Robert Heinlein — the author of pathbreaking science-fiction works such as Starship Troopers, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and Stranger in a Strange Land — was a man of wit and insight.
In this strange new land we inhabit, one of terrifying viruses and government lockdowns, one of Heinlein’s maxims strikes me as particularly relevant. “Don’t ever become a pessimist,” he said. “A pessimist is correct oftener than an optimist, but an optimist has more fun, and neither can stop the march of events.”
I find myself tempted by both sensibilities. The deadly disease itself as well as the massive costs of battling it make pessimism seem like a safe bet. North Carolina is plummeting into a sharp recession, one that will slam households, businesses, and governments hard. If the lockdowns continue for months, the chances that the recession will be “V-shaped” and in our rearview mirrors by the end of the year will fade, replaced by the likelihood of a devastating economic depression.
Some analysts are already looking past the immediate crisis and forecasting long-term changes to our economic lives. For example, some suggest that when restaurants reopen, there will be fewer tables and fewer patrons. To remain viable, restaurants will have to be pricier, more exclusive, so eating out will be more the luxury it was two generations ago instead of the common experience of the common person.
Others suggest that we will have to adjust to permanently higher levels of unemployment, both because of changes in business structure and because of the disincentive effects created by higher minimum wages and more-generous public assistance. Some say there will be a turn away from international supply chains, resulting in higher prices and lower standards of living over time.
There are pessimistic scenarios for both Left and Right to chew on. Progressives, remember your decades of activism in favor of mass transit? Great. Now forget it. High-density living and travel by bus or train appear to be risk factors for COVID-19, and presumably for other nasty pathogens. After the crisis, people will want to spread out more and drive their own social-distance-mobiles. Or so the argument goes.
Conservatives, remember that pro-growth tax cut Congress passed a few years ago? Great. Now forget it. Because there has been no serious effort to constrain federal spending, we were already piling trillion-dollar-deficits on top of a heap of federal debt. Now, the deficit will be multiples of that. The federal tax burden will have to rise a lot to avoid fiscal meltdown and its consequences. Or so the argument goes.
These are far from implausible scenarios. You can probably think of many more. But I don’t think they fully capture our present moment.
Consider the fate of freedom. In the short run, most people will accept lockdowns as an imperfect response to a poorly understood threat. But they will not long accept the government’s suspension of their fundamental rights to visit their families, to work, to travel, and to worship.
A turn to socialism? That ship hasn’t just sailed. It has lurched erratically into the harbor, sprung multiple leaks, and turned upside-down. I think people will see clearly through desperate progressive attempts to use COVID-19 to indict our traditional institutions of limited government and free enterprise. They can see European countries with single-payer health plans and more powerful central governments suffering both higher deaths-per-capita and larger economic dislocations than we are.
What may prove lasting are the bonds of family, neighborhood, and civic association that have formed and strengthened during the crisis. Also lasting may be a greater respect for the dignity and importance of work, all work, from medical professionals, innovators, and inventors to truck drivers, logisticians, technicians, and cashiers.
Of course, I may only be applying Heinlein’s maxim. It is more enjoyable to be an optimist. But the truth is, Heinlein was mistaken. Over the course of our history, it has been the optimists whose predictions tended to be more accurate. Here’s hoping for a repeat.