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April 20, 2020

By Gary A. Puckrein, PhD

Human Sustainability VII:The Coronavirus Crisis and Our Social Contract

20 April 2020

By Gary A. Puckrein, PhD

The current coronavirus pandemic has created an inflection point. America has always struggled to balance its first principle—preservation of life—against the demands of economic interests. As I noted previously, Thomas Jefferson, in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence, wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive right inherent & inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, & liberty, & the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In the final draft of the declaration, “the preservation of life” was shortened to “life,” but the founding principle that Jefferson articulated survived in that one word: Government is organized to preserve life, and each individual’s right to life is equal, inherent, and inalienable. Under our social contract, each individual consents to participate in a government founded on the principle of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In its time this was a truly revolutionary social contract, and it brought forth a new social order.

Yet at the moment of its birth, the new nation faced a decision that required an application of its first principle, and its founders compromised. The issue was slavery. The lives of black slaves powered an agrarian economy that could not exist if it were dependent on free labor. The Founding Fathers subordinated the lives of blacks to their business interests, incorporating racism, violence, and discord into their new social order. After almost 250 years, we still have not succeeded in undoing the damage of that decision.

The present moment is different in many ways, but if you listen carefully to the arguments over how the nation should proceed today, you will hear echoes from 1776. The virus has created a toxic environment that poses a risk to human life. From the local to the national level, governments have adopted various strategies to mitigate damage from the pandemic. Most have now recognized that until other safety measures are in place, their constituents should shelter at home if they can. With most Americans homebound, mitigation has suspended much economic activity, triggering depression-level unemployment and shuttering many businesses.

As intended, social distancing appears to have slowed the pandemic, but some people and governments are already advocating restarting the economy, suggesting that the economic dislocation associated with mitigation is worse than tens of thousands of deaths, which would be an acceptable price for preserving our way of life. They advocate elevating the risk of death for many in our society in order to protect established business interests, acknowledging that the ultimate sacrifice will fall disproportionately on seniors, essential workers, the poor, people living with compromised health, and those with poor access to health care.

In times of war, when an external force seeks to subjugate us, our society accepts that resistance will cost lives. We also accept that lawbreakers must be apprehended at the risk of loss of life. Now our federal, state, and local governments are pondering “opening up,” presenting us with a choice of endangering our children, family, and neighbors by returning to work soon rather than staying home until adequate safety measures are in place. In this public-health crisis, we should not set a precedent of breaking with the first principle of our social contract to protect the business interests of a few by elevating the risk of death for many.

Our economy must be organized to conserve high-quality, long lives, not to preserve a particular set of businesses. Businesses come and go as consumer demand dictates. Our economic life must align with and support the social contract, sustaining life from one generation to the next with the capacity and redundancy to lower the probability of death while promoting well-being. If support for the social contract means quickly mass-producing personal protection equipment or ventilators, then that is government’s business. The Founding Fathers envisioned a government that would do all it can to preserve life, even in difficult times. To that end, it must anticipate and manage the environment, the economy, the politics, and whatever else is necessary. Government cannot say that it is not responsible, that it did not know, or that it was somehow misled, and we must not be deceived into believing that the responsibility lies elsewhere. Each administration is responsible for our protection, and it must do its job, whatever the circumstances.

Those who ask us to accept mass deaths as the only way to protect business interests have abandoned thought and hope prematurely. My hope is that they reconsider and join with the voices who are demanding that government meet the current crisis by developing and executing a plan that serves and protects the whole nation, defending the population against the pandemic and addressing other environmental threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while fostering a vibrant business community.

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