Ending lockdowns is a decision for the people, not just the experts
As we begin our third month of widespread closures, stay-at-home orders and social distancing, public officials are struggling to decide when and how to reopen the country. In making those decisions, policymakers will be guided — as they should be — by the scientific knowledge that we have about the coronavirus.
But we live in a country where we govern ourselves through elected representatives, and the essence of governing is balancing competing interests and setting priorities — judgments that are inherently political, not scientific.
Even if epidemiologists were in perfect agreement in recommending a strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19, public officials must consider far more than epidemiology in devising a plan to respond to a crisis that has jeopardized far more than health. Science cannot tell us what to do, because the issue involves more than science.
Large portions of the country — including millions of unemployed workers — believe they have more to fear from a depressed economy or from social isolation than from the health effects of the virus. And, yet, there is no doubting the need to stop the spread of a virus for which there is no cure, and which already has killed more than 90,000 Americans.
No expert, scientist or not, can decide for us how to balance those competing interests. Being willing to reopen the country eventually — even if doing so will lead to more infection — does not deny science in general, or the germ theory of disease in particular.
The government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic is by no means the only important area of policy involving scientific considerations. Our policy with respect to the environment should be informed by scientific knowledge. So should aeronautical regulation, agriculture policy, telecommunications, health care policy, and occupational safety and health regulation. The list goes on and on.
Valuable as their insight can be, experts — be they research scientists or government officials in a specialized agency — naturally focus on their area of expertise with a kind of tunnel vision. Our nation as a whole, however, should take a broader outlook. Any policy that is pursued to the exclusion of all other considerations will lead to bad results elsewhere. We cannot single-mindedly pursue environmentalism or our economy will look … like it does now. We cannot single-mindedly pursue highway safety or we wouldn’t have cars that travel more than 5 miles per hour. We cannot single-mindedly pursue health, education, low taxes, or any other policy without bringing about negative, unintended consequences in other areas.
That is why the Framers of our Constitution created a system where government policy was to be made by officials who were representative of, and politically accountable to, the people. As James Madison famously argued in Federalist No. 10, a large republic brings together representatives from diverse areas and counterbalances different factional interests, resulting in policy beneficial to the whole.
In the American system of government, policy is to be made in broad strokes by elected legislatures, with details to be worked out by executive officials responsible to the elected president.
In creating laws and in implementing them, our elected officials should be guided by the experts. But, in the end, experts are no better than anyone else at making the political judgments — the value choices — that are necessary when we recognize that all good things come at a cost.
We should not defer completely to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or National Institutes of Health (NIH) in crafting a policy for opening the economy that will keep us safe from disease, any more than we should defer completely to the Department of Justice in crafting criminal justice policy that will keep us safe from crime or to the Department of Defense in crafting military policy that will keep us safe from foreign aggressors. In every policy area, experts have valuable contributions to make to our knowledge, but they are poorly equipped to appreciate the contending demands of different parts of American society.
Balancing those demands is the task of statesmen — not experts. It is called representative democracy.
Michael R. Dimino is a professor of law at Widener University Commonwealth Law School, where he teaches Constitutional Law and Election Law. Follow him on Twitter @mrdimino.