Lately, my progressive acquaintances and the mainstream media seem unable to complete a thought without mentioning the importance of “public health.” These days, if Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia decides to take away people’s guns, he’s only doing so to improve the public health. If he then wishes to extend abortion rights to women who decide to kill their infants, that is obviously a “women’s health issue.” Of course, exercising this supposed right means something catastrophic for the baby, whose health, not to mention life, is adversely terminated.
Public health also has a way of coming back as a major media concern whenever it becomes politically useful to the Democratic Party. Thus, in their eyes, as soon as the coronavirus provided an occasion for Democratic governors to increase their control, it went from being an excuse for Trump to vent his xenophobia on passengers flying to and from China, to a life-or-death matter.
In fact, they argue that protecting our health against this virus may require shattering the American economy with a prolonged lockdown until Election Day. Presumably once that event takes place—and a doddering Democrat can be elected to replace Trump—we can deal with the economic ruin by reopening what is left of American commerce.
In my neighborhood I notice those who once pooh-poohed COVID-19 as a hyped-up Republican talking point are now running around under the sun with grotesque masks on their faces—some with only small eye slits available for squinting in suspicion at neighbors. These are worn as a new form of virtue-signaling on our mostly empty streets. The about-face of the left on the virus and the use of personal protective equipment reminds me of those French Communists in World War II, who went from cooperation with Nazi Germany to championing the French Resistance on the day that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Sometimes political circumstances require instant change.
Admittedly, governments over the years have addressed real public health issues for our collective and individual benefit. These would include, among many other reforms, the improvement of sanitation since the 19th century, making available information about vaccinations and disease risks, and informing people of the perils of smoking (tobacco but not, in recent times, weed), and establishing quarantines when necessary. But now public health crises are cynically used to promote political ends and to wreak social havoc.
There is something quaint as well as obtrusive about these appeals to public health. It recalls an age when progressives and other social planners hoped to create scientifically administered democracy. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the evolution of governments into “public administrations” plus the ascription of “scientific” labels to a variety of theoretical activities in economics, sociology, and psychology, prepared the way for viewing government as an organization of scientific rulers.
This is not surprising. Since medical science has advanced exponentially since the early 20th century, with populations living longer and once deadly diseases being brought under control, it is not surprising that administrators should claim to be safeguarding our physical well-being. Since WWII and even earlier, however, social psychologists, social work professionals, and other would-be reformers have gotten into the act and engaged “family issues” and “women’s reproductive rights” as matters of public health. The genuine progress of scientific health care is now giving cover to all kinds of free riders, most recently politicians trying to increase their personal power while doing what may be willful damage to the economy.
These power grabs may well go on, because leftist state officials who claim the mantle of science and public health still enjoy majority support in many states. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom ignited mass demonstrations when he closed all public beaches in Orange County. Significantly, this governor—who has imposed draconian measures despite his state’s declining death and infection rates—still enjoys the good will of a large majority of the population. Although the once-solidly-Republican Orange County screams bloody murder as its beaches are closed, Newsome and others of his ilk are not likely to lose their offices in heavily Democratic states.
There is no reason to disparage a genuine concern about physical well-being. This concern has contributed to real human improvement, and we may take comfort from the fact that people in Western countries are generally dying of old age rather than plagues and infections. Unfortunately, power-hungry politicians and leftist scolds have also seized upon the public health label to advance less beneficial ends, and neither is ready to let go of it.
Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.