Social distancing, mask mandates, and lockdowns have put civil society on ice. Church congregations either do not meet, “meet” in socially distancing congregations, or try to fellowship over video conferencing. Many schools are still closed, still trying to replace face-to-face learning with farcical “distance learning.” Public sporting events have been almost nonexistent. Many small businesses have gone under, and many of the survivors are struggling.
Most remaining social interaction has been pushed to social media, which at its best is a weak substitute for face-to-face human interaction. Even ardent supporters of mask-wearing can’t deny that they stifle communication, verbal and nonverbal. When was the last time you saw someone smile in public?
People are not gathering and interacting nearly as much or as deeply as they did. Some restrictions were perhaps unavoidable, even prudent measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the restrictions have clearly harmful side effects. We have deliberately fragmented society to protect ourselves from a disease.
What are the unintended consequences of allowing government to overwhelm civil society, even for good reasons?
The closest parallel in recent history to prolonged social distancing may be the atomization of societies under totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes usually take power during periods of massive social and political upheaval, and they must perpetuate the upheaval through reigns of terror in order to retain power.
This completely isolates the individual, subjecting him or her to the full power of the central government to prevent any coherent political opposition from forming. Intervening institutions such as families, churches, schools, media, unions, and political parties are co-opted or eliminated. Local and regional governments, the military, and the police are brought under central control. Any legislative and judicial bodies are either dissolved or converted into rubberstamps for the ruler, whether one man (e.g., Hitler) or an oligarchy (e.g., the Soviet Politburo and Chinese Politburo).
The net result is no one can truly trust anyone in a totalitarian state. Against such overwhelming state power, the isolated individual cannot stand. The individual does not matter. He or she must either submit, take a fun-filled vacation to a “re-education camp,” or die.
This contrasts sharply with American democratic society. Aristotle observed, “Man is by nature a social animal,” and American society demonstrates that truth in spades.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds — religious, moral, serious, futile, extensive, or restricted, enormous or diminutive. . . . Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.
The strength of the United States lies in its people and their voluntary associations, not their government — regardless of how well organized or well run it may be.
The measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 may ultimately prove more harmful in the long term than the disease itself. Marriage rates in the U.S. have “dropped between 26% and 44% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Deaths from drug overdoses reached a record high. More adults have seriously considered suicide. Preventative medical care has understandably taken a backseat to dealing with the coronavirus, but the payment will come due in reduced health for some, possibly resulting in otherwise avoidable deaths.
Educators now routinely refer to the “lost year” of K–12 instruction in which children fell far behind, despite “distance learning.” Even worse, many abused children are likely suffering in silence because teachers don’t see them in school and therefore can’t report suspected cases of abuse or neglect.
The pandemic’s indirect toll on physical and mental health may never be known, but we know the devastating results of social fragmentation: Russia is still trying to recover from the effects of Soviet totalitarianism (e.g., rampant alcoholism, declining life expectancy, and a shrinking population).
Looking at the collateral damage to society and the individual in the United States, it’s reasonable to reassess whether we and our leaders have chosen wisely. In our valiant response to the pandemic, we have taken giant steps toward centralizing control of some very basic personal decisions — an extreme of government intervention into their personal lives that Americans would have considered unimaginable and absolutely intolerable before the pandemic.
Once given a power, even “temporarily,” government rarely surrenders new power willingly. Those in power either find ways to prolong the crisis and their power, or they discover new crises that justify maintaining and expanding their centralized power. With the pandemic apparently waning, would-be benevolent despots are already finding other crises — such as fighting climate change — to justify continuing their control.
This article originally appeared in Issues and Insights on April 14, 2021.