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There Is No Such Thing as "Safe"

My colleague Iain Murray has a great essay up at Law & Liberty today on why some groups of Americans are perceiving quarantine policies so differently from others. The reason is largely because different Americans have different value hierarchies—that is, they prioritize different values when it comes to public policy. Some consider order and tradition most important (hierarchists), some consider equality to be number one (egalitarians), and some prefer to maximize freedom and individual autonomy (libertarians). As Iain writes:

When these values clash, we see political polarization at its worst. When they align, we see consensus and reform. Today, when consensus is probably most needed, they are clashing hard. …

Egalitarians think an end to the lockdowns would hurt the vulnerable. Libertarians view the lockdowns as threatening freedom—and even contact tracing as threatening civil liberties. Hierarchists particularly oppose restrictions on religious gatherings.

Persuading groups of people with different value orientations to agree on a single best policy is often a difficult enterprise. But we should still do the best we can to seek out the most relevant facts. When our friends’ and neighbors’ values lead them (and us) to focus only on certain factors and ignore others, good communicators should supply the perspective that our cognitive orientations are disposed to ignore. Sometimes that means being made aware of factors we failed to educate ourselves about entirely, but sometimes it means introducing nuance to a false binary. Iain again:

In thinking through this, we need to remember that risks are often relative. If we focus exclusively on the risks we are most concerned about, we can miss the other risks that obtain should our demands be met. It requires a degree of humility about the importance of our values to recognize this.

Nothing in life is entirely risk-free, but as human beings we have an unfortunate tendency to put things in “safe” and “unsafe” mental buckets. We’re likely to think of driving a passenger sedan with multiple airbags a few miles to the nearest grocery store as being categorically “safe,” but driving a motorcycle all the way from Sturgis, South Dakota, to Daytona Beach, Florida, as being terribly “risky.” But of course there are hazards and pleasures to be found in each experience. One could get into a fatal accident pulling out of one’s driveway on the road to Safeway or end up perfectly healthy after a cross-country bike tour as you turn onto Ridgewood Avenue in Daytona. It’s a matter of chance, driving skill, and many other factors ranging from the weather to traffic conditions.

Thus, it was fascinating for me to read this article from Politico this morning that polled Americans on certain common behaviors during the coronavirus quarantine. They didn’t just ask respondents and public health experts whether they thought something was safe or not, they asked how safe (or unsafe) they thought it was. So, on a scale from one (extremely low risk) to 10 (maximum risk), Americans thought that going for a run outside without a mask on was a 4.3 out of 10. The public health experts, on the other hand, thought that running without a mask was more like a 2.9 – very low risk. On the other end of the spectrum, Americans thought attending a baseball game in a stadium full of people was a 7.7 out of 10, while the health experts scored it all the way up at 8.6.

These relative risk scores tell us a lot about both public perception and (assuming we respect the credentials of the health experts recruited by Politico), actual disease transmission hazards. This is, to put it lightly, much more useful and informative than simply being subject to a quarantine order with a long list of forbidden behaviors.

Any city—or household for that matter—has limited enforcement bandwidth, and when it comes to phased reopening plans, which most state and cities have embraced, we need to know which behaviors are less risky so that they can be permitted, while only continuing to restrict the very highest risk behaviors and activities.

But in most public policy and law enforcement cases, we never receive an explicit acknowledgment that there is anything like a risk spectrum or hierarchy; there are only permitted and forbidden categories. When activities that are actually low risk are included on lists of forbidden activities, it brings the entire enterprise into suspicion and disrepute.

Witness decades of government anti-drug propaganda that suggest that every illegal substance is equally hazardous. Anyone who has ever smoked marijuana knows that it doesn’t immediately lead one into a soul-destroying Reefer Madness-style spiral of doom, countless televised “public service announcements” to the contrary. A widespread realization of this kind makes every other public health message issued by a government agency that less believable.  

This doesn’t mean that the government should publish a recreational drug shopping guide, but it does mean that public policy should acknowledge the relative risks of various behaviors, substances, and products, as well as the varying risk tolerances of its citizens.

If Americans knew that one thing they wanted to go out and do during the pandemic was four times more dangerous that another similar thing that they also wanted to do, I believe that the vast majority of them would voluntarily choose the activity that put their families and neighbors at less risk. But when we only have a long unranked list of “do not” activities, people are going to—the longer quarantine and stay-at-home orders stay in place—increasingly disregard the entire list. And that makes us all less safe.