Other Lives Matter

Charles Pierce of Esquire starts with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964:

The great modern conservative project, launched by the Goldwater campaign . . . and perverting itself and the Republic by tiny degrees ever since, has finally reached its inevitable end-point in the kind of president* that project had, by those same tiny degrees, made inevitable. This is the moment transcendent, this is the moment revealed. The great modern conservative project turned itself, by those same tiny degrees, into an authoritarian opposition to a democratic republic and all its institutions. Steadily, it abandoned decency, civility, science, reason, and simple humanity. And here we are . . .

A crippled nation, literally a sick nation, watching a feckless (or worse) administration* taking actions that actively make the public health situation worse, watching Pinochet tactics in the streets, and promising to bring those tactics to a number of American cities in advance of a national election, with all that implies and entails. And doing so by relying on policies drafted and implemented by a previous Republican administration [George W. Bush’s] back in the days when this president* merely was a guy presiding over a televised freak show, and not creating one out of the country he was elected to lead. It took long, hard, relentless work by hundreds of conservative politicians, judges, journalists, consultants, billionaires, think-tanks, and foundations to bring the country to this miserable pass.

Akim Reinhardt, writing for Three Quarks Daily, starts with Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980:

Reagan’s advanced age and patriotic message rang true with older voters, while his bold (and ultimately false) promise of a quick yet fiscally responsible cure to stagflation attracted worried and struggling Americans. His electoral hammering of incumbent Jimmy Carter signaled the return of ideals that had not held sway since the 1920s: an unregulated free market economy, and the exaltation of individualism . . .

The Reagan Revolution resuscitated pre-Depression American conservativism . . .  . Under Reagan’s leadership it emerged as a right wing coalition of low tax free marketeers; small government individualists; white racists . . . resentful about civil rights; Cold War hawks; and fundamentalist Christian evangelicals.

The Reagan Revolution deeply affected American politics, economics, and culture. Americans are still living in the world it remade. Newly committed to free market economics, fetishizing individualism while demonizing government, and slowly absorbing the disaffected whites in the aftermath of civil rights, the Republican Party immediately began winnowing its moderate wing and completely eliminating its liberal wing, eventually transforming itself from a center-right party to an increasingly far-right party. . . .

American society has always celebrated individualism, arguably more so than any other nation. But that vaunted individualism was usually tempered by grand historical epochs that limited untrammeled self-interest through means both good and bad.

That is no longer the case.

Victorian culture’s dubious emphasis on personal restraint has long since withered. The generation of adults who survived the Great Depression and WWII are almost entirely gone. The Cold War ended nearly 30 years ago, its coercive demands for unity and conformity now a distant memory. Today’s senior political leadership is drawn from a cohort that, even as far back as the 1970s, was derided as the Me Generation.

Healthy democratic institutions and shared governance need citizens and politicians to maintain at least a modest concern for and deference to the greater good. Unfettered self-interest has the potential to spawn no-holds-barred competitions that supplant the public interest with a single-minded focus on acquiring power and wealth. And the delicate balance between collective and personal self-interests, with its sloshing equilibrium, had tilted to one end long before Dxxxx Txxxx took power.

Now the Vice Lord rages from his gilded bully pulpit as his crooked, broken regime reaches a lurid nadir of unfettered self-interest. He and his have willfully ignored, discredited, attacked, and destroyed longstanding norms of common interest. Through blase cronyism and nepotism, naked corruption, and the profound incompetence that inevitably accompanies such crimes, they have widened the cracks in an imperfect and vulnerable political cultural that was already struggling to bind us together.

Dxxxx Txxxx is not a shocking aberration. Rather, he is the banal culmination of four decades of runaway self-interest. . . . Forty years in the making, his corrupt presidency symbolizes the heights of unchecked self-interest and shamelessness, made acute by his own mental deficiencies and psychiatric disorders. Txxxx needed a perfect storm to get elected, and then unleashed a storm of runaway self-interest on the White House. He is the extreme, and hopefully also a turning point. The final, loudest wailing of American immaturity and selfishness.

Paul Krugman of The New York Times starts with last week:

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida said something remarkably stupid the other day. . . .

Florida has, of course, become a Covid-19 epicenter, with soaring case totals and a daily death toll now consistently exceeding that of the whole European Union, which has 20 times its population. But DeSantis won’t contemplate any rollback of the state’s obviously premature reopening; he even refuses to close venues that are perfect coronavirus incubators.

In particular, he insists on letting gyms — closed spaces full of people huffing and puffing — stay open. Why? Because “if you are in good shape you have a very low likelihood of ending up in a significant condition.”

Actually, this isn’t true. . . . But [that] is beside the point. The reason we need to close gyms isn’t to protect the people working out, it’s to protect the other people they might infect. Even gym rats have families, friends, and co-workers . . .

Prof. Krugman could have cited a remarkably stupid statement from another Republican governor, Mike Parson of Missouri:

“These kids have got to get back to school,” Parson said in an interview Friday. . . .“They’re at the lowest risk possible. And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they’re not going to the hospitals. They’re not going to have to sit in doctor’s offices. They’re going to go home and they’re going to get over it.” 

Will their teachers, parents, grandparents, babysitters too?

Back to Krugman:

Five months and almost 140,000 deaths into this pandemic, many Republicans still can’t or won’t grasp the point that choices have consequences beyond those to the individual who makes them [or for whom we make them, like children].

Many things should be left up to the individual. I may not share your taste in music or want to do the same things you do with consenting adults, but such matters aren’t legitimately my business.

Other things, however, aren’t just about you. The question of whether or not to dump raw sewage into a public lake isn’t something that should be left up to individual choice. And going to a gym or refusing to wear a mask during a pandemic is exactly like dumping sewage into a lake: it’s behavior that may be convenient for the people who engage in it, but it puts others at risk.

Again, this should be obvious. It’s common sense; it is also, as it happens, basic economics. Econ 101 has lots of good things to say about free markets (probably too many good things, but that’s a discussion for another time), but no rational discussion of economics says that free markets, left to themselves, can solve the problem of “externalities” — costs that individuals or businesses impose on others who have no say in the matter. Pollution is the classic example of an externality that requires government intervention, but spreading a dangerous virus poses exactly the same issues.

Yet many conservatives seem unable or unwilling to grasp this simple point. And they seem equally unwilling to grasp a related point — that there are some things that must be supplied through public policy rather than individual initiative. And the most important of these “public goods” is probably scientific knowledge.

Some readers may be aware that Senator Rand Paul — who proclaims himself a libertarian — has been doing a lot of sniping at Dr. Anthony Fauci….. What struck me, however, was the way Paul justified his attacks on epidemiologists’ recommendations: by invoking the free-market doctrines of Friedrich Hayek. “Hayek had it right: Only decentralized power and decision-making, based on millions of individualized situations, can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”

Whatever you think of Hayek. . . ., this is bizarre. Decentralized decision-making can do lots of things, but establishing scientific truth isn’t one of those things. And even conservatives used to understand both that expertise matters and that promoting scientific research is a legitimate and necessary role of government.

But conservatives, and Republicans, have changed. The modern American right is all about denying that people have any responsibility for each other, and muzzling experts who try to tell people in power things they don’t want to hear.

And the fact that selfishness and willful ignorance are now guiding principles for much of our political establishment is a large part of the reason America is failing the Covid-19 test so spectacularly.