There is no question that the steps taken by federal and state authorities to contain the coronavirus are extraordinary. Schools are closed, businesses are shut down, and now the federal government has issued “guidelines” calling for everyone in the country to stay inside as much as they can and avoid gatherings of over 10 people for the next 15 days at least. It may well be true that these measures will have a devastating effect on the economy for years to come. It may also be true that they are necessary to prevent a catastrophic loss of life. Whatever the case, and however we feel about it, President Trump has indicated that it may actually be longer than 15 days — much longer — before life can return to normal.
But here is a question that I don’t see very many people asking: should life return to normal?
In order to answer that question, we have to first figure out why the temporary closure of schools and restaurants has the potential to cause such havoc in the first place. For most of us, the “self-quarantine” being observed across the country (including in my house) involves spending more time with our families, cooking meals in our kitchens rather than eating fast food, making fewer unnecessary purchases, and teaching our kids at home instead of shipping them off to government buildings for the majority of the day. These practices, it is feared, will wreak untold destruction.
But these practices are also objectively good and healthy, and while they have the potential to ravage our economy, they also have the potential to give people happier and more meaningful lives. Perhaps it is worth considering whether it is good that good things like frugality and self-sufficiency should be so bad for our country. And if it is not good that good things are bad, then maybe we should next consider whether there is a better way to set up a society, a way that will not cause us to break out in hives at the thought of millions of families eating dinner in their dining rooms.
I am not minimizing the potential human cost that might be felt. People will lose their jobs. Working parents will have to quit or spend exorbitant amounts of their income on daycare to accommodate the children who are no longer going to school. Businesses will close. Nobody would suggest that these things in and of themselves are anything less than terrible hardships. But these hardships are not ultimately the result of a virus or a government shutdown. At bottom, they are the result of the way we have structured society.
Our lifestyles and our economy are centered around, dependent upon, people buying lots of stuff, wasting almost every penny they earn as soon as they earn it, sending their kids off to giant facilities to be taught by government employees, not being self-sufficient, and not spending very much time at home. For the system to work, it is imperative that those who do things like save money, cook meals from scratch, grow and raise their own food, and educate their own children, remain in the minority. If suddenly everyone starts doing some or most of these things, the system cannot sustain itself. What does that tell us about the system?
When this is all past us, we will be urged to run out and save the system by going on spending sprees at places like Target and Best Buy, gorging ourselves on restaurant food, shoving our kids back into their chairs behind their desks in their classrooms with 32 other students, ushering mothers back into the workforce so they can again fulfill their sacred duties as cogs in a machine, and reverting to a state of helplessness and dependence. After a while, it will be hoped, things will level off and stabilize. At least until there is another national emergency that we will again be unprepared for and ill-equipped to handle because we refused to make any adjustments to the way of life that left us so vulnerable and panic-prone the last time.
What if there is another way? I don’t say this just because of the coronavirus — though our inability to fend for ourselves in times of crisis is a pretty big concern. But I would be saying this regardless of any pandemic. It seems that the sky-high rates of suicide, drug abuse, and depression, and the fact that we spend so many hours of each day staring mindlessly at glowing screens, are all indications that the current system may make us into relatively comfortable and wealthy people, but it is not making us into happy and well-adjusted people. So, maybe this crisis can be a catalyst for fundamental changes to the way we live and how we prioritize things. The changes would have to be gradual. But they would be worth it. And if we set out to make them, we might find that the next time we have to stay in our homes for a few weeks, we won’t have to be so panicked about it.
My oldest sister lives on a homestead in a house that her husband built with his own hands. They have solar power. They homeschool their kids. They only buy what they need and they rarely eat out. Over the years they’ve raised chickens, goats, pigs, and cows. When my dad sent out a family email a few days ago with some of his thoughts on the present apocalypse, my sister wrote a response indicating that she hadn’t been following the coronavirus hysteria very closely and hadn’t given the situation much thought. Why should she? They’ve been practicing “self-quarantine” and “social distancing” for years. Not because they’re hermits or hippies or doomsday preppers, but because they simply prefer to live that way. Maybe they’re onto something. We all can’t become homesteaders overnight, but we can move toward a society where the things we’re currently doing in self-quarantine are just normal ways of life.