A Collective Sneeze Shakes Up Our Philosophy

I was listening to a recording of Ezra Klein’s podcast a few weeks ago, where his interviewee Barbara Ehrenreich contended the shortcomings of the theory of individualism. We’d always relied on communal effort to survive, but in modern times we’ve bet instead on egocentricity, and she wondered if it’s working for us. 

I thought about the COVID-19 and the discussions it will spawn while on its tour de monde. Is the utopian fallacy that we are “independent” being challenged by the glaring proof that one’s misfortune has a domino effect on the rest? 

Are we recalling the wisdom of our ancestors, that we depend on society’s well-being as a whole for our own means of survival? Medicare for all? Paid sick leave?

Last night, in an unprecedented bipartisanship, the coronavirus bill was signed into law. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act provides free testing for COVID-19 and guarantees paid sick leave to those affected (among other provisions). I didn’t think we’d pass paid leave under a conservative administration, but urgency called for us to combat disaster together.

We may be practicing social distancing, but with 330 million people we need big government to counter this pandemic — and not just to bail out corporations. For all the conservative naysayers who deemed egalitarianism a fantasy, they are begrudgingly discovering that libertarianism is not a realistic path towards human survival. Regardez our system is collapsing around us, and we are scrambling to pass socialized programs other countries have had in place for decades. This is the way forward, but I admit I didn’t always know it myself. 

I was a registered Libertarian voter once in my college years having fallen into the cultish hole of objectivism intrinsic in the books of Ayn Rand. I related with the introverted protagonists of her books that manifested the resolute, heroic spirit in contrast to the silly masses she depicted as ignorant and entitled. There was a latent romanticism in their rebellious antisocial stance that I still sympathize with as an antisocial, socially-involved citizen. But Rand was an émigré from the Soviet Union who denounced government programs like Social Security as an infringement on rights, a hotbed for tyranny. To her the government served only for policing — not for leveling opportunity by curtailing the wealth inequality that causes a rise in crime, not for fixing the for-profit healthcare system that allows for millions of Americans to die.

Atlas Shrugged exalted the individual’s independence without assuming he was interconnected with the rest.

“Egoism is freedom”

“Government needs to keep its hands off the market”

“Greed is good, don’t feel guilty”

This pseudo meritocracy leaves power in the hands of a few and erodes democracy. It also relays a false sense of egoism. Were it not for my natural instinct to empathize, I wouldn’t have reasoned the obvious: We are innately social beings, and it is in our own self interest to care for our neighbor’s welfare.

It is human nature to care. Collectivity should not be elevated to a point of self-sacrifice when it has been our means for survival for all of human history. 

We are interdependent

The logic behind paid leave, reforming our justice system, negotiating prices with pharmaceuticals (and everything else we debated before our minds focused on finding toilet paper) is the idea that balancing the system from the far-right tilt will result in an overall improvement of our lives. i.e. It is not solely the felon who will benefit from criminal justice reform, we too will reap the rewards of a reduction in recidivism and be able to thrive in safer neighborhoods.

We are only as strong as our weakest member

In the U.S. there are 27 million Americans without health insurance. 25% of Americans have delayed treatment of a serious condition due to the financial burden of seeking care. This was of little consequence to some voters before. Now engulfed in the coronavirus crisis, does socializing healthcare sound so ridiculous if our own well-being depends on our neighbor’s financial ability to receive care?

33 million of Americans don’t have paid sick leave. Is it ridiculous to pass paid leave so that a sick restaurant employee can stay home from work instead of handling our food?

It was never ridiculous, but the status quo is too stiff to upend; it requires an apocalypse. Someone got sick in Wuhan, and it has reverberated around the globe. There is no denying how much globalisation has connected us even further. This virus might be our wakeup call. 

Holed up in our homes we might be forced to introspection. Maybe we cultivate our long forgotten passions and switch careers. Maybe we agree working remotely is smarter and we can spend more time with our loved ones. Maybe we will start to shop local, grow our own food. Maybe we warm up to a better healthcare system. We’ll have time to reflect on what our needs are as a human race, and I hope we find it. For now, virtual hugs are in order — America, you passed paid leave! Sort of. For now.

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