All the lonely people
Government won’t cure the problems of loneliness and alienation
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If you’re lonely, you can at least sing about it. Some of the best-selling songs of all time have “lonely” in the title (bet you can think of at least three off the top of your head), and they come in all genres. Loneliness is a human condition, and it’s a rare soul who hasn’t felt isolated or alienated—not once, but many times.
More recently, however, loneliness has become a social issue, even a crisis. Suicides, drug abuse, and mental and physical decline are attributed to it. In May, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy published an 82-page advisory on “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”
“All the lonely people,” wondered Paul McCartney—“where do they all come from?” Politicians and pundits now wonder, What can we do about it?
Hillary Clinton published her thoughts about the crisis in an Atlantic piece called “The Weaponization of Loneliness.” The pugilistic title hints where she’s coming from and where she aims her own rhetorical weapons. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” (a phrase she uses unironically) has stirred division and alienation for decades, creating a fertile field for today’s conspiracy websites that cater to alienated young men.
The right, according to Clinton, also stands against government programs aimed at lifting people out of poverty, thus keeping the poor isolated and desperate. COVID-19 offered a chance for Americans to pull together and defeat a deadly virus, but no—Republicans, led by the president, had to turn the pandemic into a political wedge issue: “And when data first emerged showing that COVID-19 was disproportionately affecting Black and Latino communities, support for safety precautions and shared sacrifice dropped among white people and conservatives.”
Not to get too political, but anyone who attributes lockdown resistance to racism has no business deploring “our toxic ‘us versus them’ dichotomies.”
The United Kingdom made news on the loneliness front when a commission recommended appointing a minister of loneliness, tracking national indicators, publishing an annual report, and funding recommended initiatives. The report for 2022 detailed lots of government action, such as local Happy Cabs for transporting neighbors, community gardens, Know Your Neighbourhood projects, an online Tackling Loneliness Hub for professionals and community leaders, and much more. Results? “The number of adults experiencing chronic loneliness in England has remained consistent over the last five years at 6 percent. … However, since 2018 we have developed a much greater understanding of which groups are more at risk of experiencing loneliness.”
But don’t we already know who’s at risk? Singles, phone-addicted youth, and family-poor elderly; those recently moved, mentally unstable, or otherwise disabled. Anyone, in other words, who is missing human connection. If our society is especially lonely, it’s because the natural and traditional connections of family, church, and community have broken down.
What is the fix? Politicians turn to political solutions because that’s what they do. In the United States, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has proposed a National Strategy for Social Connection Act. The bill would create an executive office to coordinate efforts to “combat loneliness and strengthen communities” and “develop a government-wide strategy to integrate social connection policy across federal departments and agencies.” And of course, provide funding—particularly to the CDC for “research on social connection, loneliness, and social infrastructure.” Never mind that the CDC’s COVID-19 recommendations were largely responsible for the greatest breakdown of social connection in living memory.
Two corollaries follow the establishment of any government office. One, the purpose for which it was established becomes secondary to sustaining the office itself. Two, the original issue, however nonpolitical, becomes politicized. And “weaponized.” Loneliness is a human problem, not a government problem. Government intervention has done enough to loosen the bonds of family, church, and community. It’s up to families, churches, and communities to bind us again.
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