When it comes down to a choice between saving lives and saving the economy, the answer is obvious: save lives, of course. The economy exists to serve life, not vice versa. This is why capitalism, which relativizes all value, including the value of human labor and human life, is anti-life. It is also why the use of violence in the pursuit of a just economic system is unacceptable.
This is why there has been such an outcry over the past few days, as right wing leaders both secular and religious have expressed their willingness to let people die rather than let the economy sink any lower. Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, provoked moral dismay when he stated that seniors should be willing to die in order to prevent a recession. And Catholic R.R. Reno wrote a First Things piece, which has since been thoroughly and justly excoriated, arguing that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was displaying a “disastrous sentimentalism” in his determination to protect human life at all costs. And yes, these are our civic and religious leaders who claim to be pro-life.
But, as others have pointed out, a crashing economy can also lead to deaths – possibly a great many deaths, especially of the poor. So don’t these leaders have a point? As Trump says, we need to make sure the cure isn’t worse than the disease – right?
This might be the case if we had an economy that was structured actually to serve life.
If our economy were monitored and checked and balanced based on the principle that every human being has basic rights that must be met, that the common good means the flourishing of every person, that it is objectively gravely immoral to hoard wealth while people starve, that the means of production rightly belong in the hands of those who do the producing rather than the hoarders of capital, that there is such a thing as a preferential option for the poor, and that the ultimate destination of goods is universal – if we had an economy that was subservient to principles of ethics and justice, then indeed it might be disastrous to let the economy collapse.
But we do not have such an economic system. The system we have exists to serve the desires of the richest of the rich, to preserve and protect corporations, not to care for people. Yes, if it crashes, there will be ripple effects, and the poor will be harmed. But keep this in mind: preserving this particular economic system does not necessarily mean helping the poor at all. The economy could be saved, for the super rich – and the poor, and even the working class, still suffer. And possibly die. The argument that we must prevent economic collapse to save the poor and the working class from further suffering only makes sense if we insist on a relief package specifically focused on protecting the poor and the working classes. But we have seen clearly that our right wing leaders care not an iota about our well-being.
To sacrifice the most vulnerable among us in order to preserve the economy would be problematic even if it were intended to prop up a just and fair economic system. To demand that we sacrifice our elderly, disabled, and poor in order to keep the capital in the hands of the super-rich is beyond immoral; it is – to borrow a favorite word from the religious right – demonic.
What people like Dan Patrick and R.R. Reno are proposing is literally human sacrifice. That might sound shocking, but consider for a moment that their approach is not really novel. We have always been willing to sacrifice human life for the sake of wealth. Look at the slave trade. Look at what we did to the native peoples. Look at the many laborers who died in accidents or of disease and neglect, in the service of industry.
As a civilized society, we like to pretend to oppose human sacrifice – we think of it as an act of savagery committed by cultures less refined than ours. We like to imagine that Christianity, especially white Christianity, put an end to that kind of thing. But really, we just disguised it, justified it with the “enlightened” rhetoric of the market, of progress. Just because it isn’t happening in a “primitive” setting, long ago, with priests or priestesses and altars to mythic gods – or in some “tribal” scenario with painted priests and drum-beats, conjured up in a racist and colonialist imagination – that doesn’t mean it isn’t human sacrifice. And it isn’t even human sacrifice to serve the common good, or the desperate, or the endangered. It’s intended to serve those who already have far more than they can possibly need.
Harsh times bring out the best and the worst in humanity, and right now we are seeing this in action. Courageous and tireless health care professionals labor long, painful hours trying to save lives. Underpaid and underappreciated retail workers stock shelves and keep the foodways open. Laborers risk their health to keep our infrastructures and utilities available. We hear stories of heroic generosity, such as that of the priest in Italy who gave up his ventilator so that another sufferer could live.
And then we see the worst of humanity: the racism of those who are scapegoating Asian Americans, the greed of the hoarders, the selfish indifference of those who refuse to quarantine. I expect that we will see more and more of these two extremes as the next weeks and months unfold. And I hope we will remember which of our political and religious leaders decided we the people are expendable, just to shore up the stock market for the corporations and the billionaires. Remember, and act accordingly.
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