Safety vs liberty in era of coronavirus requires prioritizing values

One friend, a conservative in her 70s, hasn’t left the house in over three weeks. She supports the governor’s stay-at-home orders. Another friend, late forties and liberal, refuses to wear a mask. Needless to say she’d prefer something closer to South Dakota’s lighter-handed approach to slowing the COVID-19 contagion.

What explains people’s differing perceptions of the pandemic and government stay-at-home orders? Age and health? Temperament and aversion to risk? Preferred media source and amount of media exposure? Trust in government and those in office? Opinion of peers? Financial circumstances? Other values? Certainly all of these factors play a role in how a person responds to this crisis and other challenging situations for which there are no easy answers.

Some posts on social media, however, suggest there are just two kinds of people, those who care (about lives, livelihoods, constitutional rights, science, etc.) and those who don’t. Occasionally a meme will hit closer to the truth. One viral Venn diagram illustrates that people can be simultaneously “taking COVID-19 seriously,” “worried about expansion of authoritarian government policies,” and “very concerned about impending economic devastation.” The “me” at the center of the diagram’s interlocking circles is most everyone.

Who doesn’t care about staying alive, exercising basic freedoms, and putting food on the table? We value the same things but when situations place those values in tension, we value some things more than others.

To illustrate this point in my political science classes, I put my students through a simple exercise. I ask them to list good reasons for and against moving into a neighborhood with strict covenants. I want them to see that there are benefits and tradeoffs. Live in a no-covenant neighborhood and you might end up next to a hot pink house with sun bleached lawn kitsch and a rusty campervan in the yard. It will affect your home’s resale value. Live in a covenant controlled neighborhood and your property values will be secure but don’t try to paint the exterior any other color than the board-approved shade of beige.

I then ask them to distill the pro-covenant and no-covenant cases into one word each. They invariably pick security and liberty. I use this nonpartisan example with my students to demonstrate that decision-making involves more than placing costs and benefits on a scale and seeing which way it tips. What we value most carries greater weight. Secondly, we value liberty and security but when these values are in competition, we prioritize one over the other based on our interests, temperament, experience, and other factors.

What is true in a lower stakes decision like picking a neighborhood is true in a much higher stakes situation such as determining government policy during a pandemic, which will impact the spread of contagion, hospital capacity, survival rates, employment, mental health, civil rights,  bankruptcy, foreclosure, family dynamics, other health outcomes, prices, retirement savings, government debt, education, and food production.

Every potential course of action entails significant costs. Rather than assume the worst of each other, we should seek to understand our differing perspectives. “The idea is that once you identify the underlying values and put them on the table, you can start the hard work of working through them and deciding what is the best course of action,” recommends Colorado State University Professor Martín Carcasson, Ph.D., director of the CSU Center for Public Deliberation. “At times, many will likely argue that we must prioritize one of the values above the others, but that argument should be made in a way that recognizes the tradeoffs and the impacts on the other values.”

Unfortunately, it’s an election year which makes cultivating mutual understanding and creative problem solving harder to achieve. Social distancing means we’re having debates over social media rather than face-to-face discussions over coffee. It doesn’t always bring out the best in us.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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