The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Everyone is talking about an ‘abundance of caution.’ Why are we not reassured?

Amid reckless public policy, spokespeople settle on a comforting cliche.

President Trump stands on the helipad of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., while preparing to fly back to the White House on Oct. 5. He was hospitalized at Walter Reed for a novel coronavirus infection. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Judging from recent statements by political and corporate spokespeople, one thing America doesn’t lack right now is caution.

We have an abundance of caution. A plenitude. Untold stores. We’re swimming in it. And nothing we do with it seems to make a dent.

After President Trump announced he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus early on Oct. 2, he was transported by helicopter to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center that evening “out of an abundance of caution,” according to the White House.

If worded less soothingly, this announcement could have disquieted the American people; the hospitalization of a 74-year-old commander in chief, for a disease that disproportionately kills older men, is no trivial matter. Some of us might have also worried because we tend to associate airborne evacuations with serious situations like war, natural disasters, heart attacks and fleeing angry natives after having robbed their ancestors’ tombs, like Indiana Jones. We’ve watched too many movies. We’re high-strung these days.

But we didn’t panic in this case, because the announcement included the phrase “out of an abundance of caution.”

Maybe because the phrase has its origins in the law, where it is used, often rather vaguely, to suggest “precautions taken against a very remote contingency,” it has a calming, authoritative ring. It feels like a pat on the back from a trusted leader who’s too busy at the moment to go into details. Trump didn’t actually need to be transported by helicopter to a military hospital, it implied. He was barely sick, had a bit of a sniffle. The White House had taken this extreme and potentially alarming step simply to be on the safe side. Because they had so much caution that they could afford to do so.

In the ensuing weeks, we’ve continued to use caution just as lavishly. Barnes and Noble acted “with an abundance of caution” in shutting down its systems after a suspected cybersecurity breach. Dolly Parton’s Tennessee theme park, Dollywood, closed two attractions in the wake of a small engine fire, also out of “an abundance of caution.” When Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) was exposed to the coronavirus at a meeting, he announced that he would limit that week’s in-person meetings — yes — “out of an abundance of caution.”

Given all this talk of abundance, I guess there’s still more than enough to go around. Our national caution supply remains secure. But for how long? Will future Americans judge how extravagantly we burned through our caution, just as we condemn earlier generations for treating fossil fuels as unlimited resources? All this talk of a surfeit smacks of hubris.

On the other hand, no organization claims to be acting “out of an excess of caution.” An excess could sound neurotic, while an abundance gives the impression of festive prosperity, like a Thanksgiving table laden with wisdom and sagacity. Nobody wants a government or executive board of nervous Nellies flying off the handle and doing rash things they regret later. But we can’t fault them for worrying about us a little too much, like an overly solicitous parent, packing us extra snacks and changes of clothing, telling us to look both ways, pushing our hair behind our ears on class picture day. Such abundant caution can be annoying at times, even suffocating, but in our hearts we know it comes from love. Surely only a corporation or government that really, truly cared about us would demonstrate an abundance of caution on our behalf.

I’m a Libertarian political operative. But I’m voting for Biden this time.

This is why, even though I recognize it as corporate-speak, I initially had a soft spot for this particular cliche, which suddenly seems to be everywhere during the pandemic. “It’s so sweet of Barnes and Noble not to want their customers’ identities to be stolen,” I found myself musing fondly, after they shut down their network. Or, “How humane of Dollywood to try not set its patrons on fire.” Bless Hutchinson for not rolling the dice on whether his staff members get infected with the coronavirus.

But soon I was hearing about “an abundance of caution” so often that I began to examine the phrase more closely. How is abundant caution different from ordinary caution? If spokespeople are using “an abundance of caution” to suggest “significantly more caution than the average person would deploy in the circumstances, but not so much as to seem excessive or creepy” then — it occurred to me — most of the circumstances I’ve cited didn’t reflect such a level of caution. I’m not suggesting they were insufficiently cautious. I’m saying they failed to meet the most rudimentary definition of caution itself: “care taken to avoid danger or mistakes.” The danger had come; the mistakes had been made. The responses were often after-the-fact, perfunctory publicity gestures.

Maybe Barnes and Noble couldn’t help getting hacked — but is it really extraordinarily cautious to shut down a system that has been breached? If we learned that Dollywood obsessively monitored its engines round-the-clock to prevent them from catching on fire, we would have some reason to call their caution abundant, but closing nearby attractions after a fire sounds an awful lot like plain common sense. Hutchinson could have switched to Zoom meetings last March, like most of us.

And as for the White House, if there was so much caution to be had, why didn’t they use any of it before Oct. 2 — for example by making more of an effort to prevent the president from first contracting and then (potentially) spreading covid-19?

The irony is that while everyone is speaking of an “abundance of caution,” our public policy has been shamelessly reckless. Granted, we can’t expect the Trump administration to turn back the clock to last January, and to do everything all over again, exhibiting the minimum caution and concern for our welfare that we have every right to expect of our government. We travel through time in one direction, alas. But the future is still in our hands.

Acting with ordinary, humdrum, run-of-the-mill caution today could mean we may not even need abundant caution tomorrow. In other words, if you haven’t voted in the presidential election yet, you still have time.