Against this backdrop, it might seem that Americans would strongly resist the extreme measures that China, South Korea, Israel, Italy, France, and other nations have imposed under the coronavirus’s boot. Americans have never much been troubled when their personal choices infringe upon or even harm the well-being of their fellow citizens. Just think about the absolutist positions taken toward gun ownership. It’s entirely possible to imagine Americans of all stripes—men and women, young and old, coastal and landlocked—spurning any forthcoming governmental health proclamations in order to fetch a fried-chicken sandwich or a CBD kombucha, to travel to a long-planned golf tournament or incant a “Namaste” over rosé at an essential yoga-wine experience.
Read: The people ignoring social distancing
As it happens, there is a drive no less American that might balance out our obsession with freedom, for better or for worse. Americans have never been enculturated to statist submission like the Chinese, or to a broadly communitarian culture like the Europeans. But secretly, we are addicted to one shameful alternative: bureaucracy.
Despite the cowboys and the oilmen and the entrepreneurs and all the rest, the frontier myth is still a myth, not a reality. Americans might dream that they can claw their way to the top by sheer strength and devoted self-reliance. But in reality, most people don’t become prospectors, whether of gold or of bitcoin. They become procurement specialist level IIs at regional carpeting distributors, or assistant managers at themed bar-and-grilles. No disgrace in that, by the way. All of us still strive for individual greatness. We do our best to be good fathers or aunts. We sublimate the disappointment of managerial food-service careers into 72-month-financed Ford F-250 pickups.
Those choices in turn become collars, yoking us to the reality, no matter how gilded, of the daily grind. There, a new and counterintuitive freedom is born: that of having choices imposed on you: a new human-resources IT system, selected by the power-hungry corporate CIO, that now requires hours of webinar training during the very same week your kids got sent home from school due to a global pandemic. Or a new hire, incompetent for the work, brought on board via the nepotism of the franchise owner. Or a demand from the senior manager above you, a mere manager, to produce a PowerPoint of accomplishments or best practices, for which she will take credit at the directors meeting. Hard as it is to admit right now, this is the “normal life” to which we dream of returning once the coronavirus subsides.
That life is maddening, but it comes with certain comforts, including structure and certainty. Just do the work, and you will be praised—or at least not punished. You can go home at the end of the day and kick back some cold ones. You can work on your boat over the weekend. You can hold your young children close, praising whatever god you worship that the coronavirus appears to spare them. Americans want to think that they will set out on their own and wrest gold from the earth with their bare fingers, but really they just want to tap those digits on the desk until quitting time. This bureaucratic docility is the domesticated, shadow side of American frontiersmanship. It will steer us further toward compliance than we might have believed possible.