Freedom and the Pandemic
WSJ May 9, 2020
The Bean Farmer’s Guide to Social Distancing and Personal Freedom
As lockdowns are lifted, officials should leave people alone to make safe choices about how to act.
By Terry Wanzek | 688 words
When truckers come to our farm for pinto beans, we don’t shake hands or bump elbows. Instead, we practice social distancing: Drivers pull up and roll down their windows. From seven or eight feet away, we tell them where to go and how to get their load. They’ll stay in or near their cab the whole time.
Nobody told us to do this. The governor of North Dakota didn’t issue an executive order. The state’s Health Department didn’t issue guidelines. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published a memo on the handling of pinto beans, I haven’t seen it.
We made these rules on our own. They make sense for us as well as for the truckers who come from all over. I’ve seen license plates from Arizona, Kansas, New York, Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
That’s how self-government is supposed to work. It was true for the Founding Fathers and it’s true for us today during the Covid-19 pandemic. As states start to loosen their lockdowns, officials should keep this in mind—and trust American citizens to take responsible steps to stay safe at the workplace and in their homes.
Here on the farm, where we’re getting ready to plant corn and soybeans, we welcome scientific information as well as suggestions about how to prevent the spread of a menacing virus. What we don’t need is stifling regulations on how to behave. We are in a better position than any bureaucrat to develop the code of conduct we’ll use here to keep everyone safe.
Thomas Jefferson made the point well in an 1820 letter to William Charles Jarvis, a diplomat and businessman who also introduced the Merino sheep to the U.S.: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves: and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their controul with a wholsome direction, the remedy is, not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
In other words: Help the people, but trust them to do the right thing.
A few months ago, many of us hadn’t even heard the word “Covid-19.”Now we’ve gained an education in it. I hope we’ve also learned a little about how we should and shouldn’t respond to threats.
For starters, governments shouldn’t decide who is “essential” and who isn’t. We’re all essential, whether we work on farms in factories or barber shops.
We also need to think about local conditions. North Dakota doesn’t need New York City’s coronavirus rules. Where I live, amid open spaces and low population density, isolation is easy. This is especially true for farmers. We spend a lot of time alone on tractors, in fields or in farm offices. And the simple fact is that we haven’t seen many cases of coronavirus in our county or the surrounding rural area.
Meantime, millions of Americans are out of work. Schools are closed. Hospitals, especially those in rural areas, are in danger of collapse—not because they’ve been slammed by a tsunami of coronavirus patients, but because they’ve been forced to cancel the elective surgeries and other procedures that keep them in business.
We have to strike a balance between public health and economic well-being. If we don’t modify our behavior, the sickness will spread and people will suffer. If we turn our backs on economic reality and fail to find creative ways to allow people to work in relative safety, a different breed of sicknesses will spread—diseases of despair, including domestic violence, drug abuse and suicide.
Everything in life involves risk, from crossing the street to driving a car. Going to work every day on the farm is a risk. Starting up the economy again will involve risks as well. What we need is a common-sense approach: Trust ordinary Americans to make appropriate choices about how to act.
The biggest risk of all is to refuse to believe that a self-governing people can manage this basic responsibility.
Mr. Wanzek is a farmer. He represents the 29th District in the North Dakota state Senate and is a member of the Global Farmer Network.
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