In late March, as many US jurisdictions finally began to enact social distancing and stay-at-home directives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas’s Republican Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick, appeared on the popular Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight to offer a dissenting voice.
“I turn 70 next week,” Patrick said, noting that older people are at greatest risk of death. “I’m not living in fear of COVID-19. What I’m living in fear of is what’s happening to this country… No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”
Patrick went on to argue that America’s elderly should be more willing to put their lives on the line to keep the economy going for the young: “My message is, let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that! Don’t ruin this great American Dream.”
Patrick’s interview provoked horrified reactions from public figures. (Former Texas Democratic Congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, to cite one example, called Patrick’s comments “numbnuttery.”) And I, too, disagree with his argument. I’m a Pakistani-American. My parents come from a part of the world where senior citizens are typically held in high regard. In fact, many South Asian cultures have respect for elders hard-wired into their language systems.
If anything, I would offer the opposite argument: Those of us who are young and less at risk (a category that excludes those with pre-existing medical vulnerabilities) are the ones who should be doing everything we can to protect older citizens. I may be grumpy about having to sit inside all day, but I’ll put on Netflix and work on my video-game backlog if it helps protect a nonagenarian who stormed the beaches at Normandy long before I was born. And in many parts of America, similarly minded young people are already being organized to help the elderly with basic tasks.
All that said, there’s a grain of truth in Patrick’s underlying claim about the trade-offs between protecting lives and protecting the economy. I’m lucky because I can pay the bills without leaving my home. But that’s impossible for those who work at, say, nail salons or restaurants. As more and more Americans are denied the opportunity to make ends meet in order to slow the rate of infection, unemployment claims are skyrocketing across the United States. And the cost is falling heaviest on the shoulders of those who cannot telecommute—a category that overlaps heavily with those who have the least education and wealth.
The federal officials, state governors, and mayors who’ve imposed these measures will eventually have to decide when conditions are safe enough to liberalize the current restrictions. And things won’t return fully to normal before a vaccine is developed and widely administered, which could be more than a year away (if at all).
But while COVID-19 represents an unprecedented phenomenon for most of us, the idea of negotiating a trade-off between safety on one hand, and liberty and leisure on the other, is a well-established part of the American policy landscape.
In 1974, for instance, President Nixon signed into law the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which included a provision establishing a national maximum speed law (NMSL) capping speed limits at 55 miles per hour. The NMSL came on the heels of price spikes resulting from the 1973 oil crisis. Despite the gas savings resulting from lower speeds, many motorists opposed the law, since it meant they couldn’t get from A to B as quickly as they’d have liked.
Two decades later, Congress repealed the NMSL, freeing states to enact their own speed limits. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader was furious at then-president Bill Clinton, declaring that history would “never forgive him and his allies in Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life.” At the time, Department of Transportation officials already had studies in hand estimating that repealing the speed limits would increase road deaths significantly. But libertarian-minded figures such as Texas Democratic Rep. Pete Geren argued that his local constituents “know better than the federal government about our roads.”
States no longer have any form of uniform speed limit, and you can go as fast as 80 miles per hour in some parts of the country. As was predicted, this freedom comes at a cost. One study from 2009 estimated that between 1995 and 2005, more than 12,000 deaths resulted from the repeal of the NMSL. In the trade-off between liberty and life, the government chose liberty.
When it comes to the COVID-19 crisis, on the other hand, most Americans are squarely in favor of protecting life. Many are overwhelmingly practicing social distancing in their own lives—avoiding gatherings big and small, and postponing travel plans. Almost three-quarters of surveyed Americans say they somewhat or strongly support a national quarantine.
This show of solidarity is remarkable in a country with such a libertarian political culture, which manifests itself through freedom of speech and easy access to firearms. But as the title of an Atlantic magazine article notes, “There Are No Libertarians in a Pandemic.” The question is whether this crisis will make us start to rethink the trade-off between liberty and life over the longer term.
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Twenty-one years ago, ethicist Peter Singer began a classic New York Times Magazine essay (The Singer Solution to World Poverty) by briefly summarizing the plot of the 1998 Brazilian film Central Station, wherein a middle-aged woman is offered $1,000 to persuade a homeless nine-year-old boy to follow her to a certain address to be adopted. Not until later does she learn that the boy was actually going to be murdered for his organs. She uses the money to buy a television, but is too riddled with guilt to enjoy watching it. So she works to save the boy.
Singer reminds us that those of us who reside in rich countries and live in relative affluence face such choices all the time, even if we don’t realize it. He notes that the average family in America spends about a third of its income on unnecessary and frivolous purchases, even as people around the world are perishing from easily preventable diseases and hunger. By spending money on ourselves rather than on the extremely poor, we are, through inaction, sacrificing others so that we can live carefree lives.
I first read Singer’s essay as a high school student in Georgia about 15 years ago. Many of my classmates felt deeply unsettled by the argument Singer offered, and so they found ways to reject it out of hand. Our American libertarian ethic is hard to reconcile with Singer’s argument that we should all give up something small so that others may have the bare necessities of life.
This tension extends throughout much of American policymaking. The United States spends about 0.2 percent of its gross national product on foreign aid, half of the average among wealthy nations. And we do a poor job of taking care of people here at home, too. Tens of thousands of Americans perish every year because they lack health insurance. We remain the only wealthy country that doesn’t guarantee a right to health care for all citizens.
A willingness to choose freedom over humanitarian empathy is strongly associated with the political Right. But even the Left’s pro-abortion-rights rallying cry of “my body, my choice” has a libertarian flavor to it (although it should be said that many backers of abortion rights reject this classification, on the claimed basis that a fetus doesn’t have any real moral status). And while the Left lobbies for stricter gun-control measures, the wide acceptance of alcohol and tobacco—which still kill hundreds of thousands annually in the United States—spans much of the political spectrum.
Which brings us back to COVID-19. By one estimate, 80,000 Americans died from flu-related illnesses during the 2017 — 2018 flu season. When such numbers get reported by the media, Americans typically shrug—even though, as we now know, basic social-distancing and hygiene practices can help tame even a virulent pandemic. If and when a COVID-19 vaccine is found, will we emerge from this period under a new, more restrictive social contract, one that serves the interests of all those ordinary flu victims?
It’s nice to think that technology can help us avoid such decisions. And yes, more protective equipment, larger ICU capacity and new medicines will help reduce the death toll, no matter what political trade-offs we make. But that will only go so far. And there will come a point, perhaps as early as this summer, when Americans will have to decide whether they are collectively ready to recalibrate the balance among life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The United States was literally founded on the “truth” that the unfettered right to all three is “unalienable.” But as COVID-19 shows, such truths are the furthest thing from self-evident.
Zaid Jilani, a journalist, is currently on fellowship, studying political and social polarization at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Follow him on Twitter at @ZaidJilani.