Has Atlas Shrugged? Why a Surveillance State is a really bad idea.
The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has presented unprecedented challenges: medical, scientific, political, economic, social and moral. The medical or healthcare industry feared that hospitals would be overrun, that the lack of masks, gloves and ventilators were in such short supply that people would die who otherwise would have survived the virus. Science does not have answers to origin nor cure. Politicians have taken the unprecedented approach of “pausing” economic and social life as the only response to address the fears articulated by the medical and scientific communities.
This is a complicated issue with many times conflicting and contradicting information from governments and the media. The use of fear has been a powerful motivator. CNN keeps a “leader board” of cases and deaths running 24/7. Every news organization publishes headlines meant to promote hysteria (and viewership for their business model). Every citizen was told to “save grandparents” and “protect the most vulnerable” by staying home in isolation. “Woke” and extremely profitable high tech companies rapidly announced that their employees would “work from home,” leading to a rapid response by governments to close nearly all businesses, putting 38 million people out of work. Initially private schools, many catering to the most affluent elites of our society, closed in response to coronavirus because “every student had a laptop and access to online courses.” That in turn pressured governments to close public schools, where 20.2 million children receive free lunches and another 1.8 receive reduced price lunches. 1 Indeed, the decision to close public schools in response to private school closures, perhaps where many politicians children attend, was done without serious discussion about the necessity nor impact. The coronavirus does not impact children in the same way as vulnerable populations. 2 Moreover, sending children home is one of the most regressive policies very deployed, disproportionately impacting working class and working poor families. Without school, parents cannot work. In addition, children’s mental health suffers. 3 In fact, one could argue, as the Financial Times Lex column recently intimated, that the “top 2%” elites of New York set the tone for panic when they escaped Manhattan in mid-March. 4
I raise all these points not to diminish the seriousness of the coronavirus threat. With a death rate of 5%, it could kill 240 million globally, 17.5 million in the US alone. What I am asking is whether we are falling victim to the urgency impulse in decision-making. Let’s return to the decision to close all schools indefinitely. What if schools did not close and instead all resources were deployed to turning schools and universities into “100% tested” campuses. I recall 100% compliance to MMR vaccines in grade school. Remember scoliosis testing? Hearing tests? Why can we not marshal our resources into protecting our children AND initiating a testing protocol that can be expanded subsequently throughout communities. The present plan for testing is for people to drive through temporary facilities. How does that work for the poor or elderly? Why not utilize churches, with proper training and support, to test their congregations? That would be contract tracing – physical testing and then human forensic interviews and investigations to find all points of contact for those infected. That’s how it worked for Ebola in Africa. That’s how contact tracing works. It is not only about tracking and tracing; it is in the human interview and the subsequent treatment protocols. 5
Today we hear of a proposal from government and the same high-tech companies who sent workers home that every citizen should download a mobile app that will track their movement and contact with other people. While fear has been used to motivate a great deal of compliance from our citizens, the fear I have is that we are rushing head long into a decision that has very grave long-term risks to our freedom as citizens. I argue that contract tracing does not depend upon the creation of a surveillance state. I believe it is a dangerous idea promoted by medical, scientific and government leaders that have already demonstrated they were ill-prepared for this crisis. The high-tech companies that are promoting the use of GPS and/or Bluetooth are the same companies that are increasingly under scrutiny for tracking their customers all the time anyway and selling their activity data to advertisers. They are now claiming to be heroes. Really? Does anyone remember when Google “the omniscient” claimed to accurately predict flu outbreaks before the CDC? 6 I guess they got corona virus wrong, or did they even try? But we should trust their technology with our personal privacy? No thanks.
While it may seem hypocritical to reference, given my criticism of using hysteria to influence people, George Orwell’s 1984 or Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, but the idea of imposing a technology-led surveillance state is in my mind extremely dangerous. If nothing else, coronavirus has exposed the true limitations of human knowledge and society’s capacity to successfully confront a health crisis. The hubris of stating that this technology cannot harm or will only do good flies in the face of very recent history. As Orwell’s work argued, technology controlled by a centralized authority to make minute and particular decisions is incompatible with the rule of law and limited government. Or as Hayek argued, technology never simply increases humankind’s power over nature (or in this case a virus). It also increases the power of some people over other people. And that is an unnecessary danger as we ALL confront this virus.
In the case of creating a surveillance state to control Covid-19, the cure is worse than the disease.