Thomas R. O'Donnell

The COVID-19 pandemic “personal responsibility” political crutch

In Government on February 22, 2021 at 7:35 am
Des Moines Public Schools employee receives COVID-19 vaccination on February 13, 2021.

Des Moines Public Schools employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine on February 13, 2021. Photo credit: Phil Roeder Vaccinate to Educate via photopin (license).

In October, I wrote a letter to the Des Moines Register (which didn’t publish it, as often happens) about the rise in Iowa COVID-19 cases. I cited New York Times statistics, which showed with a seven-day average of daily new cases in the state that ranged from 638 to 927. Average daily deaths varied from a low of six to a high of 10.

The charts show the state never really got the pandemic under control. While it varied, by fall there were around a thousand new cases and about 10 deaths every day – 70 a week, 300 a month.

Yet it wasn’t until November, when cases hit a seven-day average of around 4,700, that Gov. Kim Reynolds enacted a loophole-filled mask mandate.

She abandoned that requirement, and other preventive measures, in early February, citing a decline in new case and hospitalizations. But the seven-day average of positive tests still is around 455 and even more people are dying – a seven-day average of about 16 (as of Saturday, February 20). That’s 112 a week, 480 a month.

Now we’d be grateful to lose just 300 people a month. The baseline for death has moved up, making what once was horrifying seem acceptable.

As she lifted almost all restrictions on Iowans, Reynolds returned to the mantra she chanted throughout most of 2020 to avoid mandating masks: “I trust Iowans to do the right thing,”  she said, relying on the conservative “personal resonsibility” slogan.

It sounds great, right? Our governor trusts us! We’re all going to be responsible!

If only it were that simple. The idea of “personal responsibility” is complex – and even moreso when it come to science-based pandemic restrictions. For many reasons, we can’t count on it to keep Iowans healthy.

Conservatives love the idea of personal responsibility because it supports their agenda to cut or block government regulations. They argue that people will do the right thing for the greater good if we just give them freedom.

But the nation’s founders knew we couldn’t rely on good motives, either among the citizenry or politicians. Selfish human nature will ultimately win. “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” the author of Federalist 51, either Alexander Hamilton or James Madison, wrote. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” (Emphasis mine.) Laws are necessary when we can’t count on people to do the right thing for all.

Reynolds has foisted a government task onto individuals, a process called responsibilisation. Last spring, Domen Bajde, a professor of Consumption, Culture and Commerce in the Department of Marketing and Management at the University of Southern Denmark, examined the notion that individuals should be made responsible for a governement function amid a spreading pandemic. Government leaders, from Denmark to Great Britain, were calling on citizens to take personal responsibility to slow the coronavirus. Those pleas often failed.

“Political-economic research has taught us that responsibilisation entails a shifting of burden from the state and corporations to individual citizens and consumers – a shift that does not always serve the public interest,” Bajde notes. (Emphasis is mine.) Responsibilisation depends not just on public awareness and dissemination of expert information, but on emotions: whether we feel responsible, whether we feel our actions make a difference, and whether we feel ashamed for contributing to others’ suffering. If our answer to these questions is no, we’re unlikely to act responsibly.

Reynolds may fear her conservative base more than she fears objections from the medical community and those who follow science.

Personal responsibility also can fail in the face of political opposition and social forces. Donald Trump sent, at best, mixed messages about face coverings. Conservative media, especially Fox News commentators, turned masks into a marker of party or cultural loyalty. They denigrated mandates as government overreach or plots to destroy our freedom rather than simple measures to limit the disease’s spread for everyone’s good.

Politicians want to avoid taking flak, especially from their supporters, for unpopular and controversial positions. Reynolds’ late and half-hearted acceptance – and quick abandonment – of face coverings and other requirements appears rooted, at least in part, in wanting to avoid antagonizing voters dead-set against regulations.

Reynolds may fear her conservative base more than she fears objections from the medical community and those who follow science. On the first day of the 2021 Iowa Legislature, a small but vocal group protested even the lax mask requirements she enacted. Less than a month later, Reynolds ended the mask requirement and most other pandemic regulations.

It’s a self-reinforcing loop: Because masks have become political, some people won’t wear them. Reynolds won’t require them because they’ve become political. She could have countered and denounced these false narratives. Instead she even gave credence to the idea that face coverings don’t work.

Political forces even override personal responsbility among Republicans who claim to live by the principle. “Iowans know what to do. … And they’re doing it,” Reynolds said recently – except for some legislators in her own party.

Other forces also make personal responsibility an unreliable means to protect public health. One is humans’ tribal nature.

Dan Kahan, a Yale University legal scholar, has investigated what influences people’s acceptance of science, such as evidence of human-caused climate change. He postulates that we’re unconsciously motivated to conform expert opinions with our cultural predispositions. As members of a peer group – a “tribe” – we’re unlikely to accept evidence that our group discounts. His research shows that our perceptions are unlikely to change even if ignoring evidence – such as that mask are effective – directly affects us.

In other words, people who pooh-pooh masks are unlikely to change their minds even if they or someone they know contracts COVID-19 – or a friend or family member dies from the disease.

Our strongest relationships often are with people who share our beliefs. If we deviate from or doubt these views, our friends or family could exclude us. No one wants to face that pain, so we stick to our shared beliefs even in the face overwhelming contrary evidence.

Finally, there is the problem of free riders. Masks – and vaccines – are effective only if enough people use them. Each of us doing our part creates a benefit that we all enjoy. But if participation bears a cost – an inconvenience or risk of social exclusion – some people will opt out but still receive the benefits of others’ actions.

Pollution is the leading example. We know that if we each drive a bit less, make our showers a bit shorter or turn our thermostats down a few degrees in the winter, we’ll consume less energy, save money and cut down on greenhouse gas emissions – which is good for all of us. But some people are unwilling to make these small sacrifices in comfort or convenience, especially if their contributions to the greater good are almost unnoticeable. So they may not do their part, becoming free riders who benefits from others’ actions.

The personal responsibility philosophy says we can “trust Iowans to do the right thing” and contribute to the greater good. But we’re tempted to skip an uncomfortable mask if we think we can benefit from the protection afforded when everyone else wears one.

As Barjde wrote in March 2020, “the focus on personal responsibility and individual choice should never prevent society from taking necessary collective action.”

Including laws and regulations.

  1. […] I wrote a post speculating on what influences people to follow or ignore government’s appeal to personal responsibility to follow public health recommendations to slow the pandemic. Then I found that Koon, Mendenhall […]

  2. […] nails the point my previous meandering post was trying to make: Beliefs, values, political positions and prejudices dominated individual […]

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