. In-person communication being supplanted by virtual communication. If this were a battle between the two, the former has just suffered a devastating strategic reverse. And now socializing in person is bad for public health!

Our society is built upon webs of human interconnectedness, embodied in the term "social capital."

A key element of that is social trust.  It's the very basic understanding that you can walk down the street with no expectation that someone will assault you. Or, more prosaically, that packaged food you buy won't be poisoned. Et cetera. A vast range of ways we trust that societal rules will hold. This can't be taken for granted, it was built up over thousands of years.

But polls have shown Americans' social trust eroding. It's not that people are actually becoming less trustworthy. It's that more of us believe  others are less trustworthy. This can become self-fulfilling if we act in ways that exhibit less trust. Reduced face-to-face interaction may be a factor. It doesn't help that two political tribes each believes the other consists of bad people who threaten everything that's good and holy.

And now we view any strangers encountered in public as literally potential threats to us. "What if that guy has the virus?" This kind of perspective may now become habitual.

Not only is trust in people declining, so is trust in social institutions — notably government. That led many Americans to vote for an "outsider." Giving us a government that unsurprisingly let us down when we really needed it, in this pandemic. It's been mentioned how much better South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore did. And in those countries, higher social trust — including trust in government — was a key asset.

But that requires competent, responsible, sane leadership. Which is up to voters. Is that lesson sinking in yet?


Frank S. Robinson is a graduate of New York University Law School and served at the New York Public Service Commission as staff counsel and then administrative law judge (1977-97).
He is the author of eight books including Albany’s O’Connell Machine (1973), Children of the Dragon, and The Case for Rational Optimism (2009). 

Robinson is a professional coin dealer and writes The Rational Optimist blog. He is married to the poet Therese L, Broderick and has a daughter, Elizabeth.

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