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An Epidemic of Loneliness?

America, apparently, suffers from a new epidemic. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called the impact of loneliness and isolation “devastating.” His 83-page report accompanying the advisory defines loneliness as “a subjective distressing experience that results from perceived isolation or inadequate meaningful connections.”

The interest of the US government in this phenomenon is not unique; Several other countries have recently introduced ministers of loneliness. So why is the government getting involved in this sphere of life? Recent surveys point to a genuine social problem with isolation and loneliness. One survey found 58 percent of working adults reported feeling lonely. Strikingly, the pre-pandemic numbers were even higher (61 percent).

A related study found 36 percent of all US adults reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time or all the time.” The effects of this problem range from physical to economic. Take one study of workplaces, where Anne Bowers, Joshua Wu, Stuart Lustig, and Douglas Nemecek found that lonely employees, on average, miss five more days of work than their non-lonely counterparts. The accumulated impact of this absenteeism is estimated to cost employers more than $154 billion annually. In terms of physical health, loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In worst-case scenarios, loneliness is heavily linked to suicide.

Even if a social problem exists, is government involvement justified? The Surgeon General’s report suggests “increasing pro-connection policy at the local level, strengthening social infrastructure, and reforming digital environments.” What this means, practically speaking, is unclear; No explanation is offered in the report. This vagueness is concerning, as the actual form this could take could endanger our freedom. Take “reforming digital environments” as an example. Some studies have demonstrated tangible harms of social media. This reality is prime real estate for the government justification of social media censorship. Providers like Instagram can be pressured to remove photo filters, for example, in order to prevent harm that stems from people comparing themselves to models and better-looking peers. Legislation like this already exists.

In addition to overstepping its bounds through potential regulations, censorship, and bans, government has itself contributed to the problem of loneliness. The most recent and palpable evidence of this might be lockdowns in response to COVID-19, which prevented even gatherings explicitly protected by the Constitution. Other government inventions have weakened or harmed major institutions that foster community and social bonds. Rural life, civic education, marriage, faith-based preschools, family policy, and community in general have slowly been eroded as government jockeyed to replace them.

Writers who rail against governments’ intention to dig so deeply into our lives often lack compelling alternatives. As Michael D. Tanner of the Cato Institute accurately points out, government intervention in this sphere of life would likely fail and, in the meantime, trample all over individual rights. But he proposes no alternatives or solutions.

Tanner quotes Charles Murray, who wrote, “If government is not seen as a legitimate source of intervention, individuals and associations will respond [instead].” This pivot, however, is unconvincing. If individuals and associations can and should offer a solution, why does the problem persist and grow? Several studies have shown this void remains in part due to the government crowding out charities. In support of this hypothesis, AIER’s Robert Wright has extensively documented the role of government in displacing and degrading voluntary associations in his book Liberty Lost.

So what, if anything, should we make of this daunting problem? We are not without recourse. Throughout history, philanthropic organizations and charitable associations have provided services that address the heart of the problem: isolation of individuals from healthy social environments, interactions, and institutions. Lying-in, was a practice of women tending to new mothers in the community, making birth a social event. Such practices can be resurrected by individuals and voluntary organizations, if we can learn to rely on each other instead of the state.

Mutual aid societies are another example of a practice that can be resurrected. Their aim was to connect people with resources, while envisioning human capital and face-to-face interaction resources in themselves.

Finally, we could reinvigorate the movement of lyceums and public lectures, which were educational and connective associations for adults. The bedrock that these projects share is that they are communal in nature. They hold the power to engage isolated individuals in a non-coercive manner.

The problem is indeed formidable. The “solutions” put forth by the government would be questionable, at best, but so is the silence of the status quo. Individuals must be the ones to put in the hard work, by, for example, starting and joining modern mutual aid societies, voluntary associations, and charities. Government will be a barrier, yet the harm done to individual rights, not to mention the ensuing economic waste that would likely stem from the government’s stepping into this void, can serve as our motivation to beat central planners to the punch.The crisis of loneliness could be another made far worse by state intervention. Or we could foster a return of grassroots American community, serving to move their neighbors toward voluntary connection and belonging.

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