The rapidly expanding number of Covid-19 cases in the United States poses an extraordinary test of our nation’s institutions and their leaders. In recent days, a discussion has broken out about how we should integrate our interest in preserving and protecting human life with the concern to keep employment opportunities open for those who are most economically vulnerable.
The President’s stated interest in ‘reopening’ our economy and our churches by Easter—which was nullified by last night’s extension of the present social distancing guidelines—originally fueled the conversation, which was then extended by religious leaders from a variety of denominations.
Two competing standpoints emerged: on the one side are people like Russell Moore, whose recent op-ed distills how reverence for the sanctity of human life is more important than the GDP. On the other side is Rusty Reno, who has argued that ‘sentimentalism’ and our fear of death have both undermined the witness of our churches and rendered us incapable of taking seriously the devastation to our economy.
The discussion has not been a model of intellectual clarity or grace, virtues which are all the more pressing because of its very real stakes. It has instead traded on reductive and uncharitable readings of our politicians’ rhetoric, and unnecessarily heightened the contrasts between positions in order to stand ‘prophetically’ against the spirit of our age. Brad Littlejohn’s contribution here at Mere Orthodoxy is one notable exception.
Yet while I concur with much of Littlejohn’s argument, even he prescinds from facing up to the fundamental question that our leaders, specifically, must answer: how many deaths are proportionate to the end of securing the social and political stability that a flourishing economy contributes to?
From the outset, this discussion has obscured the fundamental differences between the individual judgments that citizens must make to preserve and protect life and the tragic political choices that leaders must sometimes make to protect the good of the society—a good that includes, but is by no means limited to, the protection of the individual lives of its citizens.
While I take Reno’s position to be that some such judgment is necessary, its indispensable importance was buried beneath the torrent of his rhetoric about our fear of death. Such a strategy has neither enabled us to understand the awesome responsibilities of political leaders, nor prepared us to offer meaningful counsel about how such a judgment must be made while protecting each and every citizen from either unnecessary death or immoral degradation.
Instead, our Christian intellectual leaders have largely retreated into the warm comforts of our ‘grand narratives’ about modernity’s many ills. While such a move may stir the hearts of the faithful, it leaves Christianity’s political witness at best impotent—and at worst dangerous.
Suspicion and Grand Narratives
While the President’s interest in reopening the economy by Easter is rather nakedly economic, Rusty Reno’s objections to our current regime have taken a more spiritual cast. As I understand Reno’s concerns, our society’s resolute unwillingness to face our mortality has engendered a panic that has unnecessarily jeopardized the well-being of countless Americans. His objection has taken a variety of forms: in his opening salvo, Reno described our current regime as a satanic capitulation to the fear of death. Such a regime has been animated by a ‘sentimentalism’ that refuses to acknowledge which was embodied by Andrew Cuomo’s claim that “if everything we do saves just one life, [he’ll] be happy.”
In more recent days, Reno has taken to naming the various rhetorics that engender such fear of death: the “rhetoric of preventable death,” the “‘do everything possible’ rhetoric,” the “well-intended rhetoric of compassion,” and the “’life at any cost’ rhetoric” all come in for criticism. At the same time, Reno has not squared the force of his own rhetorical denunciation of our regime as ‘satanic’ with his more recent suggestion that he was never attempting to offer practical guidance. “My concerns have not been epidemiological (an area of expertise in which I have no right to an opinion),” he writes: “they have been political, social, and spiritual.” As to shelter-in-place policies—the very policies that he proposed are indicative of our demonic captivity to escaping death—Reno now allows that “perhaps they are the wisest course of action.”
It is telling that Reno dismisses the various forms of ‘rhetoric’ that he sees permitting pernicious social policies while attempting to escape the responsibility for the practical judgments embedded within and entailed by his own. It is eminently reasonable to suspend judgment about shelter-in-place policies: the question of weighing up trade-offs is extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps, if nothing else, that uncertainty means one shouldn’t describe our current response as satanic. It would be reasonable to forgive Reno his rhetorical excesses if Reno had forgiven others theirs.
There are a variety of ways to read Andrew Cuomo’s statements (and others like it): we might see within them a sentimentalism that refuses to take seriously the power of death, or we might see them as aspirational, as motivating New Yorkers and others to take seriously the threat of Covid-19 and their responsibilities to live together. Reno has opted to match rhetorical excess with rhetorical excess, rather than allowing for the fact that politicians in democratic societies must heighten their rhetoric when faced with crises that require collective action: what else can they do?
That is not to say Reno’s concerns about the rhetorics he is critiquing are entirely wrong: if anything, they have launched an avalanche of responses that seem to prove his point. Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore, for instance, took to the pages of the New York Times to offer an implicit rejoinder to Reno’s position:
“We already are hearing talk about weighing the value of human life against the health of the nation’s economy and the strength of the stock market. It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product. Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God.”
While Moore’s emphases are the antithesis of Reno’s, his approach is similar. Moore acknowledges the suffering that our current approach is inflicting, and endorses government action and civil society as means of ameliorating it. But the worry is a qualification to his main theme, and leads him to effectively reduce worries about the suffering of the poorest to concerns about the stock market.
Where Reno thinks we have to talk about tradeoffs but has so far been unwilling to discuss them in concrete terms, Moore rejects them outright: “We cannot coldly make decisions as to how many people we are willing to lose,” he writes, “since ‘we are all going to die of something.’”
Behind their respective practical judgments lie sweeping narratives about the way the spirit of the age has structured our life together. Reno is rightly conscious that our society is unwilling to face death; Moore is reasonably worried that in this hour we would revert to treating human life as disposable. Citing Wendell Berry, Moore suggests that the”the great challenge of our time would be whether we would see life as a machine or as a miracle” (before again reducing concerns about workers to worries about a “balance sheet”).
To these we might add a third, from Littlejohn’s exemplary essay. While Brad rightly acknowledges the inevitability of having to make some calculation about the relative risks to human life and economic opportunities, he cannot resist his own speculative deconstruction about what’s animating concerns about the economy: “At the root of our protest that ‘the cure is worse than the disease,’” he suspects, “is a fear that our own way of life may have to change. Comforts that we once took for granted might turn out to be luxuries.” Money, materialism, death—for my part, I suspect that any successful attempt to diagnose our society’s pathologies must somehow account for them all.
Such diagnoses have an important place in moral reasoning, in that they make us aware of the temptations embedded within the practical possibilities before us. It is possible that our manifest unwillingness to accept our finitude and mortality has made us too cautious at this juncture. (It has not.) Such ‘rhetoric’ draws our attention to details within the moral landscape that we may have otherwise overlooked.
Yet the very rhetorics Reno so opposes have their own therapeutic function as well, in that they make us acutely conscious that our response would further the degradation of human life we see all around us and deepen our contempt for the elderly and the vulnerable. Making us alive to the possibility of our own complicity with the spirit of the age is precisely “rhetoric’s” point.
Yet grand narratives often obscure as much as they reveal, as they carry within them their own temptation to meet each new situation as though it were simply an extension of the past. A pandemic becomes merely a confirmation of our priors, which cuts us off from ever being wrong or learning about the nature of our moral ecology. Though Reno might (for now) wish to prescind from issuing a practical judgment about the appropriate course of action, such abstemiousness cuts off political deliberation right as it begins.
Those who are tasked with making decisions about when to reopen our economy cannot escape the onerous responsibility of assessing the epidemiological, economic, social, and political evidence. How they undertake that task is a matter of extraordinary moral, social, and theological significance. If that is their responsibility, is the Christian who would claim to penetrate so deeply into the spiritual realities beneath such practical judgments free from doing likewise?
The validity of a grand narrative as an explanation for our response depends upon the details of whether our response is prudent or not: our appeal to grand narratives should follow our explication of the rightness or wrongness of our leaders’ practical judgments, rather than precede them (if those judgments come at all). To do otherwise allows us to denounce without understanding, and leaves us impotent to provide our political leaders guidance about how to weigh the moral options before them in light of the spiritual and theological grand narratives we see as relevant.
However plausible they might be, grand narratives are no escape from the onerous responsibility of offering practical guidance to those who are tasked with translating such spiritual concerns into practical (political) decisions: not to venture “precise hypothetical judgments,” as my advisor Nigel Biggar writes, is “to leave the ethical task only half done.”
Morality and Public Judgments
As a matter of public deliberation, the question of whether ‘the cure is worse than the disease’ can only be resolved by those who have been authorized to act on our behalf: our government officials, including and especially our President. The ongoing arguments among commentators are important for weighing up the reasons for action and inaction, and in that way offering some type of consultation to those officials.
Such analysis helps mediate the government’s judgments and its reasons to the people, and thereby equips the citizenry to hold our elected representatives accountable. The unique responsibility for stewarding the common weal our leaders are under is accompanied by the awesome authority to risk lives on its behalf. The most concentrated form of government authority is disclosed in its power over death and life, which it enacts through sending soldiers into battle.
Focusing on the social and political dimensions of what deaths we might or must accept for the sake of the commonwealth helps show, I think, why neither Reno nor Moore’s positions are adequate. Consider Reno’s use of the traditional distinction between ordinary and heroic measures to save a life. The first criterion for decisions to treat or not is what is intended: doctors are absolutely prohibited from intending the death of the patient.
But the next question is whether they are obligated to extend every means to save the life of the patient. Reno is right the traditional answer to that question has been a firm no. Heroic interventions, he contends, must both have a good probability of success and not be unduly burdensome. Reno’s contention is that our current measures fail the second criterion.
Yet what Reno does not make explicit is that he is extrapolating from a principle of medical ethics to a question of social ethics: the question of preventing lives from becoming sick is distinct from our obligations to save them once they fall ill. The criterion of ‘heroic’ measures has typically applied only to the latter, rather than the former. Reno’s later essay seems to recognize this gap, as he takes up the question of what deaths are ‘preventable.’ “As a society,” he writes, “we are acting on the technocratic assumption that a total mobilization of society can significantly reduce the death toll. This frames nearly every death from the coronavirus as ‘preventable’” (italics mine).
The move Reno makes between the first and second sentences is subtle, but significant: there is a world of difference between a mobilization that ‘significantly reduces’ the death toll and that which treats every death as preventable. But the question of ‘heroic’ measures to save a life cannot answer which course we should pursue.
Reno seems to think that because everyone will die of something, there is no need to specify who and how many should die from this virus—and whether their deaths are ‘unnecessary’ or ‘inevitable.’ At the same time, his worry rests upon a practical judgment about the effects of our current regime on the economy, to the point that he treats our willingness to embrace those effects as indicative of our captivity to the spirit of the age. Such a stance is animated by his reading of the ‘rhetoric’ he is hearing.
But it is disingenuous to issue the ‘spiritual’ critique without doing the gritty work of explaining why the costs to our economy are simply too high to pay. Reno needs to render some hypothetical judgments about how many lives might be lost if we return to work—or explain why his own rhetorical excess is permissible, but his critics’ excess is not. In his latest essay, Reno seems to acknowledge as much: “When this crisis passes and we’re not ratcheted up into a state of moral panic (understandable in these circumstances), we’ll need to give some sober thought to what should not be sacrificed to preserve lives.” That’s true: but we also need to give some sober thought to how many lives Reno thinks we should have been willing to see die in order to preserve our current economic order. The only way to such a judgment, though, is through the impossibly opaque waters of empirical considerations, moral analysis, and other relevant factors: or through what has traditionally been called ‘casuistry.’
Such a task cannot be as simple as developing a crass utilitarian calculus that vainly attempts to commensurate the goods of life and economic flourishing, as Littlejohn rightly notes. Yet in conditions of duress, such as when they are at war, public officials must make judgments of proportionality that will sometimes require them to accept extraordinary suffering in their effort to do good.
As Oliver O’Donovan notes, proportionality determines the “shape of a successful act of judgment”: an “act of war is held disproportionate if the damage it does is excessive to the measure of peace it can reasonably hope to achieve.” Notably, the end to which such acts of war must be proportioned is peace, a political end. Though a pandemic is not war, as a matter of political judgment the same principle applies: while our politicians are prohibited from intending any person’s death, they must proportion our response to the end of our community’s true peace. Such a peace demands due reverence not only for the value of human life, but also the preservation of the conditions that allow life to flourish.
To know how to bring ‘social distancing’ to an end, we must be able to have some sense for when the costs of fighting the virus exceed our gains. Such a judgment can only be done if we recognize, with Reno, that the appropriate valuation of human life in our political judgment will sometimes require us to accept, and mourn, its death. While such judgments happen under conditions of extreme uncertainty, our political leaders cannot avoid them—and neither can those who would seek to critique their decisions. Moore’s repudiation of any tradeoffs is too ethereal: it cannot answer the practical questions upon which our leaders will be held to account.
It is at this point that we come up against the limitations of Littlejohn’s magnificent intervention. Littlejohn rightly acknowledges the reality of trade-offs, while still defending the importance of non-negotiable norms. As he says of the latter, a “society cannot function if it treats every possible life as a cipher in a grand trade-off equation.” His example also draws from a military context: a unit is held together by bonds of loyalty and honor, rather than a cold-hearted utilitarian calculus.
All that is undoubtedly true: yet it also leaves out the disparities between what happens within individual units and the commanders who are responsible for ordering them into danger. While the latter doubtlessly feel the same bonds of loyalty and honor, they do sometimes have to make cold-blooded calculations about how many men they can risk to lose in order to obtain an objective, in order to know whether sending them into danger would be proportionate to the end.
Paradoxically, a society cannot function if it puts a dollar sign on human lives: but those who lead it may sometimes be put in extraordinary situations where they might be required to do just that, or something very near it. The qualification is necessary, as the decision to preserve economic opportunities is not fundamentally about ‘dollar signs,’ but is instead about preserving the freedom of citizens to fulfill their divinely-ordained tasks to cultivate the earth and so bless the world through their labors.
There are, then, some important differences between how public officials must reason about the sanctity of human life and its central and unique importance to any just and peaceful political order. Much as we find it distasteful, our elected officials especially cannot avoid having sober conversations about how overburdened our hospital systems might become if they do nothing—and what sorts of starvation they may risk inducing if they shut down everything. (To speak of starvation in this context is not too strong, as many people who already face food insecurity may have already found themselves unemployed, with help still three weeks away.)
Assessing the moral quality of our leaders’ actions is especially challenging in a representative democracy, as the reasons for political acts are not consolidated in the person of a king. Yet such scrutiny is necessary: as our representatives and as stewards of the authority God has entrusted to them, our political leaders must demonstrate a due reverence and regard for the sanctity of every human life, and a special concern for those who are already most vulnerable within our society.
Such reverence will be shown both through the manner of their reasoning and the content of their action. If critics were right to be concerned that the President’s interest in reopening the economy prematurely demonstrated negligence in the face of profound suffering, we must also be relieved by his decision to forestall returning to our ordinary course of life too hastily.
‘Christian Intellectuals’ in a Pandemic
Any moral analysis of our response to this pandemic must acknowledge the distinct responsibilities citizens and leaders bear. Littlejohn does, to be sure: yet he seems to suggest that objections by Reno and others to our course of action are unhelpful: “There may be a time to protest and speak prophetically against tyranny,” he writes, “but this is not that time.” Instead, he contends with the Apostle Paul (which is safe ground, to be sure) that we should now submit to “every ordinance of man whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.” That is doubtlessly true, even if ironic: as Brad notes from the outset, it was the President himself who launched the position that Reno and others decided to defend.
The proportionate judgment that our leaders will eventually have to make will establish the criterion for whether we have successfully navigated the pandemic. Such a judgment depends upon the shape of the peace we are ordering our society toward, a vision about which there is no little dispute and disagreement. Though the discussions that happen across websites, social media, and talk radio have no direct bearing on the actions of our leaders—except for Tucker Carlson, that is—their content will form the standard against which we will hold our leaders accountable.
With due respect to Brad, then, I am sympathetic with the need to issue ‘minority reports’ to the current orthodoxies. Such dissent should not match the charged rhetoric of our leaders, or luxuriate in the delights of prophetic denunciation. Instead, by responsibly holding open the possibility of alternative courses of action, such criticisms can force our leaders to sharpen their reasons for this one, and so in their own way contribute to the formation of a social consensus that our course is right.
At the same time, for such judgments to form the basis of a real sense of accountability, they cannot avoid undertaking casuistry. It is tempting to avoid rendering practical judgments, to be sure: doing so allows us to avoid the concrete possibility of being wrong. When lives are actually at stake, it is doubtlessly safer to err on the side of spiritual analyses while punting the practical questions to others. Yet doing so reduces the church’s moral and political witness to generalities, and leaves those who are responsible for making decisions bereft of counsel about how they should proceed given the vast range of complexities they must address.
As Biggar observes, the extraordinary pressures and limited time of our political leaders means it is “incumbent on those…who have ethical expertise to take moral principles and to show what they might amount to concretely in a range of relevant cases.” Christian moral reasoning requires “careful reflection,” he goes on, “running all the way up and down the chain of moral reasoning between the theologically sublime and the casuistically meticulous, on whether the ethical concepts used are sufficiently shaped at all the appropriate points by relevant moments in the whole theological narrative.”
Our elected officials must in this season understand the judgments of epidemiologists—even while they also take into account economic and social realities. Such judgments not only help us defeat an epidemic, but order us toward establishing a more just society as we do so. If our elected politicians must account for such data, though, surely those whose responsibility it is to determine how Christian moral reasoning informs this moment can do no less.
How we undertake that task is, of course, itself determined by our own assessments of the social and political dynamics at work in this pandemic. I would propose that our arguments should defend the sanctity of human life as a central component of the peace to which our political community ought be ordered. That peace has never been better than imperfectly realized in America: various communities have been subject to violence of various types since our inception. Yet as trust in our political institutions erodes and our animosity toward those across the political aisle increases, the possibility of bringing about a more stable and just peace in the future erodes as well.
As such, I think it imperative for Christians to reason together about our responsibilities within a pandemic in an especially charitable way. We ought recognize the gaps between political rhetoric that is meant to induce widespread changes in behavior (Cuomo’s) or to inspire those who are downtrodden with hope (perhaps our President’s). If we honor the concrete value of each individual human life, we should similarly focus our accounts of the economic devastation we are wreaking on the real lives of those who suffer, rather than indulgently criticizing middle-class consumerism or reducing people’s positions to abstractions like the GDP. We might even momentarily set aside our sweeping narratives about the sources of cultural degradation, and open ourselves to the possibility that there has always been more goodness latent within our society than our love of decay narratives would allow.
This pandemic will test our institutions more than they have been in my lifetime. It demands not only statesmanship from our political leaders, but clear-eyed guidance and counsel from our moral and spiritual leaders. Trust in our religious institutions has been destroyed in recent years, in large part because of our own sins and hypocrisies.
Yet in this pandemic, we have undertaken the extraordinary task of closing our doors so that we would not become sources of our neighbor’s death. Such a witness is a marvel: yet we must not throw the seed away through indulging in either ethereal abstractions or unsympathetic calculations. And if those who are leading our religious institutions will not provide it, one wonders: to where else will the laity go, much less those who govern us?
Excellent. Thank you. I love both the tone and the content of this article. For future reference, though, I think you could say what you said more succinctly and with simpler language. I would love to share this article with many friends and family, but I think it would be inaccessible to many (it was hard in places for me, and I have a PhD).
Yes, a good article badly in need of an editor.
Thanks for the feedback.
Just to be clear, I think this is very well-written. It’s obvious you are very well-spoken with an impressive and flexible vocabulary. And it doesn’t feel “showy” the way some academics and intellectuals’ writing does. I would just love to be able to share your thoughts with others who might struggle with the reading level of your writing.
Oh, I don’t mind the critiques. I’m happy to write for a more narrow audience….but I also think that most people enjoy a reasonable challenge, if the subject is important enough and the work comes recommended from a trusted source.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece. There are two things I have not seen addressed yet by almost anybody in this, that I really wish would get addressed:
1. The shutting down of all non-emergency medical care in many parts of this country. Right now, in my area, you cannot get any health care that isn’t immediately necessary to save your life. There are no well checks or preventative screenings. People with chronic conditions are having in-person visits replaced with telemedicine visits. Chemotherapy and surgeries to remove cancerous tumors that aren’t killing people right now are being postponed for months. To give a sense of just how broadly “non-essential procedures” are being defined, my FIL got a pacemaker right before things started shutting down, and a week later all similar surgeries were cancelled. If he had had his pacemaker surgery–a procedure his doctors believed was necessary to keep him alive beyond the year–scheduled for this week, it would have been cancelled for several months. How many additional deaths will we see in both the short and long term from the near-total suspension of health care services for anything other than COVID-19?
2. The cruel, inhumane way in which COVID-19 patients are suffering and dying. While I absolutely understand that precautions must be taken to protect both health care providers and health care workers, there are always trade-offs, and they must be considered. We have now had many thousands of people around the world die in absolute isolation, with nobody to hold their hand. We have seen many thousands of spouses learn of the deaths of their partners via Facetime calls from children who can’t be there to hug them and mourn with them. Yes, preserving life matters, but when we know that some significant number of people are going to die from this regardless of even the best precautions (because that happens when a novel virus hits a population, especially an aging one), then we do need to think about how those people are dying. It’s hard to imagine a more lonely, isolated death than the deaths people are dying from this disease, or a more lonely, isolated way to mourn. I take comfort that the Lord is with the suffering, dying, and mourning, but it seems unconscionable that we are allowing so many people to die in such a barbaric and inhumane way in the name of a supposed overriding interest in their well-being.
Thanks, Lori. You’re right: both of those subjects do need to be brought to more public attention, as I think they raise very difficult questions about this virus, its effects, and our responsibilities to one another in the midst of it.
Here’s a bit of advice from someone living in a country that has effectively defeated the virus by using the methods Anderson and Moore and Reno and Littlejohn and everyone on the internet won’t stop moralizing, ethicizing, politicizing, and spiritualizing about:
Give the keyboards a rest. Shut up, stay home, and wait. Show some character. All the “public reasoning” about COVID-19 is nothing but whining. Americans are used to doing whatever they want for whatever reason they want (and arguing every point along the way), and now they can’t, so they’re whining about it. Like a middle schooler who hasn’t done their homework, they call homework itself into question rather than admit their own failure to be responsible. Americans have no resources for dealing an extended period of self-denial, so they’ve devoted their collective creative energies to making the only reasonable, effective response to a pandemic a matter of “public reasoning.”
After surviving nine weeks of quarantine and social distancing, I have very little sympathy for America’s collective cultural, moral, and social freakout. If COVID-19 is a test, America has already failed. If America’s civic virtue fails to measure up to China’s (and it has), something has already gone very, very wrong, and COVID-19 is merely the apocalypse that unveiled it.
(And as a more specific response to Matt, stop dignifying the economic hang-wringing about COVID-19 as if it’s somehow equivalent to the health concerns. The economic consequences of COVID-19 are all hypotheticals, and usually hypotheticals with an obvious political agenda. “Christian moral reasoning” is only as valuable as it is well-informed.)
TL;DR: Brad’s essay was better, but everyone taking a break from the keyboard and growing up would be even better.
Using China as an exemplar of civic virtue is interesting. I have little doubt their society exemplifies more civic virtue than ours, at least in certain respects. However, their government has almost certainly lied about the number of cases and deaths in the Wuhan (as they lied about its seriousness when it first emerged), and used effectively totalitarian measures to stop it. South Korea would have been a more persuasive example.
As I have mentioned already at this website, I have four people in my immediate circle who have now lost jobs, have extreme food insecurity, and might lose their housing because of this. Expanding lines for food banks across the country don’t seem to be very “hypothetical.” Neither does 3.3 million unemployment claims in a week. To dismiss such concerns with hand-waving, while accusing me of being not “well-informed,” is….well, almost stereotypical for an internet commenter.
Here in the States, we have had to fight against the idea that the “health concerns” are overwrought and overblown, as the issue has been thoroughly partisanized. But I don’t see any reason why skepticism about the economic effects of this is warranted if we take the health concerns seriously. But hey, what do I know, right?
I do hope you enjoyed your own splenetic whirl at the keyboard, though. You probably should have taken your own advice.
The people chaffing against the radical quarantine measures (and mustering economic arguments to rationalize their chaffing) don’t share your genuine concern for the poor and vulnerable. They care about their personal liberty and the health of the market. That the free market sometimes benefits the poor is a convenient side-effect; the real goal is keeping the stock market healthy and their lives free of imposition or social responsibility. To claim otherwise is to dignify economic hand-wringing.
If you want to throw your intellectual cred behind pretending that they care, go ahead. There’s nothing to be gained (and plenty to lose) through that kind of “public reasoning,” but if that’s what it takes for the commentariate to feel relevant, it is what it is.
I used China as an example because that’s where I live. We’ve had no new cases in my city for at least four weeks. People are starting to take off their masks, restuarants are reopening, and there’s a massive construction site right outside my window making way too much noise all day (and night). Of the three-dozen or so businesses within walking distance of my apartment, only one or two were closed permanently because of the lockdown.
But that’s probably all just totalitarian propaganda, right?
Do you still have income coming in? I don’t mean that in a snarky way, but as a genuine question. Because, I can see how it would be easy to write of concern for “the economy” as only something people worried about their stock portfolios would do if you still have income. I’m very fortunate: both my husband and I have jobs that can be done at home. (I was already working part-time from home before this, and he can telecommute whenever he wants anyway). We have not seen any change to our income, and likely won’t unless this drags on for a very, very long time. But I know we are fortunate. Among people I know under 30, I’m not exaggerating when I say that the only ones I know who still have income coming in are health care workers and teachers. Everybody else has been fired or furloughed. In the U.S., more than half of households have less than $400 in savings at any given time. If you have $400 in savings (and for many Americans, that’s doing pretty good) and have been laid off or furloughed, what then? Stimulus checks may be mailed out within the next three weeks. How are you getting food until then? How are you keeping the lights on in your house? These are real questions. They are why concern for “the economy” are concerns about people’s lives.
This is an important question you are asking, Lori. When I read a comment from someone unwilling to even consider that the shutdown was the wrong move, I immediately want to know how it has affected their household, their mental health, their “non-essential” needs, etc. I also find it odd (as MLA justly points out in this piece) that economic questions always get presented as matters of the GDP, stocks, bonds, and other concerns of the well-to-do. People with hedge funds and steady incomes and the ability to work from comfortable homes (“upper-crust” generally) are not the ones who need the economy to re-open. I, for one, take Reno at his word–and this is a “word” that he has been speaking for many years now: the elites do fine when things fall apart, but the policies that those same elites call for and the lifestyles they insist upon for themselves do real injury to the lower classes.
I’ve not claimed anything about the motivations of the people who are raising concerns about the economy. All I have claimed is that their concerns about the economy are legitimate. Our current response is having a devastating impact across a huge swath of the American public, and to stick our heads in the sand and deny it (as you did) or dismiss it because plutocrats only care about their bank accounts are both irresponsible.
I don’t have to pretend they care, and never have so pretended, to think in this case their concerns are legitimate.
I have no doubt that huge swaths of China are reopening. Had you bothered to read my comment with a half-measure of charity, you might have seen that my point was about how China got to this point…though I don’t think anyone really believes that Wuhan had only 3200 deaths.
But I’m happy to defer to your happy experience of China (the Uighurs may protest, but who cares about them!). Perhaps, then, you should also defer to the actual experience of suffering Americans instead of derisively dismissing concerns about them in the midst of this problem?
Thank you for this, Matthew. I recently discovered Mere Orthodoxy through a friend and have found your commentary particularly illuminating. You have done well in acknowledging the good intentions of those on each side while exposing their superficialities. I have been unable to resist sharing your articles.
Enjoyed the article. The economic effects take longer to be felt, because they slowly ripple out. While one could make GNP an idol, it does matter to our well-being. The government can give out as much money as it wants, but if it chasing fewer goods and services, then it’ll lead to inflation. Extra money doesn’t create more goods and services by itself. If well run business fold then we loss employees and its output, as well as its intangible assets. We may not care too much about the rich losing money, but it will hit a lot of people hard. Concern about the economy is not trivial, even as we are now dealing with the suffering from the Coronavirus.
I think we have to appreciate both cocerns and support our leaders to mitigate the threat on both fronts. Taking prudent safety measures and keeping essential work open can help. For those of us fortune to be having income or savings, we should help those hurt during the crisis.
[…] onto. To help us get started with this, I’d recommend reading Brad Littlejohn’s and Matthew Lee Anderson’s pieces at MereOrthodoxy. What I say below overlaps considerably with their […]
A new paper by the Federal Reserve argues that the purported opposition between saving lives and saving the economy is baseless, which if true makes Reno’s dichotomy utterly false. Here’s the abstract:
“What are the economic consequences of an influenza pandemic? And given the pandemic, what are the economic costs and benefits of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI)? Using geographic variation in mortality during the 1918 Flu Pandemic in the U.S., we find that more exposed areas experience a sharp and persistent decline in economic activity. The estimates imply that the pandemic reduced manufacturing output by 18%. The downturn is driven by both supply and demand-side channels. Further, building on findings from the epidemiology literature establishing that NPIs decrease influenza mortality, we use variation in the timing and intensity of NPIs across U.S. cities to study their economic effects. We find that cities that intervened earlier and more aggressively do not perform worse and, if anything, grow faster after the pandemic is over. Our findings thus indicate that NPIs not only lower mortality; they also mitigate the adverse economic consequences of a pandemic.”
And here’s the link: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3561560
While I agree that saving lives and saving the economy is a false dichotomy, I don’t think it’s true you can gureentee both won’t effect each other. We cannot be sure any forecast is right. Also, both the economic system and the monetary system are different. We are much more reliant on interconnections throughout the world. Also we don’t know if the Coronavirus will follow the same pattern as the Spanish Flu did. If we have two or three waves with low activity between, it won’t be so bad. However, if the activity is persistent until we develop a vaccine, the global economic problems will be worse.
That said, we can still take a lot of safety measures that can keep essential economic activity going, that can keep infection within manageable levels.
[…] Lee Anderson discusses trade-offs, a reality in a world with limited resources, in an article he wrote for Mere Orthodoxy. He writes, “If we honor the concrete value of each individual human life, we should similarly […]
[…] Lee Anderson, founder and lead writer at Mere Orthodoxy, proposes one of the more careful ethical treatments of the situation to date, responding to the recent articles written by Littlejohn, Reno, and Moore. There is a need for […]