About two weeks ago, we had a discussion here about New Jersey’s decision (Executive Order 118) to close its state and county parks, leaving municipalities the discretion to keep their parks open. The rationale for the order was that given the option to use the parks, some people will, but many people will not, observe physical distancing norms.
Those who don’t create an enforcement problem for the enforcement authorities. Much of the enforcement in parks is farmed out to parks personnel who aren’t police officers, and therefore lack powers of seizure. In other words, the personnel in question have no legal authority to force anyone to do anything. Faced with extremely non-compliant, non-cooperative, threatening, or dangerous individuals, parks personnel have no choice but to call the police for assistance. The police themselves are stretched thin, and some state parks are at a significant distance from police stations. It can also be a confusing task to find someone inside a state park. Locations are vague, and GPS often doesn’t work. Beyond this, it simply takes time for the police to arrive. By the time the police get to a park where such an altercation may have taken place, a semi-intelligent suspect will long since have left the scene.
To permit people to defy distancing norms with impunity is to increase the probability of defiance, and so, to increase the probability of another spike in infections, undoing all of the painstaking gains we’ve managed to make in the New York-New Jersey area. To do that is to increase the probability of hospitalizations and death. Even past the peak of the “surge,” New Jersey’s hospital resources are still stretched thin; there’s a huge backlog of urgent but non-emergent, non-COVID cases waiting to be done. (I’m told that some Jersey hospitals, like St Barnabas in Livingston, have started such cases as of May 4th, but I haven’t confirmed it. Just to be clear: I regard this as first priority when it comes to re-opening.)
People evading the preceding facts are in an ideologically-inspired state of denial. Many of them are libertarians who believe, dogmatically, that state closures of anything are immoral under any circumstances, and feel free to demand that the state re-open anything it’s closed regardless of the expected consequences. These people deploy the same grab-bag of rhetorical techniques, all of them red herrings designed to draw attention away from a few salient facts: social distancing is a moral and epidemiological imperative during this pandemic; left to their own devices, too many people will fail voluntarily to follow distancing norms to the degree required to keep infection rates down; since they won’t, the norms need to be enforced; when enforced, however mildly, the act of enforcement can be predicted to elicit push-back; the authorities need to respond firmly and proportionately to push-back, being ready in the extreme case to use lethal force against those who deploy it first.*
As of this past Saturday, the state and county parks (and golf courses) in New Jersey have been re-opened. In re-opening them, the governor pleaded with people to observe norms of social distancing, describing the re-opening as a test of their willingness to do so. It appears that they mostly have, but I had to laugh at this:
The governor said park personnel and state and local police will provide reports to the state. Meanwhile, state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe will patrol parks Saturday to survey the situation, her office said.
“If we hear minimal reports of knucklehead behavior at our parks, and we see the metrics we need to meet being met over the next couple of days and weeks, that we know you all have taken to heart your responsibility,” Murphy said Saturday.
“Frankly, knowing New Jerseyans, this is what we should expect,” he continued. “We are smart, we have all followed best practices, and together we are flattening the curves, and we are making progress.”
The governor is, of necessity, a generous man when it comes to describing the people of this state. He knows that he can’t openly insult the people whose votes he wants for re-election, even when insults might turn out to be truer to the mark. “Frankly, knowing New Jerseyans…” is not a sentence I would ever want to be in the position of having to complete for public consumption. But I’m willing to accept his generous assessment for now.
You can, however, always rely on me to look at the darker side of any cheerful story. Consider what actually happened this weekend in the state and county parks after one day of re-opening. Eight parks were overrun. (See the list below the post.) Others not mentioned on the official list were closed for overcrowding. I’ve been to six of these parks myself. They’re not small places, so we’re not talking about small crowds.
No bathroom facilities were available. Do you really think everyone held it in? I don’t. Sorry to be indelicate, but where did all that shit go? And the dirty diapers? The used toilet paper? Who had to clean all that up–a bunch of economists from AIER? I can see Jeff Tucker and Phil Magness stooping to a lot of things, but not that. Can you really see Jason Brennan and his ten most loyal followers on Discus cleaning shit up in a state park? Don’t bet on it. On the other hand, what would have happened if they’d opened the restrooms? It’s a dirty enough job under ordinary circumstances. But how’d you like to clean it during a pandemic? How’d you like to use it during a pandemic?
“No picnicking.” It’s not clear what counts as a “picnic,” and you can be sure that New Jerseyans will, so to speak, pick at the definition. Do you really think the average Jerseyan can go a whole two hours without snacks and treats? NJTV News reported that some didn’t. Creature comforts are a categorical imperative in this state. Who cleans up after people are done? Who issues the cleaners PPE? What if no one issues them PPE? What if there is no PPE? What if the virus gets past the PPE? I wonder how many people at AIER or BHL have ever cleaned hazardous waste without PPE. I have. I went out of my way to do it for a mere summer, just to see what it was like. It’s a miracle I don’t have hepatitis (but I don’t). At any rate, the experience taught me to go out and get my hepatitis vaccinations (A and B, anyway). It taught me some other things, too.
People understandably happy at the park openings have conveniently decided to bypass such issues. They’re the kinds of issues that people entranced by the wonders of “the free market” tend not to think of. Markets equilibrating cleanly on the pages of a textbook don’t indicate what it’s like to have to pick up someone’s COVID-positive shit sandwich and dispose of it without PPE–working for minimum wage, with nothing but an Obamacare health plan to back you up during a pandemic, with $1,000 in the bank, $1,000+ rent coming due, and thousands of dollars of debt. Spend more time with shit, piss, blood, and disease, and it all becomes crystal clear in a way that it doesn’t simply by assiduous reading of the collected works of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman (or Jeff Tucker, Jason Brennan, and Phil Magness). There’s a reason why academics don’t list “shit, piss, blood, and disease disposal” as AOCs on their CVs. They might reflect on the experiences of some who could.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy that the parks are open again, sincerely so. At some point, I’ll probably make my own way over to Bulls Island, Hacklebarney, or Round Valley and spend some quality time there. Come to think of it, I’m meeting a friend in a park later today. Guess what we intend to talk about.
The life versus livelihood dilemma is a difficult one with no simple or easy answers. But one big problem with the way it’s been discussed is the conflation of genuine issues of livelihood with a very vague, handwaving, and self-indulgent conception of well-being that verges on frivolity. No one can pretend that they need to go to a state or county park “because their livelihood depends on it,” or because if they don’t, they won’t be able to “put food on the table for their family.”
It’s one thing to insist that municipal parks stay open so that families with children can have somewhere to work off their energies. But when we reach arguments of this nature (see video below), we reach a kind of sinister reductio ad absurdum beyond which it’s hard to imagine anyone could go. This person is making the case for opening the schools, but he might as well have been making the case for opening the parks.
I don’t have any respect for this, or the uses being made of it. This father is exploiting his child’s suicide as well as his other childrens’ reactions to it, as well as his neighbors’ attempts to help, in order to send the message that if only his son had been in school, the son would never have committed suicide. The father admits that the claim is unprovable and unknowable, but that doesn’t deter him from using it to blackmail everyone watching. His viewers, taking his lead, have begun to use the video as an argument for indiscriminate opening up.
The argument here is not that they’re losing their jobs or their homes. It’s not that they’re hungry, and can’t get food because of the lockdown. It’s not that they’re ill, and can’t get medical care. It’s not that they have non-COVID medical conditions and have been waiting patiently for the hospitals to start admitting them or doing outpatient procedures. It’s that their expansive middle class homes are veritable prisons, that their manicured lawns are insufficient lebensraum, and that if they can’t open stuff up that puts other people at risk, why, they will just go completely crazy, and start killing themselves. Then they will blame those deaths on those who counseled caution in the middle of a pandemic. And won’t we be sorry.
From denying the seriousness of COVID-19 because it only killed old people, we’ve now reached the equal and opposite absurdity of denying the need for quarantine measures because quarantines kill kids. How? By inducing them to play video games, break their computer monitors, and commit suicide, supposedly a network effect of the COVID-19 “lockdown.” If death weren’t involved in this case, the claim would induce laughter. Add death to the equation, and it becomes hard to know how to respond to the video except to shake one’s head in disbelief, and realize that there is no bottom to this sick, sad country.
Yet another belaboring of the obvious: the people who use state and county parks are largely upper middle class people with access to cars, who have the leisure to take some time off and unwind in nice weather. In New Jersey, at least, most state and county parkland is located in the state’s northern, western, and south eastern counties, away from urban population centers, and inaccessible by mass transit. The people who “need” them the most–urban dwellers–are precisely the people who have the most trouble getting to them.
It’s not as though the people clamoring for the opening of state and county parks are clamoring for the right, much less the obligation, to shuttle the children of Newark, East Orange, Irvington, Paterson, or Trenton to them. Naturally, those are the kids with the highest incidence of COVID-19, who live in places with the greatest population densities, and who (consequently) face the most intense mental health challenges. If we should be opening the schools, and opening the parks, and can ease back into business as usual, what could go wrong with having a couple of urban kids in your SUV as you make your way to your favorite state park? I mean, kids can’t die from COVID-19. So let a thousand shuttle services bloom.
I find it grimly ironic that now that we’re all confined to our homes, it’s belatedly occurred to the upper-middle class residents of this state that, why, people need space, don’t they? Yes, they do. That’s why the state’s zoning policies give some people space at the expense of others, and have done so since time immemorial, without inspiring anything like the outrage we’re now seeing from the outraged.
Methods of land acquisition in this state are almost deliberately designed to function as a form of exclusionary zoning adverse to urban apartment dwellers. That’s been the case for decades. If we were really serious about the “livelihood” issue, we might consider abolishing or at least reducing the size of the state and county parks, considering the fact that their existence reduces the supply of land available for housing, and thereby pushes up the price of housing across the state. In that case, urban dwellers would be able to afford housing in less population-dense regions of the state. And then, believe it or not, they would be closer to where most of the state and county parks are.
Housing advocates have been making this very point since the Mt. Laurel decision, decades ago. The reaction of New Jersey’s suburban population? Rage. Now we’ve managed across the state to replicate an approximation of the conditions that Mt. Laurel was intended to alleviate. What is their reaction? Rage. Maybe we should explore the hypothesis that the condition behind this rage is not a thirst for justice but an appetite for the satisfaction of entitlement, one that knows no limits, and will stop at none. There are precedents for what happens when no limits are set. None are observed.
In conducting the “re-open” debate, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that undefined, open-ended “mental health needs” are so overwhelming a consideration that they somehow weigh in the balance alongside infection rates, hospitalization rates, death rates, use of intensive or critical care resources, strain on first responders, or strain on the medical system that slows down the rate at which the non-COVID case load can be addressed. A state or nation that treats some people’s recreation as being morally on par with other people’s death-by-suffocation, or excruciating pain and suffering, or week in the hospital, etc. is not the “freedom loving” country it professes itself to be, but a population of psychopaths striking empty postures about “freedom” in order to rationalize outright sadism. People have “mental health needs,” to be sure. But if we let “mental health needs” become a kind of code word for “all encompassing sense of entitlement that demands immediate satisfaction,” we’re emptying “mental health needs” of determinate meaning, and setting ourselves up for mass death.
It would be one thing if we were talking about one person’s job, or income, or business as against another person’s health. Life versus livelihood is admittedly a tough call. But distinguish that trade-off from false substitutes for it. The life/livelihood trade-off is not the same as asking whether upper middle class people, bored with life in or at their spacious, well-equipped homes, should be permitted to overrun the state and county parks, strew the place with garbage, throw their dirty diapers around, spread disease, and then start fights with the underpaid or short-staffed personnel who have to deal with their myopic, truculent behavior. If that sounds ungenerous, maybe that’s because you’re missing how ungenerous the people in question are being to the people who have clean up the messes they make.
Don’t misunderstand me. To repeat: I’m glad the parks are open. To repeat: I’m going to one today. But we have to stop equating every opening with every other, or every argument for opening with every other. Like should be compared with like, not with the obviously incongruous.
Opening the hospitals to the backlog of non-COVID cases is not on par with opening the K-12 schools so that the kids can have their prom. Opening businesses back up to stave off economic collapse is not on par with starting up sports events because Ashley and Chad have just got to get back to lacrosse at some point, and enough is enough already with this COVID-19 thing. Opening up the parks is fine now that R<1 in New Jersey,** but if we get a spike that drives up infection rates, closing them will not be a tragedy on par with the loss of our hard-won epidemiological gains so far. All of this should be obvious, but apparently, nothing is obvious any more.
A sense of entitlement is closely allied with a loss of moral proportion. A country in the grips of the one sets itself up to be in the grips of the other. This would be bad enough at any time. Under present conditions, it’s a recipe for further disaster, followed by further rationalizations for disaster, followed by further numbness to the phenomenon of disaster. My fear is that the people paying the price already know that. And the people imposing the price will never figure it out.
*I’ll respond to the red herrings themselves in a separate post, including Phil Magness’s recent Facebook post to the effect that any case for enforcement is ipso facto a defense of police malfeasance.
**I had earlier, in an amusing Freudian slip, written “R<0.” Thanks to Ray Raad for spotting the error.
Thanks to Susan Gordon for some of the links I’ve used, and for helpful input. No implication intended that she agrees or disagrees with anything I’ve said here.
7:49 AM (6 hours ago)
THESE LOCATIONS WERE OVERRUN YESTERDAY
⚠️CONSIDER VISITING ELSEWHERE TODAY⚠️
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