The coronavirus has the world in a dither — like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (as Tom Lehrer might say). Despite the fact that a very low percentage of those who contract the virus actually die, steps are being taken that must give us pause.

Italy has banned all spectators from all sporting events during the month of March. There’s even talk about cancelling all sporting events. Around the world, and increasingly in this country as well, events are being cancelled right and left. Additionally, we read that the ASEAN Conference, Google News Initiative, Geneva International Auto Show, various concerts in Asia and elsewhere, and the Mobile World Congress, among many others, have been cancelled despite the fact that many of these events bring a great deal of money to the region and are immensely popular. Some companies in the United States are prohibiting their employees from air travel — even for personal vacations!

And so it goes. Big Brother is taking care of us. The assumption appears to be that we are not able to decide for ourselves whether we can take a chance to be with other people in the face of a growing pandemic. But isn’t that our decision? On what grounds can we defend the determination by various agencies to keep us indoors and away from others who might pass the virus along?

Most of the expert opinion I have read suggests that if we take precautions we can avoid contracting the virus. But apparently we are not trusted to take those steps so we are being told how to behave. This is what is called “paternalism.” Daddy is taking care of us because we are too stupid to take care of ourselves.

There are other instances of paternalism, of course, such as laws enforcing the use of infant car carriers and, my personal favorite, the law requiring helmets for motorcycle riders. Laws are generally made to protect us from others who might harm us, but in the case of helmet laws one hears the claim that when a person is thrown from a motorcycle he or she may incur health costs that will eventually be passed along to us all — as will the increased insurance rates. But this argument is weak and we simply look the other way as someone with Big Hands puts our child in a car seat or a helmet on us before we take off on our motorcycle.

What’s the problem here? It is, among other things, an attempt on the part of those in power to tell others how they must behave: it is a diminishing of our freedom. And while we love to kick and scream about our freedom, we seem perfectly content to have various agencies tell us what is good for us. I do wonder if it comes down the the fact that we really would prefer not to take the responsibility that freedom involves.

There seem to be a great many forces in this culture that deprive each of us of our autonomy. Many of the laws we obey are not only well-meaning but also necessary. There are the things we do that might harm others and which ought therefore to be prohibited. But when our behavior affects no one but ourselves — such as wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle or attending a sporting event — those restrictions seem to me to be well-meaning but unacceptable. We must presume not that folks are too stupid to take care of themselves; we must presume that folks can take care of themselves. And if they can’t so much the worse for them.

Paternalism is one of the many hidden forces that operate upon each of us and are based on the faulty premise that we cannot take care of ourselves. We should be much more upset about those restrictions than we are. And this is not an angry young radical speaking. This is an aged somewhat moderate but occasionally outraged retired person who is simply astounded by what is going on around him.

I do not mean to belittle the seriousness of the coronavirus. It is something we need to take seriously. But it is also something that we really ought to be able to handle with expert advice and not by needless restrictions on our behavior based on the assumption that we are even more stupid than we are in fact.


12 thoughts on “Paternalism

  1. Hugh, I feel you are way off base here. Many people are dying from this virus and one doesn’t know if one has it for weeks. If we insist on our “personal freedom” and end up being infected and carry on as usual, we can then end up infecting many many other people who infect yet more. Self isolating should be something we do for our community when the time seems right but it’s irresponsible to assume that people will do the “responsible” thing. Cases around the world have shown that taking action very early by some kind of containment makes a big difference in the spread of disease. You sound like Trump here.

    • Good grief! Pease no! I am simply making a case. I state clearly that the problem is that “they” feel we are too stupid to take care of ourselves. You point out that “it is irresponsible to assume that people will do the ‘responsible’ thing.” You make “their” case, I fear. But I tend to agree with you in the end: people really are too stupid to take care of themselves. This is why people who scream about their freedom should be wary of what they wish for, since freedom does imply responsibility. That may be my main point, as it happens. Thanks for the good comment.

  2. I am largely in agreement with you, Hugh. We cannot live in a bubble. Yes, it is a serious pandemic, with over 1,800 cases in the U.S. alone (counting the Diamond Princess), but it seems that some of the precautions may be overkill. Yes, we must take precautions to wash our hands frequently, stay home if we have any symptoms of illness, but you cannot legislate common sense. The Mayor of Chicago has postponed the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and other cities are warning against any public gatherings. Again … we cannot live in a bubble … not even just for a few weeks. It might have gone differently had we been able to believe what our government told us about the virus in the first place, but … like everything else, there is an ulterior motive there. People ought to have enough sense to be responsible for their own well-being … as I said, you cannot legislate common sense.

  3. You couldn’t have been clearer, Hugh. As an “old” dairy wife, cow milker , calf feeder…we are a nation of cows: one or two leaders who start the movement towards the barn, a few semi-leaders who want to be towards the front and in the first string, so to speak. Bringing up the rear? The majority of the herd…the decided followers who don’t have to think for themselves. Who just follow. Cow herd behavior.

    Human behavior.

    Thank you for your spot on observation and incisive statement.

  4. Hugh, I think we need to be forearmed with facts and provided tools to make sure we are OK. There are public service and community health issues, so there are major decisions that need to be made that we cannot make as individuals.

    With that said, the ball is in our court to act. People in part-time or gig jobs may not have choices, without paid-time off and some without healthcare. They are also suffering wage decline in service jobs as their business declines.

    But, it is our call on when we go out and where we go. We are armed with what we need to do.


  5. Hi Hugh!
    Your post gave me a good reason to view the daily-changing headlines with a grounded perspective. It also gave me pause to look inward, since I now live in ‘pro-active and on the offensive’ regarding dengue fever risks. ‘First time it probably won’t kill you, but second time, high risk.’ Since #2 took me through a walk very near that Valley of the Shadow of Death, I also knew that my own self isolation was important to the health of the community. I did not know that an epidemic had already affected most of the coast. There are still two other variants of the virus that put my own health at high risk… When I read your post, I was at my friends’ hostal in Jama, where I caught #2 dengue (!0 and I was beneath the mosquito net – but for another reason. A bat careened thru the room, and though probably 95 percent of the people of the world have never been bitten by bats, I have been bitten five times… Why? Why me? No one knows, but I now assume that if given the chance, a bit will for some reason ‘pick me.’ As with dengue, I am proactive ini dodging the bats, and I am also watching the stats as the virus begins its ugly spread thru Ecuador. So far so good, but what is spooky is that the ‘carriers’ usually don’t know that they are carrying the virus until weeks later… With my own ’emphysema’ diagnosis from 2012, I also remain proactive with pulmonary health…

    So there I was in Jama, where no one is dashing to buy a year’s supply of toilet paper, hand sanitizer or bottled water — and someone told me of some friends who flew to the USA for a long-weekend vacation and head just returned. Making a quick ‘connect the dots’ I pondered how fast that virus could reach even a remote town like Jama. I don’t want to live in fear (and I don’t) but definitely want to remain pro-active in staying well.

    I totally understand the point of your post and appreciate your perspective — you should see the families that pile onto a motorcycle – the father driving with a helmet, and maybe the mother with a helmet, and sometimes a toddler or young child in front of the father and maybe another child between the parents —- surely angels guard those families — but sometimes their fates end up as front-page headlines….

    Many times I observe the random people throughout the day, and I try to view them as little extensions of God, some with quick intelligence, some with slow intelligence, some just starting with emotional or spiritual intelligence – but all worthy of experiencing their lives and learning whatever lessons — and teaching us by example… Sometimes I think that God must be highly entertained by some of these individuals, and other times He must be quite disappointed, not to mention angry or disgusted. I wonder what He thinks about T?

    • \PS.. I wrote this a few days ago and am now sending it. Yesterday I watched the news conference via YouTube and thought that T seemed humbled, and that everyone seemed ready to move forward and put aside their squabbling. Of course I see only a small percent of what everyone else sees ‘up there.’

      Ecuador closes its borders at midnight; two people died this weekend (first two) and if I understood correctly, all international flights are ending as of midnight… We have a warmer climate on our side, but another week will tell…. first person w/the virus arrived one month ago… that’s the person who first died.

      Anyway, I’ll be trying to stay informed though my internet is via public options — so far all’s quiet.. Keep sending us some of your stories from your teaching days — or tennis days!

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