The intense and sudden catastrophe that much of the world is living through now is unavoidably disorienting for all of us. It’s hard to know what course our society should take through it, and so how to judge the paths our elected officials are choosing. But one thing that shouldn’t be very difficult to see is that this is in fact an intense and sudden catastrophe: a real emergency that requires us to suspend some of the usual categories of our thinking about policy and politics.
But this has turned out to be harder for us to accept than it should be, despite the severity of the circumstances we face. We find it enormously difficult to avoid two related temptations in this moment. We incline, on the one hand, to want to treat this as a normal time and so to recoil from some of the dramatic steps being taken to respond to the pandemic because they strike us as extreme and therefore inherently reckless or unwise. And on the other hand, we incline to think of this moment as the proper test of our usual political attitudes and dispositions, so that we find in it proof that, say, America should have long ago enacted a higher minimum wage or pursued much more deregulation.
These two temptations have a common root. Both amount to something like a failure of prudence, or practical wisdom. Yet, ironically, both often take the form of calls to prudence. The first is advanced in the name of keeping our head and not panicking in the face of pressure or danger, and the second in the name of learning lessons from hard practical experience. And yet, both involve missing the crucial distinction between the normal situation and the extreme exigency — a distinction at the very heart of prudence.