In December 1862, the Union army was defeated at the Battle of Fredericksburg and lost almost 13,000 men killed, wounded, or captured. President Abraham Lincoln grieved the death of his troops but understood that because the Union had more men than the Confederacy, it could lose battles all the way to final victory. Lincoln, trading lives for a public purpose, called this his “awful arithmetic.”
Few people, in normal times, have to do awful arithmetic. Until this week, I would have assumed that no one would want to do it. But now, faced with the COVID-19 pandemic in which the United States must seemingly make the frightful choice between saving lives and saving the economy, we inexplicably have a legion of volunteer mathematicians lining up to show off how well they can make the terrible calculations to decide who lives and who dies.
Yes, there will come a time when the governing authorities and their actuaries and mathematician experts will have to start making the hard choices about when to ease back to normalcy, understanding that means greater risk and perhaps more preventable deaths.
This is not yet that time.
“False God of ‘Saving Lives’”
Let me give a few examples to prove that I am not making this up:
R.R. Reno in First Things condemns “the false god of ‘saving lives,’” and called the government’s measures to stem the pandemic an “ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death.” We should not live under a constant fear of death, Reno believes, nor orient public policy toward the avoidance of death as the highest good. We can trade lives for higher things, like “justice, beauty, and honor,” presumably so long as we define those things the way Reno prefers.
Heather MacDonald in the New Criterion argues that the virus seems most lethal for the elderly (which seems less and less certain the more data comes in) and “those victims were already nearing the end of their lifespans. They might have soon died from another illness.” That is a morally repugnant argument to make because it implicitly values someone’s life based on either their economic productivity or on the presumed (yet actually unknowable) number of years they have yet to live. MacDonald complains that “we have already destroyed $5 trillion in stock market wealth over the last few weeks in the growing coronavirus panic.”
Other examples abound. David Katz in the New York Times asks, more reasonably, “when does the society-wide disruption end?” He worries that the “near total meltdown of normal life—schools and businesses closed, gatherings banned—will be long lasting and calamitous, possibly graver than the direct toll of the virus itself.” Joy Pullman in The Federalist asks, “Is it right for the nation to require our children’s futures be destroyed to keep alive less than 1 percent of our population until the next flu season?” And President Donald Trump himself proclaims, via Twitter, “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF.”
When Forced to do Awful Arithmetic
There is a germ of truth in these arguments. It is true—uncomfortably true—that we corporately make calculations about the relative value of human lives against other goods. We accept higher levels of risk for the freedom to drive cars that kill tens of thousands of people annually. We could save lives by banning cars—but we don’t. We could save lives by banning soda, cigarettes, food with trans-fat, football, most outdoor recreation, and Twitter. We don’t do those things because we also value freedom, recreation, indulgent food, drug highs, and self-righteous snark. We do not—and should not—make physical safety and longevity the sole good of public policy or personal choice.
There is an enormously important “but” coming. Several of them, in fact.
But there is a difference between accepting higher risk in exchange for freedom, on the one hand, and willfully allowing a large number of preventable deaths in exchange for normalcy and convenience, on the other. Especially when the first exchange distributes risk and freedom equally for everyone, while the second exchange concentrates death among a specific subset of the population (the elderly) for the comfort and convenience of the rest.
We can choose to live freer, riskier lives for ourselves. We cannot choose that others live shorter lives for our benefit. It takes a special kind of moral and spiritual blindness to fail to see the difference.
Here is the second “but”: Lincoln’s awful arithmetic of trading lives for a public purpose is something he did because he had no choice. Lincoln would have chosen to save lives and save the Union if he could. Decades of prior history and years of warfare proved he could not. He was forced to the arithmetic; he did not volunteer for it.
We have not been fighting this pandemic for decades, not for years, not even for months. As I write this, it has been all of ten days since the president declared a national emergency and the nation started making a serious effort at social distancing. Ten days is all it took for Reno, MacDonald, and others to decide it wasn’t worth it.
Yes, we may be forced to this arithmetic at some point—but for heaven’s sake, maybe stick it out a little longer? It is unseemly to be raising the point now. It is dishonorable. It is cowardly. One does not exactly come across as reluctant and sorrowful when one rushes to print within ten days about why we should go ahead and let all the old people die so we can get back to work already.
To put it another way, we are at the very early part of the exponential curve of infections and deaths. We do not know how high the line will spike before it levels off, but we do have a good idea of how bad it could get (short version: 4-5 million dead). When is the right time to have the debate about lives versus normalcy?
Not now. Now is when we do everything in our power to prevent the exponential spike or, barring that, blunt it and bend it as soon as possible. Once we see evidence the curve is bending, then we can have a rational debate about when and how quickly to return to normalcy.
Let me put the point in economic terms, for those who prefer: The marginal cost of not acting now approaches infinity while the marginal gain of continuing to act after we bend the curve approaches zero. One additional unit of effort today will have a dramatic effect, but that same additional unit of effort after the curve is bent maybe saves a dozen lives.
Hypothetically, let’s say an extra week of social distancing in April can save an additional million lives, while an additional week of social distancing in September, after we bend the curve, only saves a five more. In that scenario, when do we argue about going back to normal?
Not in April.
I am not denying the need to have this conversation, eventually. Nor am I making a simple utilitarian argument (lots of lives outweighs lots of money). I am making a moral one about proper timing. You rush into the burning building to save as many as you can; you don’t stand around talking about repairing and rebuilding until the flames are out. When acting as soon as possible has a dramatic impact and delay has dramatically bad consequences, to choose not to act would be a grave sin of omission.
Governance and Injustice
It strikes me that those who minimize the likelihood of preventable death are treating the pandemic as just another “natural” problem to be managed, like natural disasters or old age. I think that fundamentally, dramatically misunderstands what is going on.
A pandemic is not a natural disaster. A global pandemic does not happen every time a novel infectious pathogen emerges. It happens when governments fail to regulate public sanitation to prevent the transmission of pathogens and fail to control movement once it spreads. When authorities regulate public health, share information about a pathogen, and cooperate to control its movement, diseases are contained and pandemics are unlikely. That is why a pandemic is a governance problem as much as a medical problem.
If we deliberately choose not to govern well, thereby allowing mass preventable death, it is a betrayal of our fellow citizens, a dereliction of duty, and a denial of what government is for. Such a choice frays the bonds that keep societies and nations together. We can still just barely understand the moral appeal of saying “we’re all in this together, we need to make sacrifices for the common good.”
But if we choose not to make that sacrifice, we are saying there is no “we.” We are saying, in effect, “we’re not all in this together. This is your problem, and you solve it by dying quickly so I can get back to work.”
Deliberately choosing not to govern well means we are choosing to govern badly. There’s a word for that: injustice. There is no price tag on that.