Commentary / World

American lockdown exceptionalism

by Tyler Cowen

Bloomberg

As the number of COVID-19 cases starts to rise again in many U.S. states, the question is whether residents of those states will tolerate another lockdown. I used to think so, but it is increasingly clear that Americans have become comfortable with a remarkably high number of casualties.

There is a mechanism of social conformity at work here. Most people will not tolerate a small risk to their lives to dine out, for instance — but they might if all their friends are doing the same. The appeal of a restaurant isn’t just the food, it’s the shared experience and the sense that others are doing it, too.

The danger lies in the potential for ratchet effects. If hardly anyone is eating out or going to bars, you might be able to endure the deprivation. But once others have started doing something, you will probably feel compelled to join them, even at greater risk to your life.

Consider that in the 1920s, the chance of catching a disease or infection from dining out was pretty high, but people still went out. Accepting that level of risk was simply considered to be part of life, because everyone saw that everyone else was doing it. In similar fashion, members of an infantry brigade are usually willing to charge an enemy position so long as they can be assured that all their comrades are, too.

So if you are wondering why the United States has become so tolerant of COVID-19 risk, one reason is simply that it has the most pro-consumption norms of any major Western nation. The pursuit of socially influenced high consumption levels is far more common in America than in, say, Kosovo, a country with a relatively good anti-COVID safety record.

It is worth asking who loses from these norms and associated higher risks. It is not higher-income teleworkers, who can themselves practice whatever degree of isolation they would want policy to impose. It is front-line workers, who tend to be poorer and are more likely to be black, Latino or immigrants. A country with a wide diversity of opinions and perspectives is more likely to accept those risks, and that too is the U.S.

I don’t mean to excuse the numerous COVID-related policy failures of government. I’m just proffering the notion that many Americans, subject to the constraints they face, are getting more or less what they want. (Again, I am excluding the front-line workers here.)

This analysis suggests a very different approach to addressing the creeping increase of irresponsible American socializing. If you think it is just educating people about the importance of mask-wearing or the dangers of bar-hopping, you will tend to lecture them louder and longer. That doesn’t seem to be working, perhaps because Americans already are making a calculation — albeit a selfish one — about the risks they are willing to accept.

So telling Americans that they are stupid and excessively sociable is likely only to make the problem worse. But what would an alternative approach look like?

Presidents and presidential candidates can help. How about holding rallies in large halls without an audience — and filming the result? Democratic presumptive presidential candidate Joe Biden, with his "basement” strategy, has come close to this approach. His opponent, by contrast, likes to boast about the crowds he draws. Public officials, meanwhile, might reserve the toughest legal restrictions for the most visible public places, such as city centers. In essence, it is necessary to slow down the ability of Americans to become more sociable, or even to reverse it when possible.

As for the media, mainstream and social: You can help by playing up the benefits of non-conformity and playing down the social element of consumption. All those photos of crowded beaches or streets may be intended to scare people, but the net message may be to encourage further conformity — and thus additional risk-taking and infection. Perhaps the media should limit the presentation of such stories and photos, just as they have moved away from publishing the names of school shooters, for fear of incentivizing the behavior.

Would it be so wrong to shift the emphasis of coverage, as is done with so many other public health topics? There has never been a better time to publish stories about what creative Americans are doing on their own. A story about Zoom dating is more socially beneficial than accounts of illicit trysts in cars and public parks.

In general, it would be better if every American thought other Americans were not out and about so much. And in case you’re wondering: I wrote this at home, not in a coffee shop.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner