Public Health: Hyper-Capitalism vs the Common Good

Current Affairs

Julian Long, who always gives us a gift when he blogs, reflecting on his father’s military service and the present pandemic, writes (in a lovely longer essay):

out the backroom window | commonplaces, travel, advocacy, occasional photos, at home in St. Louis . . .:

[T]his memorial day I am thinking again about my father and about this very fine polemic by Marilynne Robinson in the June 11 issue of The New York Review of Books. I cannot know what my father would have made of our present crisis in America, but I like to think he would have recalled his own years in the United States Public Health Service in some meaningful way, for public health as an idea, as a dream, points steadfastly at the same truths Robinson asserts in this essay. Our notion that a system of authentic human flourishing could be based on a competition for wealth could never have been sustained. Such a competition inevitably leads to the vast inequalities we now see as the system collapses around us leaving some of us well off and others destitute, or near destitute. It is at this juncture, when deaths by virus and deaths by despair may be seen to converge. For public health cannot be sustained by a winner-take-all casino economy such as ours. A public subjected to the tyranny of the marketplace is by definition unhealthy. Any public will be sustained in health either by a generalized good will or not at all. And that good will in turn must be sustained by an economy that puts no one in want. Our problem as Americans is that we have subscribed to a zero sum economic ideology that requires poverty in order to generate wealth. We are presently living with a public health system that is characterized by manufactured scarcity, and in that environment “for [many] ordinary people there is no success, no benefit” no means to a healthy life to be had from the common cost benefit analyses to which we are traditionally accustomed. This present might lead us to a common perception of human fragility not unlike my own. Robinson hopes it will, to a revaluation of human nature that might enable us to see again both how fragile we are and how wonderful. As the psalmist knew, we are both ‘fearfully and wonderfully made.’ But there is a sequel to this essay, that I’ll not write today. It might begin (or may) with Robinson’s perception that given our present chaos, and “allowing for regional variations, to the degree that democratic habits persist, the country will get by.”

Julian is right. This pandemic is highlighting the consequences of the choices we have made in the age of the hyper-capitalism of the sort Ayn Rand imagined in her fevered dreams. What we have is not sustainable, it is not just and it will not endure.

This Memorial Day, when we remember those who gave their lives in service of an idea, who sacrificed for the Common Good rather than personal, maybe we can take a moment to imagine what it would like to get off the road we have been traveling. The sooner we do, the sooner we can move onward to the perfection of the dream and ideals we have held imperfectly for so long.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...