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.
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.