By now, most states are under some kind of shelter-in-place order from their governors, advising people that they can be fined or even jailed for leaving their home without a good reason such as acquiring food or seeking medical care. Mostly, this appears to be a theoretical threat not designed to actually be enforced, but to scare people into doing what they’re told. In my own neighborhood, I still see plenty of people out and about with their dogs or children, and so far there has been no horde of jackbooted enforcers demanding to see our papers.
Still, just because they haven’t broadly enforced these rules yet doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t. We’ve already seen several incidents of individuals being fined for being outside with a sufficiently good reason. For example, the paddle-boarder in Malibu whose idea of social distancing was to swim alone in the middle of the ocean, and the Pennsylvania woman who was fined for driving alone in her car.
It’s troubling to think that Americans have become prisoners in their own homes, placed under indefinite house arrest without any sort of due process.
More troubling, however, is the willingness of some to actually report their neighbors to the government for allegedly violated the shelter-in-place directives. The always classy state of New Jersey has even gone so far as to set up hotlines, encouraging citizens to snitch on each other. This attitude represents everything people hate about suburbia: nosy neighbors acting as moral guardians, who demand things be done a certain way or else.
I think it’s fair to say that humans, as social animals, need each other now more than ever. Prolonged periods of social isolation, such as the one we are experiencing now, can be extremely detrimental to our mental health and our relationships with others. We need strong connections to our friends and family to help usher us through a time of fear and uncertainty. On the other hand, the last thing that is likely to do us any good is to heighten paranoia and division by turning neighbor against neighbor.
Look, I understand that people are afraid and that they want to protect public health and mitigate the effects of the coronavirus as much as possible. But you can’t expect to force everyone to behave exactly as you would like them to. Everyone has their own risk assessment when going out, and that shouldn’t have to include worrying about being reported to the police as well as catching a potentially deadly virus. Besides, we ought to have the humility to recognize that others might have information or knowledge we don’t. You don’t know for sure why your neighbor is outside. Maybe it’s for a very good reason, a reason you would have no way of knowing about. It is both uncharitable and uncivil to assume negligence or malice on the part of others simply because you see them walking around in the daylight.
During this whole pandemic, I have been eager to point out that there are dangers in life other than disease, and one of those dangers is the loss of our basic civil liberties via the imposition of a police state. I’m not saying we’re there yet—we’re not—but the threat is real and something we should seriously consider before granting unrestricted power to the government. History is littered with examples of oppressive governments employing citizen spies to weed out the disobedient, and none of these examples ended with a happy, healthy utopia.
In his book, Don’t Hurt People and Don’t Take Their Stuff, Matt Kibbe outlines six principles for living in a free society. One of them is “mind your own business.” You are free to shelter-in-place and take as many precautions as you feel are necessary to protect yourself from disease. But when you extend your sphere of responsibility from your own actions to the actions of others, you risk becoming a tyrant in the name of safety. And if all else fails, consider the Golden Rule. We are all doing our best to get by in this difficult situation, and you wouldn’t like it if your neighbors ratted you out every time they saw you doing something they disapproved of. The very least you can do is extend them the same courtesy.