I want to tell you about some of the comments I received on my Facebook post yesterday lamenting the cancellation of my Thanksgiving plans due to the pandemic. Among a thousand reactions, mostly in private groups, about 5 people said that Covid-19 was a government hoax and I should not do what the government says. Another few people objected to my statement that wearing a mask is like wearing a seatbelt. They said seatbelts benefit only the wearer while masks benefit others in risky proximity. I think these comments reflect a disconnect in our understanding of the relationship between us as individuals, our government and the public good.
It is the cost of the public good we are trying to manage by imposing restrictions on individual behavior. As a nation of citizen-voters we institute government for the public good. Of course, we don’t always agree on what the public good is or how to manage it. That’s why we have a vote, to consider diverse options for the most effective approach. Diversity protects us from tyranny. Our disagreement is diversity in action. We need disagreement. It’s part of the process of democracy. That’s why the trend toward demonizing those with whom we disagree is dangerous. Tolerance for diverse points of view is fundamental to the public good.
Masks, seatbelts and smoking bans are intended to protect the public good by reducing real costs to all of us. Masks, seatbelts and smoking bans reduce costs by limiting the impact of individual behavior that can increase the need for public healthcare and public safety. First responders, healthcare workers, essential workers and law enforcement have real costs in money and quality of life. We, the people, pay these costs with our wellbeing, our taxes and our cost of living.
The fact that so many of us don’t recognize the public good, don’t see it or feel it or appreciate the need for it, or think they own it, is the actual problem we need to address right now. The public good is public, not one particular group of people. Covid-19 has taught us how supply chains link together people and processes to produce the things we need for our quality of life, like food and toilet paper. Diversity, disagreement, voting and government link people together in the supply chain for the public good. The public good is us, all of us, and we are only as strong as our weakest link. That’s why we all share the cost of protecting the public good.