How American of Us

All the kids in my neighborhood were vaccinated, and we would gladly show the little round scar in our upper arms to prove it.

Inoculation to ward off smallpox had been practiced for more than two hundred years. That is what “vaccination” meant in the 1950s. 

Today, “vaccination” means many things. It means different things to different people. Not everybody likes it. But at this moment in our history, we mainly think of vaccination as a tool we wish we had against COVID-19. It is not in our toolkit yet and won’t be for quite a while. We tap our feet impatiently. What are we supposed to do in the meantime?

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Odd and unexpected are the prophets who may speak to us in these confused days.

Benedict Arnold. Copy of engraving by H. B. Hall after John Trumbull. Public Domain.

Benedict Arnold is known primarily as a traitor. A bold, charismatic leader of troops in our war for Independence, Arnold changed sides and became a secret agent for the British. He worked to give them the American fortifications at West Point, New York. 

His treason was found out, and he fled for his life. On October 7, 1780, a few days after he reached safety behind British lines, Arnold published an open letter defending his actions, titled “Address to the American People.” In that egocentric display of self-justification, the erratic Benedict Arnold—half a century before Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous visit and commentary—penned the definitive remark about Americans:

“The private judgment of any individual citizen of this country is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

It was a true saying then, and it remains true 240 years later. Combined with the Puritan imprint on our public outlook and the indelible marks of our frontier experience, it explains a lot about our uniqueness as a people.

By “all conventional restraints,” I suppose Arnold meant the class-conscious pecking order of European society, as well as the customary appeals of king and country and the divine imperatives of Church potentates. 

To Americans all such guiding principles are merely advisory, both then and now. Each person must choose his or her own way. We are a nation of rugged individuals, most of all deep in our heads and hearts. We know we are right; if not for others, at least for ourselves and our families. We are self-willed, to a nearly anarchic extreme. 

Here, even the Magisterium of The Law “derive[s] its just powers from the consent of the governed” and, in practice, perches perilously on a wobbly base of voluntary compliance. “The private judgment of any individual citizen . . . is . . . free from all conventional restraints.”

We see this truth enacted in our present crisis. Compare the responses of other nations: 

  • The Chinese government, once it grasped the severity of the virus problem, sent in goon squads to round up the sufferers, burned the evidence, and put out some fake numbers to reassure the world.
  • The Swedes seem to be opting for a slow-rolling herd inoculation through gradual exposure of their citizens. This may possibly work in Sweden, where the surge of the virus will be dampened by the Swedes’ national impulse to work together as if they were, indeed, a herd.

Swedish-style cooperativeness is unthinkable here in the United States. Violators of even reasonable regulations would be legion, the loci of their intransigence unpredictable. Any forced imposition of rigid controls would backfire; people would rebel. Even the enforcers would rebel.

So the suggestion that we follow the Swedish model, though doubtless well-intentioned, is naïve and absurd. Americans, in general, won’t act like Swedes—even though some of them, like my wife, are Swedes. The results of relying on Swedish-style social cohesion from Americans would be disastrous in the short term.

But those who call for a unified national crackdown do not grasp the dimensions of the problem. The president, with all his minions, cannot command all Americans to do anything, any more than King Canute could turn back the tide. 

King Canute rebukes his courtiers as the tide rolls in, unblocked. Illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville. Public Domain.

The governors have a slightly better chance of applying that nuanced mix of persuasion and compulsion that will work in their respective states. Even they will probably mis-calculate some of their edicts. What federal authorities can offer is material support to the states and the broad popular influence of national experts who speak with credibility.

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Does all this add up to an imperfect response? Maybe so. 

Are other countries doing better? Who can say?

Will people die because our government has no magic wands to wave? Could be.

It is what it is. We are who we are, exercising our private judgments free of all conventional restraints. 

Let us seek to be wise, prudent, and kind in that exercise.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer