Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Two Worlds on One Street: Guest Post by John Hasnas

The following is a guest post by John Hasnas, Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy, and by courtesy, Professor of Law, at Georgetown University.

One of the curses of too much education is that you cannot just experience life as it is, but constantly see what is going on around you as concrete illustrations of abstract principles.

I am fortunate enough to live in a community of homes that surrounds a lake, Lake Barcroft, near Bailey's Crossroads in Northern Virginia. Not far down the street from us is one of the beaches the homeowner's association maintains where residents can swim in the summer. At the other end of the street, just across the road from the Lake Barcroft community is a private swim club with two pools where member families can swim, dive, and play during the summer months.

The swim club is governed by the state of Virginia's plan to contain the coronavirus. Virginia is currently moving from Phase 2 to Phase 3 of this plan. This requires users to make reservations in advance to use the facility. Members can sign up for “Kids Fun”–using the pools while remaining 10 feet away from others, “Lounging only”–sitting in the sun in open areas 6 feet away from others, “Diving”, and “Lap Swimming”. Members may use the pool for 45 minutes after which they must leave while the facilities are cleaned before the next group is admitted for their 45 minutes. Members may sign up only once per day, must wear masks while waiting in line 6 feet apart to enter the club, answer questions about their health status as they check in, and use hand sanitizer upon entering.

The swim club is a sad and quiet place. Perhaps unsurprisingly no one signs up for the cruelly- named Kids Fun or for lounging. The pool is used almost exclusively by adults coming to swim laps for their 45 minutes and go home.

In contrast, the beach is governed only by the residents' voluntary behavior. The beach is full of families happily playing in the sand and swimming. They typically sit in family groups separated from other family groups, but kids throw frisbees and footballs back and forth and interact with other children. There are also many teenagers at the beach, playing spikeball, taking out paddle boards and floats, and generally hanging out together. None of the families or teenagers wear masks, but the general tenor of interaction is more restrained than it typically is in summer. A few older residents are there also, usually wearing masks and sitting away from everyone else.

The beach is a happy and cheerfully noisy place. People apparently believe that the risk of transmitting the virus is greatly reduced outdoors, and that only limited restrictions on their activities are necessary to prevent the spread of the infection. They are apparently correct because the beaches have been open since memorial day and there have been no increases in local coronavirus infection rates.

As a lap swimmer at the pool, I move between the sad, quiet world of the swim club and the happy, noisy world of the beach. Unable to prevent my over-educated mind from fleeing to abstractions, I see the two ends of my street as representing the difference between central planning and spontaneous order.

The swim club is fighting the virus under a one-size-fits-all mandate from the state's central

planning agency. Its goal is to suppress the spread of the virus. It has little to no incentive to run any risk of increased infection merely so that citizens can enjoy themselves. Using the pool reminds me of going through a TSA checkpoint and leaves the impression of just being more security theater.

The beach is fighting the virus on the basis of individual decisions as to how to balance the risk of infection against the other things that make life worthwhile. This approach requires people to learn by trial and error how to adjust their conduct to the new conditions. It carries a both greater risk of spreading the infection and a better prospect of obtaining other values that make life worth living.

Going to the beach makes me smile both because it is nice to see families and teenagers having fun and because I feel like I am part of a grand experiment to figure out how to live with a new risk without being controlled by politicians or scolded by their rabid supporters. For most people the pleasant experience would be enough. But because I am a pointy-headed intellectual, I characterized myself as having a real Hayekian experience.