Economic, political and moral decision-making all fail us in the pandemic

Economic, political and moral decision-making all fail us in the pandemic
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For all the complexities of the coronavirus’s behavior, our current problem comes down to a very simple problem in rationing. We want to engage in more activities that tend to spread the virus than are possible without causing the disease to spread out of control. Managing this sort of mismatch between demand and available supply is something that advanced societies do all the time. Both economics and politics exist to resolve precisely this kind of scarcity problem.

Our failure to recognize and respond to this rationing challenge has added immeasurably both to human suffering and to stunting our economy. It also is exposing the hypocrisy of our responses to other social problems.

The pandemic attaches a cost to every in-person social interaction. None are completely safe, although degrees of danger differ. Some, like food distribution, bring such enormous benefits that society must accept the attendant risk.


Among other activities, however, we must make trade-offs. We can walk or run outside, with or without masks. We can have parties, small or large. We can have restaurant dining, outside or inside. We can have public events, with or without masks and social distancing. We can have various team sports, without or with live audiences. We can return to in-person classes for elementary school, for secondary school, or for higher education.

Each of these events will increase the virus’s spread and prolong the pandemic, and the effects compound. If we add too many disease-spreading activities, as many states have, the number of people infected will rise exponentially, with hospitalizations and deaths to follow. So how can we choose which risky activities to continue?

One approach, which would fit will with the “free market” philosophy that dominates our public discourse, would be an auction. We could require permits for all risky activities — ranging from relatively cheap permits for small parties with masks to much pricier ones for large unmasked gatherings — and let people bid for them. We could set the overall amount of risk that would be permitted at a level low enough to bring the pandemic under control. The proceeds could go to care for the sick, bereavement benefits for the families of those the virus kills, and support for those left with long-lasting disabilities.

Yet virtually nobody has proposed this. The president and his supporters deny that the pandemic requires any real choices at all — a deeply anti-economic viewpoint — and too few of the conservative economists usually demanding austerity and market-based policies have had the courage to challenge them.

Progressives, in turn, likely imagine the rich would snap up all the permits, holding large unmasked balls in the Hamptons, while low-income people could barely afford to walk their dogs. We could ameliorate this concern by giving everyone a basic allocation to spend on permits for activities they hold dearest. In our deeply unequal society, however, with tens of millions at risk of eviction or food insecurity, a side market would quickly develop to allow the desperate to trade their permits for the basic essentials of life.


Countries less devoted to denouncing “big government” have treated this rationing challenge as one for expert state management. Leaders limit society’s aggregate level of risk by prohibiting activities producing the least social benefit relative to the risk they entail and curbing others. This approach has allowed every other advanced country not just to flatten the curve but to crush it. In most, life has returned to near-normal.

These countries’ decisive action exhibits a virtue we once claimed as our own: frugality. The greater restrictions these countries accepted for a few months quickly achieved startling rates of return in terms of both economic activity and personal freedom. We, however, have behaved like spendthrift heirs, crowding onto beaches, jamming bars, and parading around without masks while we ignore the inevitable reckoning.

The third way to ration risky activity is through personal responsibility, another common theme in our political rhetoric. Everyone restricts their risky activities not to avoid infection themselves but because they fear sickening anyone else. We have seen a great deal of this, too, elsewhere in the developed world.

Here, however, we treat behavior that endangers others as somehow virtuous, defying not just the government but any expectations of personal decency. Many young healthy people care little about a disease preying especially on the old and the sick. Many white people have been indifferent to a disease disproportionately afflicting people of color. And many affluent people have no problem increasing risks for low-income people stuck in high-risk “essential” jobs.

Our rejection of these three very different means of addressing viral contagion — market mechanisms, democratic choice, or personal responsibility — augurs badly for our ability to address other serious problems. Climate change, for example, results from our engaging in more carbon-emitting activities than the planet’s survival will allow. It could be addressed by market mechanisms, such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade, by government establishing stricter emissions standards and leading a conversion to renewal energy sources, or by individuals’ conscientious action to reduce their carbon footprints. So far, we have done very little of any of these.

Similarly, we could address low-paid workers’ vulnerability — which the pandemic has laid bare — through market means (reducing legal obstacles to unionization), through government health, safety, and wage standards, or through individuals refusing to buy from companies unless they sign onto strict codes of conduct. We certainly are wealthy enough that we do not need to treat workers this way.

Our failure to make the hard choices necessary to contain the pandemic shows that our neglect of these and other problems is not for want of viable economic, political, or social action solutions. It is simply that too many of us just do not much care enough about our fellow humans to inconvenience ourselves.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1