A bold new body of law will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Expect expanded police powers for states, a re-striking of the balance between state and federal governments, and a re-examination of what is reasonable in terms of the Bill of Rights. Expect all that.
But beware the real danger – an algorithmic coup d’etat.
It all starts with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Abraham Maslow proposed the hierarchy in 1943 in a paper entitled, “A Theory of Human Motivation.” He argued our needs could be arrayed from most basic to most refined. The heuristic device used to illustrate these needs was a pyramid.
At the foundation of the pyramid were basic human needs, needs shared by all – the requirements of basic physiological existence, food, clothing, shelter. Satisfy those, and our thoughts then turn to assuring that we are safe. Thereafter, we seek love and a sense of belonging. Secure that, and we seek the esteem of others. At the apex was a sense of self-actualization, realizing the unique and idiosyncratic goals we set for ourselves.
Up until the virus struck, we were sitting pretty fat and sassy, at least in the West. Identity was all the rage. Women, blacks, trans-sexual folk, and others needed self-actualization on terms they would accept. The Bill of Rights was read as a guarantee of self-actualization for all.
Then disaster struck. Now we’re all terrified about survival. For several weeks, there hasn’t been much talk of identity. Our focus has been lower on the hierarchy of needs.
And what has re-focused us? A pandemic. Preparing us to meet it has been the work of dedicated public health professionals, scientists studying the disease process and how an illness spreads through a society. Their warnings have provoked panic, denial and discussions about rationing of health care.
We’re in an apocalyptic frame of mind.
States and municipality es now issue orders closing businesses and limiting movement without notice or an opportunity to be heard. We accept this, for the most part, out of a desire to be safe. Whereas we sacrificed privacy for security in the wake of 9/11, we now sacrifice liberty for survival in the wake of COVID-19.
The Bill of Rights is effectively suspended in a time of national emergency and in the name of public health. Even state governors call on the federal government to take more control, re-striking the balance of federalism.
What happens when the viral emergency passes?
We will have a new body of law driven by public health professionals that will empower the state and federal governments to act aggressively in the name of public safety.
So why not use it to restrict gun sales and transfers: after all, guns kill almost 40,000 Americans per year. Isn’t that a crisis on par COVID-19? And what about automobile? They, too, kill almost 40,000 Americans per year. The advent of artificial intelligence suggests that self-driving cars would save lives. Can self-driving cars be mandated as a matter of public health? (I’m betting that both cars and guns will kill more people this year than COV-19.)
The laws we use to justify emergency action today can be used easily enough to deal with tomorrow’s crises.
Of course, there are differences between COVID-19, guns and cars. Guns and cars are associated with behavior; COVID-19 is a stealth killer.
What, then, of climate change? Shouldn’t we heed the experts and do what is necessary to save human life on this planet? Ignoring COVID-19 is not an option; neither is ignoring climate change.
Who manages these risks?
No one can manage the competing claims of identity. #MeToo, BlackLivesMatter, the calls for reparations, recognition of every conceivable variant of human sexuality – these claims for self-actualization are based in something non-quantifiable. They result in a psychic war of all against all that ends only in chaos and paralysis.
But the minimal conditions of survival can be quantified. We can estimate the number of calories necessary to sustain a human life; we can estimate the minimum needs for shelter in a variety of climates. I’m betting there is a supercomputer somewhere that can make a calculation about the most efficient allocation of resources necessary for survival globally.
Why not let the computer decide how to allocate the world’s resources based on a rigid formula that weights all human lives as equal in value? The formula can then do a cost-benefit analysis of additional units of health care as a person ages, deteriorates and then lingers on death’s door. There can be a master algorithm that sets standards for nutrition, education, housing, health care – the basic necessities of life.
The algorithm can also tell us how to best combat climate change.
We’ll give up just about anything to survive, right? What’s a little liberty when extinction is at risk?
The courts in many parts of the country are effectively closed. Challenging the extraordinary measures governments take in these extraordinary times is difficult.
The executive and legislative branches gear up to force collective action urged by experts to enhance the odds of our survival. It’s hard to argue with that today.
But tomorrow? What happens tomorrow?
I worry about an algorithmic coup d’etat. We are being habituated to obedience. Two of the most popular men in the country right now are earnest doctors – Anthony Fauci and Sanjay Gupta -- who daily tell us what need to do to survive a crisis only the doctors can actually see and manage.
Will we heed the good doctors when the virus has passed?
I’m thinking we just might. And that few folks will care. We must eat before we dance. In the battle for survival, experts will rule. Ours is indeed a brave new world. Beware an algorithmic coup.