Want and Need

I have blogged several times over the years about the important distinction between what we want and what we need. I usually couch the discussion in the context of education where I note that children should be taught what they need in order to become autonomous adults rather than what they want as children with passing whims. The distinction has always seemed to me to be at the heart of education and a possible suggestion as to why the United States now trails many of the other “developed” countries in educating the young. Our schools (and our parents, by the way) are focused on what the young want and afraid to demand that they study those subjects they will need later on in life. The parents give into their kids for a variety of reasons, but largely because  they think it will buy their children’ love or because that is what the so-called experts have told them is the proper thing to do.

Now comes the coronavirus and the following story tells us that the chickens seem to have come home to roost — at least in Wisconsin:

Wisconsin saw a record number of new coronavirus cases and deaths reported in a single day on Wednesday, two weeks after the state’s Supreme Court struck down its statewide stay-at-home order.

The state reported 599 new known COVID-19 cases on Wednesday with 22 known deaths, according to Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services, the highest recorded daily rise since the pandemic began there. As of Wednesday, the state had more than 16,460 known cases and 539 known deaths, according to the department.

In a word, the folks in Wisconsin were disturbed enough about being told they must be quarantined in order to help control the virus that they went to court to have the regulation removed so they could go about their business as usual. Well, they went back to business as we can expect it when we take off our rose-colored glasses.

I dare say the same results will or would happen in Michigan where armed protesters stormed the governor’s office to demand that the quarantine be lifted in that state. It’s what we want.

But it is not what we need. When will we learn?

I am not a big fan of the government telling us how to live our lives, but in this case we are talking about older folks and folks with previous medical conditions whose lives are at stake if we simply continue to act on impulse and pretend that the virus isn’t there. Even John Stuart Mill, the arch-defender of libertarian values would agree that where the health and well-being of others is involved laws and  regulations are required — and morally justified.

So many of the young (especially) believe that the virus will not affect them seriously and have decided that they will take a chance. They forget, or ignore the fact, that they might carry the virus to a grandmother or a grandfather, or someone they are close to who suffers from, say, asthma. And those persons may well die because of the kids’ determination to do what they want.

But that’s what they have been taught in the home as well as in school. Just tell those in positions of authority what you want and they will deliver it to you. If they pretend not to hear, shout louder or, possibly, bring a weapon.

The chickens, as I said, have come home to roost.


12 thoughts on “Want and Need

  1. Hugh, good post. There are more than a few doctors leading state health agencies and the CDC who are offering counsel on social distancing. A person who speaks plainly is up your way at the University of Minnesota, Dr.. Michael Osterholm. Here are his credentials.

    In short, he says this will be around for a long while, but we do not know what path it will take. He said we obviously cannot shut down our commerce, but we must be smart about protocols, especially social distancing. He speaks of aerosol spreading of germs when we speak, breath, etc. Masks will only help a little as the aerosol comes out the sides, so distancing and hygiene are more critical. Being outside is better than being indoors.

    He said it could peter out some or it could launch and spread where we see exposure to 60% to 70% of the US population. He emphasized the need to for following protocols, especially the social distancing and is troubled by the gatherings of many, especially when they are indoors. Keith

  2. Dr. Curtler,

    It is wise to pay heed when the name of John Stuart Mill arises. His writings on matters ranging from liberty, to ethics, to equality, to scientific methodology, and to government policy are generally clear and often compelling. They are certainly relevant.

    So, when you cite Mill in your discussion of the current pandemic, I pay heed. (Actually, when you cite ANY philosopher in any context, I pay heed. A wise practice, too, I think.)

    In his discussion of legitimate governmental authority (On Liberty), Mill lays out his thinking about when it is legitimate for a government to exercise its authority over individuals, bearing in mind that the purpose of government represents is to promote the freedom of those same individuals.

    According to Mill. the government should not carry out public actions when any of three conditions apply:

    (1) If agents [individuals in the public] do the action better than the government.

    (2) If it benefits agents to do the action though the government may be more qualified to do so.

    (3) If the action would add so greatly to the government power that it would become over-reaching or individual ambition would be turned into dependency on government.

    I will briefly address each of these three points in turn, given our current context.

    (1) Mill argues that a government should not act in the name of the public when individuals can do the action better than the government.

    Any libertarian would agree with this and any rational person can also see that wherever governments in this country have acted as if the public is best left to it’s own devices in this pandemic, those governments have created the conditions for both individual and pubic disaster.

    The delay in establishing a public health response to this crisis at the federal level, and the deference to the minority of voices who want their “freedom” to infect others, has resulted in tens of thousands of preventable deaths. It is precisely in those places that have acted last and in those places that have acted least where the Covid-19 virus has surged and is surging. Death tolls have risen and are rising proportionally in precisely those places.

    It seems apparent that individuals in this case have not done and are not doing better than what public health experts have recommended or mandated. Indeed, it is precisely where individuals have been granted maximum freedom for the greatest length of time that the greatest harm to the greatest number has occurred.

    We are witnessing something of a ‘natural experiment’. According to the best evidence available, the greatest good for the greatest number of people has clearly been promoted by stronger public health measures. The utility of these measures is apparent to all rational persons.

    I believe Mill would agree.

    (2) Does it really benefit citizens to act outside the guidelines of public health measures?

    In general, I think not. In this case, definitely not. Wearing masks and reducing social contacts are minimal personal inconveniences compared to the very real likelihood and very real costs, both personal and public, of viral infection and disease.

    It does matter, of course, which individual agents actually benefit. The average citizen? The meat-packing plant worker? The Amazon distribution center worker? The health care provider? The elderly grandparent in a care facility? The inmate in a prison?

    The “benefits” to these people matter little to those who argue for their “freedoms” to infect others. Some even speak of the need to “cull the herd”. The “herd”, of course. is always those OTHER people.

    Or does one speak of benefits to bar owners in the Tavern League? To other small business owners? To those who carry weapons into the halls of democratic government? To corporations? To the wealthy? To religious groups?

    Individual “agents” are not all identical. Some have power; most do not. Some have wealth; most do not. Some have privilege; most do not. Whose interest is likely to be served by government regulations or policies? The age-old question, “Cui bono” might be better phrased as “Qui vere prodest?”

    I admit that, while espousing the liberty of individuals in the abstract, Mill is often less helpful when it comes to sussing out the day-to-day operations of social institutions, power, and privilege. However, philosophical thinking rests upon the ability to abstract fundamental points of argument. So, dealing with matters in the abstract is not an inherently poor practice. But it is always wise to pay attention to what is being distilled from the argument and what, or whom, is being discarded or disregarded.

    I fail to see how refusing to act in accordance with the best available public health recommendations or refusing to recognize governmental authority to enforce those recommendations actually benefits most individual citizens, either in the abstract or in the particular — that is, unless you focus on healthy profits in the short term rather than a healthy public in the long term.

    I do not believe Mill would support government inaction in this case.

    (3) Does protecting the public through enforced public health measures greatly expand the powers of government or dependency upon government?

    In principle, these are essential questions; in fact, they are well nigh moot questions, as well.

    The response of the federal government would have been better if had used the authorities it already had. Further, those states that acted first to enact effective public health measures acted best.

    No additional expansion of governmental powers has been necessary. This goes for the Defense Production Act (1950), for the National Emergencies Act (1976) , and for state and local-level decrees of Governors and public health officials — except, of course, in Wisconsin, where the majority of the Supreme Court is willing to ignore explicit state statutes, without statutory analysis! . But that is a tale for another time…

    Sadly, even the use of cell phone data to track and trace social contacts is already within the legitimate authority of this government, given the Patriot Act, and the tendency to interpret it broadly. This Act may well be the greatest statutory incursion into the realm of civil rights of any formal action ever taken by our government.

    It was passed into law by those who had never read it (with the exception of Senator Russell Feingold, who voted against it). It is hard to imagine are more intrusive expansion of government power into the realm of civil liberty than the Patriot Act — and it is already on the books.

    The real problem in this pandemic has not been that government officials have tried to expand government authority over individuals. The real problem is that government officials have consistently NOT used the extensive authority they already have to manage a real public health crisis.

    Questions of an increase in dependency upon government typically have not arisen in the context of debates about recent public health measures. They have arisen in debates about dealing with the economic crisis occasioned by the pandemic.

    Suffice it to say that the party in power in the federal government has no qualms about the real dependency of large corporations upon the government; it does, however, worry greatly about the potential dependency of the poor and the powerless. Mill would have had none of this obvious corruption. I believe that is clear.

    Mill could not really argue that government action in this pandemic has expanded government authority over individuals. That horse is out of the barn.

    Mill could argue that economic policies of this government in response to the pandemic have increased economic dependency upon the government, but he would be among the first to criticize the actual distribution of those benefits, as well.

    Mill’s argument does not support government inaction in this instance, I believe.

    IN SUM, Mill lays out three general reasons for excluding government action in favor of the action of individual citizens, though it is noteworthy that he does not preclude the necessity or authority of government action, per se.

    I my estimation, none of the rationales Mill provides is supportable in the case of the pandemic we now face. Indeed, I believe he could easily argue for a “strong sufficiency” in favor of public health regulation by our federal, state, and local governments.

    What I find most interesting is that authoritarianism in this country often speaks the language of liberty. “Don’t tread on me” say these well-armed scholars of Locke and Montesquieu.

    Yet, it is precisely these same authoritarians, who support Trump’s incompetence and intolerance, all the while supporting unlimited government power to promote and establish policies they prefer. Libertarian? I hardly think so. Authoritarians and incipient fascists, more likely. Again, Mill would have none of this.

    Which leads me back to Mill’s On Liberty. He did stipulate that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians”. One notes that he stated this in the context of a discussion of the British colonial government’s suppression of non-white people, but the point stands on its own two feet. A civil society cannot tolerate intolerance.

    On the one hand, Mill recognizes the necessity of government action in extreme circumstances and against extremists. On the other hand, he offers little advice about what to do when the government itself is run by extremists in an extreme circumstance. Yet this is where we are.

    In any case. John Stuart Mill is always worthy of reconsideration. Thank you for this opportunity to revisit his thinking.

    Respects, regards, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

      • Dr. Curtler,

        Thank you for your kind response .

        I,too, appreciate Alexander Hamilton for the force of his intellect, for his keen political insights and, not least, for the beauty of his prose.

        A sample passage reveals all three (The Federalist Papers, #59):

        “It ought never to be forgotten, that a firm union of this country, under an efficient government, will probably be an increasing object of jealousy to more than one nation of Europe; and that enterprises to subvert it will sometimes originate in the intrigues of foreign powers, and will seldom fail to be patronized and abetted by some of them. Its preservation, therefore ought in no case that can be avoided, to be committed to the guardianship of any but those whose situation will uniformly beget an immediate interest in the faithful and vigilant performance of the trust.”

        Prescient words, indeed.

        Regards, respects, and best wishes,

        Jerry Stark

      • Wise words indeed. Have you read Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of Hamilton? It is extremely well done. Good reading for the pandemic!!

      • I have not yet read Chernow’s wok on Hamilton, but I will do so. Thank you!

  3. Dr. Curtler,
    I have been off of unsocial medias for four years. Yours is the only online “blog” that I have ever read, ever, intentionally. Because, I was trained by great minds to be rightly suspicious of the impersonal and antiseptic form of “communication” that is texts written on screens and broadcast to everyone and no one all at once, regardless of context. However, I will say that I find this post and many others of yours to be prescient and apt.
    I have just completed my 21st semester of higher education, after high school. I just finished two years of Lakȟóta Language studies at the University of South Dakota after my History M.A. My instructor, Jerome Kills Small (Wičhákte Čik’ála) is one of the last 5,000 First Language Lakȟóta speakers left. Orphaned, he was raised by his grandparents. As such, my access to a linguistic and epistemological window closed to most non-Indigenous Peoples in the majority culture has been as rewarding as it has been unique. For the past year, I was one person removed from living memories that extend back to the 1880s.
    However, having spent twelve of the last eighteen years in and around American Universities, and having taught at both the high school and college level in that interim – I can confirm your every observation about the rapid, exponential decline of the character and quality of American families, and American youth specifically. They are cynical, callous, narcissistic, solipsistic, ego maniacal, and generally vicious. Moreover, they are fundamentally unable to engage in either intellectual or emotional empathy or imagination. They habitually mistake their own small, chronically uninformed perspective for universally applicable, absolute truth for everyone, everywhere, for all time. And if challenged, instead of responding with well reasoned and defended ideas, they instinctually bear their fangs. They remind me all too often of rapid dogs in cages. They are slaves to their passions utterly.
    Thank you for bothering to write cultural observations and diagnoses of substance and merit; even if I maintain the medium herein utilized is fundamentally antithetical to the vital and enriching transmission of essential ideas. As is all too common in the Age of Techno Dependent Isolation in Modernity – even the most moral and educated among are too demoralized and complicit to strive for that which is excellent as possible, but instead settle for that which is not completely awful. Put in the vernacular, “As things stand, I’ll take it.” That said, thanks again for the ever yielding fruits of your red hot pen (keyboard – see, not nearly as enigmatic), and for your many years of painstaking effort to move the ball of human reason forward. I assure you, it was not in vain. My every effort is the living proof. As far as I’m concerned, Sisyphus has got nothin’ on you. Keep at it, and thanks again.

    Matt Ness

    P.S. On a side note, after penning a first novel, I am finishing up a second and third as we speak. They should be finished by summer’s end. If the young had bothered to learn to think, read, and write well – they would find weathering the apparent end of our tawdry and mediocre civilization much, much easier. Thanks again for imparting that skill set as well. The best of humanity always does lead by example. Truer words.

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