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Free-Marketeer Argues “Cure Worse Than Disease!” Socialist Responds with Faith in Capitalism

Strangely, my sense of social distancing has not translated into calling and writing people more often. Quite the reverse: locking down our household has reinforced my hermitliness. I’m less inclined now to pick up the phone and jaw for an hour than ever before.

Still, I took a call last night and found myself in a lengthy conversation with a friend who takes the Trumpist line that government restrictions on economic activity in order to check coronavirus will cause more suffering than letting businesses and consumers work and shop as they choose. As an example, my friend said the decision to shut down Smithfield Foods should have been left in Smithfield’s hands. (We actually did that: no one sent troops to shut the plant down; we let Smithfield CEO Ken Sullivan wait over three weeks after coronavirus first appeared among his crowded, vulnerable workforce before he caved to disastrous PR and grudgingly closed his Sioux Falls slaughterhouse for cleaning and upgrades… and even then joined with his fellow Big Meat lobbyists to pressure the federal government to take away free choice and order meat factories to stay open. Yes, my friend has trouble coming up with clear and unproblematic supporting examples for his arguments.)

My friend talked about how impoverished workers who live day to day can’t survive if their factories don’t operate or people don’t hail them for rides or deliveries. The workers and their families go hungry, children starve and die, all a result of government shutting down the normal economy.

Now government isn’t some alien overlord; government is us. Government action is community action, the general will expressed and actualized through the legal processes of our democratic republic. So if we want to evaluate the appropriateness of government action, we can start by analyzing the appropriateness of individual action.

Our economic shutdown, especially here in South Dakota, was mostly voluntary. Governor Noem hasn’t sent any troopers to shut down any businesses. Even the local governments that told bars and barbers and barbell studios to bar their doors didn’t issue a lot of tickets or put a lot of owners or shoppers in jail. For the most part, the economic slump (and “shutdown” exaggerates, because Q1 2020 GDP dropped 5.0% nationwide and just 2.2% in South Dakota) resulted from most of us going, “Holy crap! We’d better tighten our belts, cancel our vacations, and buy less junk.” Even with some government cheerleaders telling us to Get Out There™ and shop and revel, a lot of South Dakotans are using their Freedom™ to take the sensible precautions their Governor won’t and stay home, meaning they participate less in the economy and thus create my friend’s nightmare scenario of poverty, starvation, and death for Uber drivers.

So I asked my friend: suppose that, regardless of what policies my city council, Legislature, or Congress enact, regardless of the emergency orders various executives-in-chief may decree, I choose to curb my economic activity by 50%. (More realistically, I behave like most other South Dakotans, not so much reducing spending as significantly shifting spending from wants to needs, but let’s roll with the hypothetical.) I cut spending on travel, dining out, clothing, and accessories. I stock up on groceries but buy less expensive brands. I do more of my own repairs instead of bringing contractors into my house.

Am I immoral for reducing my economic activity and denying others an opportunity to make money from me to support their families?

My friend says no, of course not, that’s my individual choice. Go ahead, buy less stuff if you want.

Paging Dr. Kant—let’s universalize the maxim of my action:

If my economizing is moral for me, then it should be moral for everybody. But what if 30% of the population all make the same choice as I do and crash the economy by causing a 15% decline in GDP? 30% of us economize, and several million people lose jobs, increasing poverty, starvation, and death. My friends immoral outcome results from millions of people making a choice that my friend considers moral.

If poverty, starvation, and death caused by an economic slowdown are unacceptable outcomes, then we can’t allow an economic slowdown to happen. We have to order the meatpacking plants to stay open… but we have to order the population to keep buying just as much meat from those plants as they did last year, if not more. We have to order the hotels to stay open and the Uber drivers to stay on the road, but we have to order the population to keep booking rooms and rides. If the government can’t slow down the economy, the crowd can’t slow down the economy, and if the crowd can’t do it, I can’t do it.

Under my friend’s moral scheme, I have a moral obligation to keep buying ever more crap, lest I have the starvation and death of children on my hands.

Meanwhile, my friend compels us all to crowd into the marketplace, spread coronavirus, and kill immuno-suppressed children with a disease for which we have no vaccine. Darned if we do, dead if we don’t.

My good capitalist friend could save himself from his moral contradiction with a little Smith and Schumpeter. Government has a proper role in the free market, including checking certain harms that the free market fails to address. When normal market forces won’t feed everyone, we work together as a community through government to meet unmet needs. And when the economy changes—when a new disease changes demand—we don’t cry over the need to preserve the old economy. We accept certain destruction and get creative: we find new ways to meet the new needs of the consumers (neighbors, fellow citizens, humans of dignity and worth!) around us. Driving taxi isn’t paying the bills because no one’s hailing a cab? Switch to delivering groceries. No one’s buying your stylish shoes? Put down your cobbler’s tools and starting making stylish masks. Meatpacking plant shut down? Open your own butcher shop in Madison and chop local meat for your neighbors.

Poverty, starvation, and death are bad. We have an obligation as individuals and as a community to reduce those negative outcomes. But my friend believes in a false and strawmanny dilemma, thinking that responding to coronavirus means shutting down the economy and causing millions more to suffer than would if we just let coronavirus run its course and cull our herd without our interference. We can respond to coronavirus as we have to countless major economy-altering events in the past: we can do the things we need to do—self-isolate, wear masks, travel and buy less—and use our creativity to come up with new, safer ways to make a living on the free market while also sharing our common wealth through government action to make we take care of everyone.

6 Comments

  1. bearcreekbat 2020-07-09

    Great post Cory! This comment seems especially pertinent and important in many contexts:

    Now government isn’t some alien overlord; government is us. Government action is community action, the general will expressed and actualized through the legal processes of our democratic republic. So if we want to evaluate the appropriateness of government action, we can start by analyzing the appropriateness of individual action.

    Rather than blaming “the government” for acts or failures it is definitely more accurate to look to the individuals that make up our government to discover a particular culprit.

    For example, one part of our current federal government, the House has passed several important bills to address our current Covid 19 difficulties that have stalled in the Senate. see e.g.,

    https://www.npr.org/2020/05/15/856095507/house-passes-3-trillion-coronavirus-relief-bill-that-has-dim-future

    Is the culprit for the failed legislation then “the government,” or “the Senate” or maybe more accurately, the group in the Senate that has exercised the power to stall the legislation, such as the “Republican majority” and each “Republican Senator” supporting that majority’s decision to stall the proposed legislation (Are you listening Senators Thune and Rounds)? Thinking people will not generalize blame on amorphous entities such as “the government,” rather, they will recognize that there are individuals or individual groups actually responsible for action or a failure to act.

  2. cibvet 2020-07-09

    “cure worse that the disease” unless it’s you or your family are the ones dying from the disease. It’s easy to dismiss people you don’t know.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-07-09

    Thanks, Bear. We chose to rein in the economy. Most of us chose to curb our own spending and travel; we acted as a community to curb the actions of others through ordinance and law because we recognize that a public health emergency requires actions by everyone, not just a majority, to keep everyone safe, and that an uninformed or selfish minority can still moot the sacrifices being made by the sensible majority. Minority rights are important, but that applies only when we are talking about making sure everyone has equal rights. We are reining in everyone’s activity equally, without discrimination, so government restraints on economic activity to protect public health is justified.

    Just like with universal education and health care, we can’t count on private efforts (charity, individual market decisions) to ensure that everyone gets the baseline amount of practical liberty necessary to enjoy life in a democratic republic.

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-07-10

    Cibvet, I hear you. The folks crying “cure worse than the disease” are engaged in an interesting disconnect: they fail to think statistically about the pandemic, weighing only their personal risk and not the society-wide risk, but then they also get lost in Libertarian abstractions instead of considering real consequences to real individuals. They also whip themselves into a philosophical froth to justify their selfish craving for a haircut and a night at the pub but fail to do the full cost-benefit analysis that would show a faster, stricter shutdown would allow us to control the virus spread sooner and return to more economic activity sooner. Coronavirus control is actually essential to long-term economic health.

    By the way, there’s evidence that economic downturns can save lives.

  5. bearcreekbat 2020-07-10

    Cory, your point about the libertarian philosophy seems right on the money. The fundamental libertarian premise seems to be that individual selfishness outweigh individual sacrifice for the good of others. Whether said outright or euphemised with jargon, the bottom line is that government has no business protecting anyone if it interferes with what the libertarian wants to do.

    When I was younger libertarian look mighty attractive as I abhorred government excesses. As I began to understand that the philosophy defined “excesses” in such a personally selfish manner, however, I realized that was not consistent with what I thought to be genuine improper government conduct. Thus, I it became apparent that the libertarian philosophy was not for me. I still abhor government excesses, but view them as something more than a policy I don’t like or interferes with what i personally want to do.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-07-12

    Libertarianism too often is lazy selfishness with a philosophical gloss, an easy way to dismiss any government program one does not like with a generic abstract argument instead of serous and specific cost-benefit analysis.

    I wonder how many non-pot-smoking Libertarians support Defunding the Police.

    I wonder how many Libertarians spent six hours a day teaching their kids at home to make up for the time their kids lost from the regular classroom to prove they can do without public education.

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