The coronavirus pandemic requires a temporary replacement of capitalism with socialism, because the free market can’t work when we can’t go to the market. If we can all subsist at home on Zoom chats and government checks until scientists develop an effective vaccine for covid-19, we’ll be able to return to our regularly scheduled capitalist trips to our shops and bars and Disneyworld by Easter 2022.
The coronavirus trips up capitalism with its practical blockage of access to the market. But it also questions a core tenet of America’s preferred (or at least professed) economic ideology, the primacy of self-interest.
Capitalism assumes that if we all act according to our self-interest, the sum of all of our uncoordinated actions will more efficiently meet almost everyone’s needs than any central planning scheme. You do what you want, I’ll do what I want, and by the grace of the Invisible Hand, most people will get the beans and Buicks they want, and get them a lot faster than when the kolkhozes and Lada factories were waiting for orders from Brezhnev.
But right now, most people realize their self-interest lies in not traveling, not shopping, and not going out. The doctors say so. Go to the beach, go to the bar, go to the Brown County Fair, and you’re going to get sick (and not just from the walking tacos). Even without orders from the City Council or suggestions from the Governor, a majority of us would be going out less and spending less. We’re not freaking out, we’re making rational choices for the sake of self-preservation.
That act of keen self-interest, multiplied by 327 million Americans, produces feedback effects. Not knowing how long the coronavirus and our countermeasures may persist, we reduce our spending further: it’s in our immediate self-interest to put off buying a new couch or new car or new house because we need to save our cash in case we lose our jobs.
Our elected officials, supposedly good capitalists all, are encouraging behavior that runs against our rational self-interest. My mayor brags about buying takeout to support our local restaurants and exhorts all of us to do the same, but pure self-interest tells me that, instead of spending $40 on one family meal, I can buy five loaves of bread and twenty cans of soup that allow my family to eat in for several meals and reduce our trips and possible exposure to coronavirus. Our senior Senator tells us we should buy gift cards to help our Main Street businesses stay afloat, but why would I spend money on promises of products that I might need in an uncertain future from a business that may not even be open to give me those products after a month or five of coronavirus recession when my self-interest says I should either use that money to buy things I need now or save my money for definite purchases as needs arise later?
Ordering take-out and buying gift cards aren’t acts of self-interest. They aren’t capitalism. They are gestures of altruism, of sacrificing immediate self-interest to help someone else. Random uncoordinated altruism won’t keep everyone fed and sheltered during a pandemic any more than it provides affordable schools and nutrition to every American during normal economic times.
We have built an inflated capitalist economy on convincing people to buy lots of stuff they don’t need. The coronavirus taps an interest that overrides that inflated consumer interest: our primal interest in not dying.
Self-interest in the time of covid-19 necessarily means economic contraction. Millions of people lose their jobs, and absent enormous government intervention—i.e., collective planning, community action, socialism—people go hungry. Amidst pandemic, self-interest can’t sustain the economy as we know it. And we can’t wait around for charity to effectively or efficiently meet all of our neighbors’ needs. We can each do our part to give our neighbors practical assistance (from a safe distance, of course, with lots of hand washing before and after), but we cannot depend on capitalist forces to help us survive this pandemic and its unavoidable economic consequences. We must work together as a community, as a society, to solve problems through socialism.