What We’ll Learn about Civil Society, Family, and Technology from Coronavirus

No one can say with precision how many people this virus will infect or kill. Predictions are difficult. But we know some things about ourselves, so we can venture to say what this unusual moment will reveal about us.

This essay is part of a series concerning the Coronavirus pandemic. Read more from the collection here.

We officially have a novel virus pandemic. The President has declared a national emergency in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The American people—we hustled masses—have slowed down to an amble. We are staying home from school, work, university, and conferences. We even are staying home from worship.

The cause of COVID-19 is SARS-CoV-2, popularly known as Coronavirus. Although it originated in China, it spread in Italy and South Korea, two free societies, before it began to spread in the United States. Thus, we have the benefit of good data and of seeing how free societies responded to it. We are better prepared as a result.

Still, no one can say with precision how many people the virus will infect or kill. Predictions are difficult. But we know some things about ourselves, so we can venture to say what this unusual moment will reveal about us.

One thing is certain: This too shall pass. When it does, I predict that we will have learned three things about ourselves. These are nearly certain. One of them is cause for optimism, one for pessimism, and one is a draw.

American Civil Society Still Works

First, we will discover that civil society in the United States still works. When public health experts confirmed that the threat was serious and imminent, we did not need an authoritarian strongman or central government to force us to act reasonably. Thousands of associations and organizations, from professional and collegiate sports leagues to schools and universities, employers and professional associations and charitable organizations, churches and other religious assemblies, profitable private companies, and millions of families voluntarily chose to alter their plans and activities to reduce the speed of transmission.

Apart from some strange hoarding (good luck finding toilet paper and facial tissues right now), the American people have largely acted responsibly. Life goes on, but not in large gatherings. And significantly, those people who exercise authority over the various groups, associations, and institutions within our society took seriously their responsibility to make hard decisions for the benefit of their members and neighbors.

That is not to predict that their judgments will be perfectly vindicated. Perhaps we will learn in retrospect that we could have done less. But looking back at the end of this, we will see that university and professional association presidents, school principals and parents, and many other private and local authorities acted on imperfect information with a motivation to protect the health and well-being of people whom their decisions affected.

Americans are used to governing our own lives in our own families, communities, and associations, and we generally do the reasonable thing. We respect knowledge and defer to expertise. Sometimes we overreact, and when the herd gets going, we often go along with the stampede. But this also shows that we trust each other and can perceive the value of wisdom and prudence in others.

So, my first prediction is that our response to COVID-19 will reveal that America’s practical reasoning muscles are in pretty good shape. (Not bad for a 243-year old.) This is the good.

Government Can’t Protect Children from the Costs of Family Breakdown

Second, we will learn (again) that the intact family matters. With schools closing and parents (re)assuming a larger role in the education of their children, we are about to see clearly the limits of government-run education. In particular, government schools cannot compensate for the losses that children suffer when the family breaks down.

A child being educated in a home where both parents are present has a better chance of learning in this moment than one in a home from which one or both parents are missing. Furthermore, many children living in broken homes have come to depend on government schools for meals, and many single parents depend on those schools for childcare so that they can earn a living outside the home. These dependencies will multiply the challenges that confront non-intact families during this difficult time.

We have known for some time that children in intact, biological families outperform children raised in other family structures in educational achievement (and on other measures). The reasons are fairly obvious. People naturally care for their own children, and on average they care for their children more than they care for other peoples’ children. Also, two parents can divide the burdens of parenting, whereas a single parent must bear them alone. Men and women bring different gifts to parenting and teaching, and so children learn best from both a mom and a dad. And intact families have more resources, on average, and less disruptions and transitions than cohabitation or divorce.

Now consider that four of ten children in the United States are now born out of wedlock. I predict these children will suffer disproportionately from this epidemic—perhaps not in short-term health outcomes but in losses that will manifest as inequalities over the long term. This is the bad.

Technocrats versus Humanists and False Dichotomies

Now for the draw. Over the last few years we have witnessed an extended debate between critics and defenders of something called “liberalism.” Though the debate is multi-faceted, one key disagreement concerns the account of modernity’s scientific and technological revolutions. On one side are those who perceive in discovery and innovation many blessings and benefits. On the other side are those who think that the advent of empirical science and technological innovation brought with it social costs for which we have not sufficiently accounted, especially the breakdown of families and local communities.

One encounters more and less thoughtful versions of these arguments. Some are quite extreme. Some science skeptics seem to suggest that empirical science is at odds with human nature. They disparage the value of innovation and industry. Call them “humanists.” On the other end, some true believers in science seem unable to perceive anything in human nature that cannot be empirically verified. They disregard the mind and soul. Call them “technocrats.”

I predict that the science-skeptical humanists and the pragmatic-elite technocrats will have lots to say about this moment in history. And I predict that they will argue to a stalemate.

Who is to blame for this pandemic? And who holds the greatest potential to mitigate its losses? Without a rigorous, scientific understanding of viruses and human behavior, we would be at the mercy of this novel coronavirus, as people were at the mercy of pandemics in centuries past. Once it left China and entered the free world, information about the virus and its effects began to spread faster than the virus itself. And health experts and professionals knew how to interpret the data. Score one for the technocrats.

On the other hand, the virus spread quickly around the world precisely because our world is interconnected by industry, trade, and technology. And science did not prevent the human blunders that unleashed this thing on us. And people are now dying. And more will die. Science cannot make people other than we are, nor the world other than it is. We did not create nature; we cannot recreate it. The best we can do is exercise dominion over it as stewards of a good and fallen earth that each of us inherits and then leaves behind, as the Hebrew and Christian traditions have long taught. Ashes to ashes. Score one for the humanists.

If it turns out that this thing came from a laboratory in China, as some have speculated, then the science-skeptical humanists will claim victory in overtime. But most people will not care. They will correctly perceive the false dichotomy. We are an energetic, creative, and productive people who love to generate new ideas and innovations. We are also a people who love beauty and believe in numinous causes of happiness, who admire virtue and love our neighbors. We take the good when we can, and the bad in stride.

Our creative inquiries and our communal responsibility are two sides of our human nature. Both our innovations and our stewardship are aspects of our dominion over the world, the office we occupy as beings created with the radical capacity to preserve what is good by nature and to generate new goods by artifact. We go wrong when we abdicate this office, either by using our technological innovations to injure our given nature or by undermining the civil liberties and institutions that make human creativity possible. This challenging moment will reveal that we are succeeding in some ways and failing in others.

We are human beings, capable of generating great goods and of causing great injuries. We often do both at the same time, as we are doing now. In short, Coronavirus will reveal that we have a lot in common with those who have suffered through pandemics before us.

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