June 17, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes
people, gas station

Plexiglass. They put up plexiglass between us. This may not turn out well.

Allow me to explain. On Monday, June 16, I was finally given government permission to return to the gymnasium that I had been affiliated with for over two decades. It actually is a satellite branch built in a large warehouse separate from the main facility. This smaller, “grittier” gym has more free weights to lift, tires to flip, and heavy bags to punch. I go for the boxing.

I also go for the people. The desk staff knows me pretty well, so much so that I get a “special” set of towels. They like that I usually come in with some quirky remark that generates a chuckle or two. Every time I enter, my goal is to get them to laugh. There is always some chit-chat. Each day I find out a little bit more about the staff, and they discover a little bit more about me – where they went out the night before, what muscles are aching me today.

But now there is plexiglass.

When I arrived on Monday, the first time back in at least fourteen weeks, I had to first go to a check-in tent just outside of the building’s doors. There, I had to sign a waiver about coronavirus, answer a set of questions about any symptoms I might have, and then get my temperature taken remotely by a gentleman with a mask and one of those thermal scanners. Once I passed that gauntlet, I could walk through the doors that were propped open so I didn’t have to touch the handle.

In the lobby, I was shocked to see that the main desk now had giant sheets of plexiglass in front of the two stations where the staff usually stands and hands out towels. It looked odd. Given the current “Phase 1.5 Washington State Virus Protocols,” we are not allowed to get towels from the gym, let alone even shower there. We must bring in our own small “sweat rags.” No worries, I thought, because I wasn’t sure how they would hand them to me around the foreboding plexiglass barrier.

After finishing my workout, and walking past the shuttered shower stalls, I stopped by the desk again to chat with Danny and to buy a box of protein snacks. As I hadn’t used my account in over three months, my credit card on file had expired and I needed to update it. This procedure included me putting the card on the desk and sliding it around the plexiglass so that Danny could see the numbers but not touch the card. Once he finished entering my data, I slid the card back, put it in my pocket, and squirted hand sanitizer over my palms and fingers. 

And that plexiglass. Everything felt different because of the plexiglass.

Back in the days of the Old West, banks would have steel bars separating them from their customers. This was done to make it more difficult to jump the counter and rob the bank. In a world of transient individuals and many strangers passing through, you never knew who to trust, especially if there was a large amount of cash on hand. 

In crime-ridden areas today, metal bars and thick plexiglass separate customers from staff in pawn shops, check-cashing facilities, and liquor stores, all places that are targets for robbery; places where trust between individuals is unfortunately low. Cigarettes and razor blades are locked in plexiglass cases and can only be obtained upon special request. The store owners cannot trust that somebody won’t steal these items.

Such lack of trust is not good for the economy. In narrowly economic terms, it raises transaction costs and creates deadweight loss. The store has to invest in more security, and employees have to take the time to unlock the case to get the shaving razors. This is time the employees could be using stocking shelves or helping other customers find some new product.

But metal bars and plexiglass cases also breed distrust and damage our willingness to exchange and interact with one another. As Adam Smith famously said, the wealth of nations is determined by the extent of the market. Larger markets involve more anonymous and quasi-anonymous trade. Without some basic level of trust in society, these transactions don’t happen and we become poorer for it.

Poverty not only facilitates crime; crime creates poverty. It is a vicious cycle. And we try to limit the cycle with plexiglass. It is tragically unfortunate that impoverished neighborhoods are caught in this trap; our policy efforts need to be directed more towards building trust in these areas and less on installing thicker plexiglass. The social unrest in our streets has much to do with mistrust that is rife within these communities – mistrust that occurs between police and citizens, but also between all members of these communities.

And now plexiglass is everywhere. In suburban grocery stores, small town restaurants, and gymnasiums. Good for the plexiglass manufacturers; bad for us. 

I am mandated to separate myself from the cashier, bartender, and desk clerk because I might transfer germs to them and they might do the same to me. We cannot trust that we won’t infect one another. It is not that I think the other person is intentionally trying to infect me, the way a thief intentionally tries to pilfer cigarettes. But there is mistrust in the air nonetheless; a palpable concern that any interaction might lead to a horrible illness or death.

I worry that this new age of plexiglass will discourage human interactions and exchange, the lifeblood of a wealthy society. I worry that it is a symbol of an increasing mistrust that we may be promoting. 

I like to talk to Danny at the gym, but our plexiglass-separated interaction just feels different: more distant, less trusting. And it was uncomfortable having my temperature taken by a person behind a mask. I would have normally talked to him, but his face (and identity) hidden from my sight. As Jeffrey Tucker has noted, these masks have become an indication of a fearful society. Human flourishing cannot occur amongst a fearful population.

At the beginning of this essay, I wrote “They put up plexiglass between us.” But who are the they

Obviously, it was the businesses that installed the barriers, but business owners were largely acting upon governmental dictates. If you want government permission to reopen your business, you have to put up the plexiglass. Nonetheless, some store managers may have done so of their own accord as a way of saying “We’re looking out for your safety.” That is a nice sentiment, but it doesn’t remove the barrier.

The they who made us install the plexiglass are also the fear merchants of our viral times. They are the ones who urge us to stay at home. They are not just CDC employees or other government officials; they are the howling media who thrive off fear and panic. They are our neighbors who glare at us for coming too close to one another or not wearing a mask. They are also us – you and me – for letting ourselves be talked into a sterile fear.

I hope this fear is temporary. I pray that masks are not the new normal. I implore our leaders to understand that the lack of trust in society is what prevents poor neighborhoods and cities from flourishing. Work to banish mistrust, not spread it further. 

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, who challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to eradicate another major symbol of fear and mistrust in the world, I urge us to tear down this plexiglass.

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill

Anthony Gill is a professor of political economy at the University of Washington and a Distinguished Senior Fellow with Baylor University’s Institute for the Study of Religion.

Earning his PhD in political science at UCLA in 1994, Prof. Gill specializes in the economic study of religion and civil society.

He received the UW’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1999 and is also a member of the Mont Pelerin Society.

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