As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Trump has wavered on the practice of social distancing. One reason for the wavering is that billionaires have argued for getting back to work during the pandemic. Put in neutral terms, the gist of their argument is that maintaining the current pandemic practices will cause damage to the economy that will far exceed the damage done by sending people back to work. This is a classic utilitarian position in that the right action is the one that creates the greatest good (or the least harm). Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has advanced a similar, but much harsher argument. On his view, the damage done to the economy by the means taken to protect people from the virus far outweighs the damage done by putting people at risk. He went so far as to claim that he would be willing to die for the economy and seems quite willing to sacrifice other seniors as well. While this is obviously not a mainstream view, it has been getting some traction on Fox News and encourages Trump. While the billionaires and Patrick at least acknowledge that there is a downside to their proposals, there are those who see the deaths this approach would cause as a good thing—another plus rather than a minus. Presumably some of these are trolls, perhaps Russians trying to get Westerners to kill each other.
While it is tempting to simply dismiss the billionaires as greedy sociopaths who are happy to sacrifice the health and lives of others to add a bit more to their already vast fortunes, they do raise an important general moral problem: to what extent should some be sacrificed for others? We are already allowing, and rightly praising, the sacrifices being made by people such as health care workers, grocery store workers and many others who are risking exposure for the good of others. As with the billionaires’ argument, this is morally justified on utilitarian grounds: the few put themselves at risk for the good of the many. They are literally keeping us alive by taking care of us, ensuring that food is still available and so on. It is, I think, inarguable that these sacrifices are good, essential and heroic. It is also inarguable that some of these people will die because they are staying at their posts, doing what must be done to keep us and our civilization alive. In the case of these essential goods and services the risk is warranted—though everything possible should be done to reduce the risk. But what of the broader economy?
The billionaires are correct that a badly damaged economy would be harmful to workers—one merely needs to look at what happened to workers during the various depressions and recessions inflicted upon them over the years. Things were already quite bad for many even before the pandemic and the economic damage will make things even worse. As such, there is certainly a good argument for getting the economy back on track as soon as possible. But does the utilitarian argument support the billionaires’ view?
When engaging in an honest utilitarian calculation of this sort, the three main factors are values, scope and facts. In the case of the facts, one must honestly consider the consequences. The scope determines who counts when one is assessing the harms and benefits. The values determine how one weighs the facts and what is considered good and what is seen as bad. It is a fact that the social distancing practices are doing economic damage—many people are unable to work, many businesses are either closed or operating at minimum levels and so on. It is also a fact that relaxing social distancing to get people back to work will result in more infections which will cause suffering and death. The billionaires and those who disagree with them both agree on these facts; but they disagree about matters of scope (who counts) and value (what counts more). The billionaires have generally shown no concern in the well being of workers and it would be absurd to think they suddenly care—as such, the scope of their concern would seem to be, at most, their economic class. In terms of values, the billionaires clearly value money a great deal—more so then the well being of the workers (otherwise they would provide better pay and benefits). As such, their argument makes perfect sense to them: relaxing the restrictions would seem to benefit them financially and the harms would, as always, be suffered by others. Those who think that everyone counts and who value life and health over profits for billionaires will see the matter rather differently.
It could be objected that while the billionaires are interested in their profits, they are also correct in their claim that workers will be hurt more by the ongoing economic damage. As such, we should relax the restrictions because it would also be better for the workers. There are two main replies to this argument. The first reply is to argue that the billionaires are wrong in their assessment: even in their economic terms, relaxing the restrictions would cause more economic damage than keeping them in place. To use an analogy, imagine a business in a large building that is on fire. One could argue that having the firetrucks pump water into the building will do a lot of damage and that the fire should be mostly allowed to burn out naturally while the employees continue to work. But this can be countered by pointing out that allowing the building to burn will do far more damage in the long term—and kill more people. As such, unless the goal is short-term profits and long-term disaster, then it is best to keep social distancing in place until it is medically unnecessary.
The second reply is that people will suffer, as they have been for a long time, because of the economic and social structures that we have constructed. We have vast resources to mitigate the harm that will be done—the problem is that these resources have been hyper concentrated into the hands of a few and thus most people lack the resources to endure the pandemic on their own (and many lacked the resources to endure “normal” life before the pandemic). The truth is that we can get through the economic harm of the pandemic if we are willing to share the resources and wealth that we all created. But the billionaires would be right if it remains business as usual—hyper concentration of wealth and rage at even the idea that the richest should become slightly less rich so that others can avoid the horrors predicted by the billionaires if the many are unwilling to risk their lives for the profits of the few. It is indeed ironic that the billionaires have a fix on hand for the all the harms they predict: the economic and social structures could be adjusted for the good of us all, rather than focused on the good of the elites. I certainly expect the usual objections of how the billionaires and rich earned their great wealth and that the lesser people are just lazy takers eager to get something for nothing. Those who have served as able enablers of vampire capitalism bear their share of the blame for where we are today, and I must admit that I am exhausted by their evil bullshit.
The lesson I hope we learn here is that the sacrifices of those in essential areas, like those working to provide food and health care, are morally justified and laudable. Another lesson is that the sacrifices extracted from the many by the few to expand their wealth are neither justified nor laudable. What is perhaps more horrifying than the billionaires’ view that people should die for the economy is that they believe they can make such statements in public with impunity and without fear of consequences. I hope, in vain, that more people will see this vampire capitalism for what it is and they will work at changing the economic and social structures so that we will be able to endure not only future crises but everyday life.