I have always admired the modern political philosopher Chris Rock. Late one evening a couple of years ago, I was watching one of his comedy specials and he was talking about how to get things done even when you are at war with your spouse. Concluding that biting his tongue and cooperating was the way forward, he said “It’s a hell of a lot easier for two people to move a sofa than for one person to do it.”
I laughed at the time, but this comedic riff stuck with me. Eventually I came to realize that this was the simple, clear answer to a political controversy that has consumed us for half a century. That controversy has been about whether we are we all in this together, or whether it is every man for himself.
When we have the luxury to debate this question – before the chips are really down – we are treated to a lot of blather about how this country is all about strong individuals with the constitutional right to do what they please without government intercession. This is the John Wayne myth of American politics. It is the libertarian ideal that gets played out in legislative debates in Charleston and Washington. It is the Fox News playbill.
But all too often we don’t have that luxury. All too often, like at this exact moment in our history, the individual approach to solving problems not only doesn’t work, it is downright dangerous. How do you like the guy who refuses to social distance or to cease business activity, not because he is essential like a hospital nurse, but because he believes the coronavirus is a hoax perpetrated by Democrats to defeat Donald Trump? Or because he believes that government has no right to tell him what he can and can’t do?
Take, for example, Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University. On Friday, March 13, as students were preparing to leave for spring break, Falwell Jr. dismissed the virus as “hype” and told students he saw no reason to close campus. The next Monday, he said most classes would go online after all, but students were welcome back on campus. Shortly after that, nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested Covid-19. Residents of the city of Lynchburg, Virginia, where Liberty is located, were enraged.
This kind of uber-individual thinking and behavior sticks out like a sore thumb in times of crisis. There is no room for it. Those who make law and policy in times of crisis know this. In times of war, we draft the unwilling. In times of pandemic, we enforce quarantines and curfews. But my point is not that top-down edicts solve problems by controlling recalcitrant individuals. It is that problems at all times, large and small, are more effectively solved collectively. In other words, when the planet’s most successful social animal remembers how it got to be so successful.
So when this is all over, we can go back to the usual debate about freedom and individual rights versus collective rights and socialism. We’ll be able to do that, I sincerely hope, because the danger has passed and we can afford to be a bit frivolous. But we will be able to cut through the debate at a moment’s notice by asking ourselves how important our objective really is. Is it moving a sofa or moving a nation? If our objective is hugely important – maybe existential – we know the answer. We have demonstrated time and again that the collective approach is the only way. After all, we are in this together.