April 7, 2020
Originally published on UtahPolicy.com.
As I sat in my room working from home last week, I was heartened to hear that the state of Utah had released the forward-thinking Utah Leads Together plan to address the public health and economic crisis represented by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The release of this plan creates an opportunity to consider how it must work if it is to succeed.
In urgent circumstances, we often turn to unelected officials with some kind of expertise for information and understanding that can guide public policy decisions. In the case of pandemic spread of a new disease, this makes sense as a prudent policy approach in a crisis. But in America, reliance on expertise in crisis can only become good public policy when it is molded to fit the realities faced by the people: the basic human desires and financial, family and other circumstances that guide people’s considerations in making their day-to-day decisions.
To see why, consider what would happen if a large number of Utahns – say one-third, or just over one million people – decided a few weeks into the Utah Leads Together plan that the social distancing measures of its initial phase were more harmful than good to them and their loved ones, and began disregarding them. As of 2018, there were only 8,000 police officers in Utah, and perhaps a few tens of thousands of others in state and county attorney offices, public health departments, etc. that, in theory, could be used to enforce such measures against noncompliant Utahns.
But one million noncompliant would outnumber tens of thousands of officers, and the likely result of simply trying to crack down on widespread noncompliance would be the unchecked spread of coronavirus through communities across the state. That would represent a failure of the Utah Leads Together plan.
The success of Utah Leads Together depends upon how well public health and economic expertise are molded to fit the realities of Utahns’ lives, so they voluntarily comply with the plan’s provisions. In other words, the plan’s success requires that those who administer it recognize the fact that governments “deriv[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence.
In these first weeks of the plan’s administration, this appears by all accounts to be what is going on. The difficult part – and what Utah’s elected leaders need to be planning for now – is if the facts on the ground begin to change.
As American Enterprise Institute scholar Yuval Levin, writing for The Atlantic, recently argued:
The notion that this is how we handle the virus until a vaccine is available—that the most intense social distancing with no school or work for large segments of society will go on for many months—is absurd. No policy maker should take it seriously.
This bold statement is simply a recognition of the reasonable conclusion that the American people, including Utahns, are unlikely to consent to a self-inflicted recession for an extended period of time.
Perhaps Utah citizens will be willing to abide the state-issued, locally enforced “Stay Safe, Stay Home” guidelines long enough to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus’s spread. If so, then there will be no harm done from planning for the alternative. But if a significant minority of Utahns in the coming weeks express an unwillingness to continue in social isolation because, for example, it is having a negative impact on their ability to support their families, the law enforcement math points to the conclusion that cracking down will lead to failure.
The better thing to do will be to adjust the plan to fit the possibilities of the new reality – keep the core components of the plan while nuancing it to allow Utahns to act to obtain reasonable, basic human needs. Such a move will be prudent as a recognition of the principle that the power of law emerges not from government authorities, but from the voluntary compliance of the people.
When people begin to perceive – rightly or wrongly – that the power of government is being used to force them to behave contrary to their own well-being, they can start to ignore the law altogether. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, this could lead to disastrous failure as a heavy-handed response brings the unintended consequence of spreading coronavirus further. Thinking about this governance problem now could prove to be the pivot point where the success or failure of the Utah Leads Together plan is ultimately decided.
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