The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Witness how progressives in government forfeit the public’s trust

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discusses roadway safety in Washington on Jan. 27. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
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The transportation secretary has spoken, illuminating why, early in this third pandemic year, Americans by the many millions are ignoring government’s supervision. “Zero,” Pete Buttigieg recently proclaimed, “is the only acceptable number of deaths and serious injuries on our roadways.” He larded this fatuity with dollops of the usual rhetorical fat that greases governmental grandstanding — references to the “unacceptable” status quo, the wonders that will be worked in conjunction with “our stakeholders” hither and yon, through “sustained, urgent, yet lasting commitment,” etc.

Buttigieg actually is going to have to “accept” many vehicular deaths and injuries because the road to zero is paved with pipedreams: Banning vehicles that move faster than 5 mph might not suffice, so vehicles must be banned. His policy applesauce is harmless. The implications of George W. Bush’s second inaugural address — remember the commitment to “ending tyranny in our world”? — were not. And neither is the excessive pursuit of safety from life’s dangers, of which viruses and their permutations are just one of many categories.

In government, every serious mistake is, at bottom, a matter of disproportion. Furthermore, risk assessment is a basic test of rationality, as is weighing the trade-offs when responding to risks. For example:

Anthony S. Fauci, who rarely gives what would be the proper response to many questions he is asked (“That’s none of my business”), has said vaccination requirements for domestic airline passengers should not be imposed “right now” but should be “seriously” considered. Is he aware that burdening the exercise of what the Supreme Court terms a fundamental right of national citizenship — travel — is not a mere public health measure?

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The sound you hear today is the clicking of progressivism’s ratchet: X (having a carbon footprint, taking a shower, eating cheeseburgers, whatever) “affects others,” so X should be regulated. When Fauci was asked whether we could ever return to unmasked air travel, he answered, “I don’t think so,” because even in a closed space with excellent air filtration, it is “prudent” to “go that extra step.” Click goes the ratchet.

The phrase “zero tolerance” (of a virus, or violence, or something) is favored by people who are allergic to making judgments and distinctions: i.e., thinking. So, stories abound, such as that of a Pennsylvania first-grader who accidentally brought a toy gun to school in his backpack, gave it to his teacher — and was suspended under the school’s “zero tolerance” of threats. Similarly, the bromide “life is priceless” is less a thought than an evasion of thinking. We constantly price life through cost-benefit analyses, as when setting speed limits.

Putting masks on 5-year-olds — teaching them that life is more hazardous than it really is, and to regard other human beings as vectors of disease, like biting insects — is not an optional arrow that public health officialdom should feel free to pluck from its quiver. Besides, the idea that health and longevity are values superior to all others is crude biological materialism. Jeffrey H. Anderson of the American Main Street Initiative, writing in the Claremont Review of Books, says doctors naturally “focus on the body in lieu of higher concerns.”

This, however, is transforming risk aversion into a supreme virtue. Anderson says an “impoverished understanding of human existence” is embedded in the celebration of masking as social solidarity. For progressive celebrators, “the risk of stifling, enervating, or devitalizing human society is not even part of their calculation.”

For some public health obsessives, a virus serves the purpose that carbon serves for the most excitable environmentalists: It is an excuse for the minute supervision of life’s quotidian activities — progressivism’s constant impulse. Remember the jest: Progressives do not care what people do as long as it is mandatory.

There must, however, be limits to prophylactic measures against even clear and present dangers. Otherwise, public health officials will meet no resistance to the primal urge of all government agencies: the urge to maximize their missions.

As happened during Prohibition, increasing swaths of the nation are ignoring officiousness that is not plausibly related to a proportionate public good, and that is clearly related to social bossiness. Prohibition interfered with only one activity, and only with adults who consumed alcohol (a substantial minority did not). Today’s public health imperium threatens to envelop everybody and everything, forever.

When Buttigieg identifies as “the only acceptable” social outcome something that is unattainable, we see how government forfeits the public’s trust. Americans are hitting the mute button on government that calls life’s elemental realities and painful trade-offs unacceptable. When Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was told that the New England transcendentalist Margaret Fuller had exclaimed “I accept the universe!,” he remarked: “She’d better.”