The COVID-19 pandemic has made Americans less free. The pandemic confines us to our homes, keeps many from offices and schools, and can separate us from the people we love and things we value doing.
We knew a pandemic was coming. Numerous scenario exercises conducted over the last few years predicted outbreaks eerily similar to what we are now confronting. Had the United States planned and responded to those warnings, the country might have kept the number of infected lower, confined the virus to a few cities, avoided shortages of medical supplies, and put in place the safety nets needed to help individuals and businesses more equitably navigate the economic disruption.
Had we planned better, today we might be more free.
The notion that planning would increase freedom can seem like a paradox. Many Americans typically equate freedom with not being told what to do, a concept often associated with the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence and the call for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But our experience with COVID-19 suggests a much richer concept of freedom, that of having real opportunities to do and be the things one has reason to value. This richer concept would have been familiar to the Founders. The Declaration, after all, begins with individuals' pursuit of happiness, but ends with a call to the collective action and responsibility that make the pursuit possible when the signers “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
COVID-19 makes clear that we live in a complex and interdependent world in which one person's freedom depends in novel ways on what other people are doing and have done in the past.Share on Twitter
This concept of freedom helps to unlock and manage the tension between interdependence and opportunity. COVID-19 makes clear that we live in a complex and interdependent world in which one person's freedom depends in novel ways on what other people are doing and have done in the past. To safely live our lives in the ways we desire depends on both individual autonomy and collective action. To achieve a greater overall freedom, we need good planning that allows us to work both separately and together. But how?
Take the example of the virus reproduction rate “R,” the focus of so much concern regarding the ebb and flow of the pandemic crisis. The rate R represents the average number of people who one infected person infects during the course of their illness. If R is less than one, COVID-19 fades away. If R is greater than one, it spreads out of control. No one can keep R less than one by themselves. Yet if R is greater than one, most people will see a dramatic decrease in the ability to live their lives as they see fit.
The R is currently above one for over 60 percent of the country, despite months of partial lockdown. To keep R less than one, Americans need clear information about the best ways to protect themselves; locally tailored economic and technical assistance so that people can run their businesses and run their schools as safely as possible; effective systems for testing and tracing; sufficient capacity in the health care system; research towards better treatments and a vaccine; and a willingness among the authorities and community members to monitor, learn, and adjust behavior over time.
Keeping R less than one thus requires good planning—by which we mean participatory thinking, based on the best available evidence, about the coordinated actions we all need to take as individuals and collectively to achieve our varied and common goals. This also emphasizes how such collective action can only be effective and equitable if it is developed transparently—with deliberative community input, and with respect for a diversity of values. The view of freedom as avoiding telling people what to do provides no framework for balancing the individual and collective actions needed to keep R less than one. The view of freedom as each individual having real opportunities provides real guidance for such planning.
The pandemic provides a vivid example of how poor planning leads to a lack of options.Share on Twitter
As one silver lining, this visceral and traumatic experience of being stripped of our opportunities by COVID-19 may help Americans appreciate how poor planning in the face of complex and systematic risks can restrict our freedoms. The pandemic provides a vivid example of how poor planning leads to a lack of options (which contain the opportunities to live our lives).
The 21st century confronts us with many other challenges, such as climate change, social justice, and economic transformations whose effects may be less concentrated in time than COVID-19 but demand the same type of anticipatory planning. This COVID-19 experience may help people to learn the importance of planning to preserving and expanding freedom in an interconnected and complex world.
Robert Lempert is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. Tim McDonald is a Pardee RAND doctoral student and an assistant policy researcher at RAND.
Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.