Writing in the Washington Post, Gary Abernathy complains that overreaction to the coronavirus has made us all socialists. “When the smoke clears, what’s left will be a feeble relic of the United States we once knew.” We’re a socialist country, on his argument, because governments have imposed lockdowns and then partially compensated people and businesses for the costs. The virus, he notes, “has a case mortality rate of 0.2 to 0.4 percent for people age 10-49.” He thinks we should have explored less intrusive ways of protecting vulnerable populations.

I think the lockdowns are largely warranted, but leave that aside. Presumably nearly everyone thinks that at a certain level of risk the government would have a duty to impose such measures. The fact that Abernathy stresses the low mortality risks for young people — which, we should remember, means that he is ignoring cases in which the virus merely causes young people severe and possibly lifelong damage — suggests that he may think so, too. If the case mortality rate for ages 10–49 were 2 percent, perhaps that would be enough to change his mind? Or if it were 4 percent?

One possibility is that everyone who thinks that at some point the government would have to intervene massively (again, presumably including Abernathy) is a socialist, and so the term doesn’t have a great deal of meaning. A second one is that a socialist is anyone who would favor such intervention at a lower risk level than Abernathy would think wise. A third is that governments’ use of their powers, many of them traditional ones, to fight contagion does not constitute socialism. I think that last view is the most reasonable one.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.