Throughout the coronavirus pandemic we have been repeatedly told that the only moral position is to defeat the virus at all costs. Any suggestion that the economic effects of keeping everyone in their homes and shutting down the country warrant our consideration is considered crass or obscene. If you venture that a bankrupt country is unlikely to be a healthy country, you are liable to be charged with attempted murder. Instead, the common, or at least loud and angry, refrain is that we must secure public health first, and only then can we worry about the future.
The antagonism proposed here is between those who are (earnestly, righteously) concerned with the lives at stake right now and those who are (selfishly, inhumanely) concerned with how society and the economy that sustains it will look after the shutdown. If we look more closely, though, we can see who is really exploiting this crisis.
Leave to one side what exactly total victory might require and focus on the extraordinary presentism of this argument. The strongest version of the at-all-costs position is along these lines: worrying about the future treats the people of the present, especially those most vulnerable to the disease, as means to our own ends, and not as ends unto themselves. Hence the claim that anyone worried for the future is willing to sacrifice grandma for the economy, or to go to the pub, or whatever.
Yet this can’t be right – the argument elides the way most people are indeed being deployed as means to the goal of stopping the spread of the disease. If we were being consistent, this reasoning would also preclude us from coercing individuals to participate in a collective action with an end they may not have chosen for themselves. The coercion, legitimate and even right in the circumstances, is obviously not based on viewing individual dignity as some sort of trump.
Put another way, the at-all-costs argument is not really that calculation about the future is wrong. It is instead a specific calculation about the future. If we say something like, ‘The greatest good overall will be obtained if our actions now contemplate the future economic conditions of our society’, the response is not that such a statement is obscene; rather it is more that, ‘The greater good overall will be obtained if we defeat Covid-19 completely, which outweighs any concerns about the future economic conditions of our society’.
For most people, this choice is a genuine dilemma. They can see reason on both sides. They follow the state’s social distancing instructions while anxiously wondering if their jobs will still be there when the shutdown ends.
But if the debate is really just between two different utilitarian calculations, we are left with the question of where the anger (which is entirely on one side of the debate) originates.
Under closer examination, the people pushing the at-all-costs line most vociferously seem to have an ulterior motive. They hope to exploit the crisis to promote radical changes that would not be considered otherwise. The crisis can be redeemed if it leads to a revolution in the economic and social arrangements of our country.
Consider: one factor in how you might determine the two calculations presented is how much value you place on our present economic and social institutions. If you value them highly, then naturally you will include them in your preferred pandemic response. But if you think they are of low or even negative value, because they are unjust, then you will not only disregard them from your calculation, but also support pandemic measures that you think are most likely to upend them. The suggestion we consider existing value – contained in the businesses and associations that will close, the liberties that will be compromised, and the lives that, because they depend on those institutions, will be lost to despair and ill health – is outrageous, because it perpetuates injustice.
This is why agitation for the maximal response is usually accompanied by claims about what must change. The pandemic apparently demonstrates the need to defer more readily to experts, implement a universal basic income, make preschool free, and centrally-fix wages, among other things. Even banal predictions like the demise of the office and the rise of online education are in this genre. Some people get angry when told that none of this radicalism is necessary.
Worse still, their radicalism is incoherent. Our participation in the shutdown is motivated by our duty to society – as captured by the concept of public health itself. Each of us is obliged to stop the spread of the disease, even though most of us will not contract the virus. Public health refers not to mutual goods, but to a common good. The duty it creates is not owed reciprocally by individuals to one another, but to the society of which we are stewards, having inherited it from our ancestors. As such, the duty demands we consider our children and grandchildren. The obligation is the same for every generation: to provide a future that is continuous with the past.
It is not surprising then that, far from recommending revolution, the pandemic has reinforced the value of traditional goods. Stay-at-home orders, for example, might not be quite so harsh were more people homeowners than renters of small apartments. The alienation of social distancing might not be so severe were more adults married with children. Expert rule might be more effective had the academy and media class not been engaged in generations-long ideological mission creep. Perhaps borders and self-sufficiency might also have renewed credibility now that globalism has gone viral.
In any event, we are right to worry about what society will look like after the pandemic ends. We are obliged to do so for the same reason that we were obliged to act against the virus in the first place. But the source of that obligation argues against conceiving it as a reason for revolution. The proper conclusion is the exact opposite.