New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo earned high marks early in the pandemic for declaring that he would not put a value on human life, and that he would spare no cost to save every life. Of course, he didn’t really mean it. He couldn’t mean it. Life is risk, and, sad but true, we all die. Good governors manage risk.
But as the pandemic’s weeks turn into months, and social distancing merges into a period casual reacquaintance, the politics of the pandemic begin to come into focus. Maybe Gov. Cuomo meant it after all.
The pandemic has become, suddenly, a call for a general strike. Look the work of former Harvard law professor John Rawls to understand it all.
Rawls is best known for “A Theory of Justice,” published in 1971. He addressed the issue of distributive justice -- the just, or fair, way to distribute goods, services and opportunities -- by reworking social contract theory.
Social contract theory flourished in the 17th century as a way of explaining the origin of political power. Strangers agreed, they consented, to place power in the hands of others to set rules governing the behavior of all. This power was limited, of course, The social contracts we entered were intended to preserve our lives and liberties. Government by consent carries with it the implicit promise of revolution – break the contract, and the people can revolt.
Of course, there never really was a state of nature folks left by means of these contracts to form civil society and then governments. We’re social creatures, to be sure; our origins are opaque.
Rawls reworked social contract theory in terms of game theory. He did so to provide us a sense of justice as fairness. Here’s how it works.
Take all the information you have about how the world around you works. Some folks are hedge fund owners, others are bakers; some live in mansions, others live in condominiums; there are rich folk, poor folk; fleet of foot, and slow; geniuses and dullards. How should the good things in life – life’s chances -- be distributed among these folks?
Now here’s the hard part: Knowing what you know about the world, imagine that you were unsure just what position you would occupy. In other words, you might be the genius, hedgie; you might also be the homeless waif. From this fictive “original position,” the game theorist’s equivalent of the state of nature, it is possible that you will occupy a position of privilege; you might not.
What sort of society would you design? How would you distribute what I’ll call life chances?
Rawls gambled that people in the original position making choices behind what he called the “veil of ignorance” would seek to maximize the life chances of the worst positions. In other words, they’d engage in maximin choices regarding distributive justice. It’s in their self-interest to assure that those at the bottom of the heap have tolerable lives.
So what’s this have to do with our current crisis?
Here’s the consensus on the risks of reopening society going forward. The young and healthy have a low risk of mortality. Odds are, they can resume some semblance of normal life; the economy can reopen. The elderly and those with serious medical conditions should remain sheltered. And we’ve learned that the well-to-do suffered less than the poor during the worst of the pandemic.
Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida gets this. He’s reopened the state’s beaches and trusts Florida residents to make the right call based on their assessment of their risk.
But he’s all but been called a war criminal because so long as anyone breaks quarantine there is a risk that someone else will fall ill and potentially die. It’s as though we should shut the economy down until the least among us is as safe as the most privileged.
It’s a classic Rawlsian sort of maximin argument.
So we approach the pandemic as an excuse for a general strike. Crash the economy until those not at risk and those at risk suffer equally. The food supply chains dissolve? Tough; we can all starve – it’s only fair so long as some suffer great risk of death than others. The pandemic becomes a great equalitarian coup.
I’m old. I am sheltered in place. I am not sure how long I will remain at home. Should the economy be shut down until it is safe for me to leave my home?
On the other hand, should the economy be shuttered indefinitely until all are equally safe? Obviously, not. Even Rawls knew there are winners and losers in life’s great game.
How to draw the line? That will become the defining issue in the 2020 election once the Democrat Party puts Joe Biden out to pasture.
I’m not sure where all this is heading. But I never expected to see a public-health crisis transformed into the political equivalent of a call for a general strike. And to think, John Rawls may have had a hand in it.