You All Might Get Covid-19, But At Least I’ll Get Some Shuteye

June 30, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

This photo, posted to Twiter on Sunday, has gone viral. It was taken two days earlier on a flight from Cleveland to Nashville on Allegiant Airlines.

The man in the MAGA hat summarizes the Trump demographic — a White male (overweight) in his fifties. But what triggered Twitter was the symbolism of the mask. Turning the face mask into an eyeshade is the perfect metaphor for the Trump mentality. Masks (in the US, not elsewhere) have become political; they are not just a means to reduce the spread of Covid-19. They are now symbols of ideology, especially for those who refuse to wear them.

But what does not wearing a mask symbolize? Most obviously, for this man and many others, it symbolizes support for Trump. More specifically, it symbolizes the willingness to sacrifice the health and safety of the general society when that goal conflicts with personal convenience and preference. Mr. MAGA places his desire to block out some ambient light above the health and well-being of everyone else on the plane.

The ideology that justifies this behavior is what Claude S. Fischer has called ‘voluntarism” — the idea that I have an obligation only to those groups that I have chosen voluntarily. These other passengers are not a group I have joined. They are merely a bunch of other people who happen to be on my flight. So their well-being is not my concern, and I can legitimately ignore their norms. (For earlier posts on voluntarism, go here, and here.)

Often “voluntarism” marches under the banner of Freedom, and in America, Freedom is a very powerful argument. Even people who in the current pandemic want everyone to wear a mask feel its pull. People like me. Freedom seems like such a good thing, and its opposite such a bad thing, that we assume that people from other advanced countries, people who seem similar to us, share our view of Freedom. So I was surprised at how different we Americans are in balancing individual freedom against government policies on public health.

Surveys done three months ago asked people in twelve countries if they would be willing to accept a decrease in individual liberty for purposes of public health.*

One of these countries is not like the others. Timing may have something to do with these results. Three months ago, the increase in US rates of infection had started only about a week earlier, lagging Europe by one to two weeks, and US cases were still concentrated in the New York area. Still, the comparison with other countries, especially Canada with its much lower rate of infection, shows us how greatly the US differs from these other countries. It seems that we are far less trusting that the government will do the right thing and perhaps more suspicious that it will do the wrong thing.

This difference shows up on two other items, one on presidential power, the other on government control over the media.

True, these are unusual times. The pandemic may have increased the willingness of Europeans to trust their governments. In the US, Trump’s preference for authoritarian leadership (so long as he is the leader) may have decreased trust in the government. (Again, the survey was done in early April. The poor performance of the Trump administration and some local officials was not yet so obvious.)  It’s also possible that the Trump presidency may have raised the affinity for authoritarianism— greater presidential power, especially power to control the media — among his supporters. But remember, the survey questions relate these matters specifically to public health, and it wasn’t until March 29 that Trump acknowledged that Covid-19 was worse than the ordinary flu.

My guess is that the survey results reflect a deeper and more abiding American exceptionalism. When there is a conflict between individual freedom on the one hand and general benefit for the society on the other, Europeans and Asians, compared with Americans, give more weight to promoting the general welfare.


* The paper is “Note — Économie sociale du Covid-19,” by Stefanie Stantcheva, Clément Herman, and Constantin Schesch. As far as I know, it has not been published and is available (here ) only in French. The survey item statements above the graphs are my own translation.

1 comment:

cc said...

Fat shaming has no place in this analysis. It weakens the whole piece.