Samuel R. Bagenstos: From jobs to health care, COVID-19 reveals the moral bankruptcy of conservative politics

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Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, much of the industrialized world has committed itself an individualistic, everyone-for-themselves worldview.  

In the United States, the avatar for that worldview was President Ronald Reagan. But perhaps the clearest expression came from Reagan’s ideological soulmate on the other side of the Atlantic, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. 

In 1987, Thatcher (in)famously told an interviewer that “there is no such thing as society.” Rather, there are only “individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.”  

Thatcher’s notion — that there is no society, only individuals who necessarily look out for themselves and their families — has deeply influenced our politics, policy, and even culture. It underlay a decades-long assault on the public institutions that provide for us what we cannot provide individually. 

President Reagan meeting with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom in the oval office, November 16, 1988 | National Archives

It played a crucial role in the attack on the Affordable Care Act — in which people who were currently healthy fiercely objected to being forced to enter the same insurance pool as those with pre-existing conditions (ignoring the natural fact of life that we will all need significant health care at some point). And we’ve seen the effects here in Michigan, as years of failure to invest in our public schools have caused an alarming drop in student performance, and as our roads and bridges continue to crumble.

Yet even as the harmful effects of the Reagan-Thatcher worldview have become more and more obvious, our political response has too often been to double down on individualism. 

If the public schools are underperforming because we haven’t invested in them, let’s just let parents choose what schools their kids attend. Sure, they’ll take even more resources from the public system in the process, and those resources will often end up in the pockets of private businesses that operate or provide services to charter schools, but at least each individual can choose. 

We all agree the roads are terrible, but if fixing them requires that taxes go up? That’s too much to ask.

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The COVID-19 pandemic highlights these pathologies in an especially acute way. Obviously, social and political conditions were not the cause of the virus’s outbreak. But our nation’s slow, weak, and inconsistent response to the pandemic has been hampered by a public sector still decimated by decades of Reagan-Thatcherism.  

Years of disrespecting public servants — I’m old enough to remember Reagan saying, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help” — culminated in the election of a president who has made great progress in the goal of “deconstructing the administrative state.”  

And that left us unprepared to move quickly in response to the pandemic. Reliance on private businesses to perform important public functions, combined with a policy that promoted industry consolidation and corporate profits over the benefits to society, is a key reason why there are not enough life-saving ventilators to go around as hospitals face this crisis.

This all might just seem short-sighted. Our politics are so focused on what’s good for us individually in the immediate term that we don’t realize we’re harming ourselves in the long-term — now with deadly consequences.

But our response to the coronavirus pandemic reveals a deep moral bankruptcy at the heart of this individualistic politics.  When the virus initially was identified in the United States, and public health experts were encouraging social distancing as a way of slowing its spread, many people ignored their admonitions and continued to put themselves in contact with large groups of people.  

Relying on early reports from China that the biggest harms of the virus would occur in those who are older or have pre-existing conditions, they were willing to run the risk that they would be infected, rather than change their own plans. As one student on Spring Break in Florida told a reporter, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.”

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The problem, though, was not primarily that the college kids on spring break would suffer serious harm from COVID-19 — although the potential harms to them now appear greater than it seemed from those early reports from China. The problem was that, by doing what gave them the most enjoyment individually, they were speeding the spread of the virus, and dramatically increasing the risk that more vulnerable people would get it.  

At a time when health systems are confronting the imminent prospect of having to ration scarce life-saving equipment among coronavirus patients, it is hardly unfair to criticize these partiers — and others who have made similar decisions — for choosing their own happiness over the lives of others.

Kids will be kids, of course. Who among us didn’t make some selfish and short-sighted decisions when we were college-aged? 

But our political leaders and CEOs have no such excuse. Almost as soon as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other state-level leaders around the country began to take aggressive action to stop the spread of the pandemic, President Trump and his advisors publicly criticized the economic impact. We need to send people back to work by Easter, he said, because we don’t want the “cure” to be “worse than the disease.” On Sunday, he pushed the date back until the end of April, as COVID-19 continues to spread.   

But there appears to be a strong consensus of public health experts that sending people back to work prematurely will only worsen the outbreak of the virus, with deadly consequences.  Doing so would force people — particularly those who are older and have pre-existing conditions — to sacrifice their health and even their lives in the interest of improving economic statistics (and, not incidentally, Trump’s reelection prospects).

Some leading figures have been shockingly open about this kill-grandma-to-save-the-Dow policy. As Greg Sargent reported in the Washington Post, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said “that seniors such as him should be willing to be ‘sacrificed’ if necessary, so our children don’t ‘lose our whole country’ to an ‘economic collapse.’”  

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Former Goldman Sachs head Lloyd Blankfein called for people to return to work “within a very few weeks,” citing the effects on the economy.  And Dick Kovacevich, the former chair and CEO of Wells Fargo, who also supported such a return, was almost clinical in discussing the effects: “Some of them will get sick, some may even die, I don’t know.  Do you want to suffer more economically or take some risk that you’ll get flu-like symptoms and a flu-like experience?”  

Once again, these views are short-sighted. They are almost certainly driven largely by near-term political interests or worries about quarterly earnings reports. As former President Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein argues, even cold, hard cost-benefit analysis appears to show conclusively that “the benefits of aggressive social distancing greatly exceed the cost.” 

But again, to focus on decisional myopia is to ignore the deeper point.  Although the political and business leaders urging a return to work frame their arguments in communitarian terms — individuals might need to sacrifice their health in order to save the economy for the whole country — that framing is misleading. For Patrick, Blankfein, and Kovacevich know that they will not be the ones called upon to sacrifice their lives.  

Although the availability of coronavirus tests is extremely limited in this country — a consequence of Trump administration bumbling that has left us ill prepared to respond to this crisis effectively — the rich and politically connected have somehow managed to get themselves tested.  

Our health system gives the best care in the world to those who are wealthy or lucky enough to have excellent insurance, while too many Americans lack any health insurance — or lack sufficient coverage to pay for extensive treatments. 

And while those at the top of the economic food chain benefit from generous leave policies, many working people lack paid sick time — which increases their risks of contracting the virus at work, and of passing it on to their coworkers. (Just two years ago, the lame-duck Republican-controlled Legislature in Michigan engaged in an unprecedented scheme to gut a law that would mandate paid sick time and keep a stronger proposal off the general election ballot).  

So when leaders call on individuals to sacrifice their health and their lives for the economy, they are pursuing their own economic and political self-interest.

And this brings us back to the pathologies of Reagan-Thatcherism, and how that worldview has devastated our state and our nation. For the well off, it is no skin off their nose to drain resources from our public schools, because they can afford to send their children to private institutions. And even though anyone’s car might be damaged on our disintegrating roads, a rich person isn’t going to lose a job because they popped a tire or busted an axel and showed up late to work.  

The wide acceptance of the idea that there is no society, that government cannot help us, that each of us is in it for ourselves, has deprived our communities of strength and connection.  

COVID-19 is showing us the deadly consequences.