By David Galston, Westar Executive Director| 4.01.2020
Collective Concern and Cooperative Engagement in the Age of COVID-19
The political and social trend in North America over the last decade or more has been toward libertarianism. I’m sure that’s not news to anybody. Libertarianism emphasizes minimal government presence in the free market and minimal government assistance of citizens. According to this line of thinking, all of us are individuals who should make it on our own. Libertarian ideals are usually experienced by citizens as less public funding for social services, health care, and education, the rationale being that businesses will grow and will employ more people if tax rates and government interference are as low as possible.
It is probably not a surprise, either, that libertarianism has its limits, even among libertarians. At a certain point, less government means higher crime, lower levels of education, and shorter life spans. This is not universally the case because in some societies large governments are also rampantly corrupt governments. In these cases, high crime rates reflect a corrupt government.
A Balancing Act
In countries where libertarian values are balanced with social values, and where democratic institutions are strong, statistics consistently show that crime rates drop and life expectancy rises. The Scandinavian countries are almost always the sine quo non example of this fact. In North America, Canada comes out better than the United States in terms of levels of education and life expectancy. Canada is a lot like the United States except that Canadian governments invest more money in education and health care.
My point is twofold. One is that the libertarian principle of less government is sometimes important. When it comes to open markets, business, and trade, governments should not be an inhibition to individual effort and creativity. However, when it comes to benefits that make the social experience better for everyone, individual greed cannot override the common good. We are all in this together, and for some things, like education and health, the common good benefits each individual.
Climate Change, Migration and the Common Good
Before the COVID-19 crisis emerged, to me the imperative of the common good fell on climate change and migration. The world had a common need to face these two issues. If the planet becomes uninhabitable, then what difference does economic performance make? And if human beings cannot hold common compassion for the homeless, then what value is there to society?
Only a few short months ago many people who share a similar sentiment were at pains to point out that both the Bible and our Western social history support the principles of a common concern for the environment and a compassionate concern for the desperate.
According to the 2016 report of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, Canada leads the world in the percentage of citizens with a tertiary education or higher. In 2018, the United Nations Development Program ranked Canada 14th with an average life expectancy of 82.3 years; the United States was ranked 37th with an average life expectancy of 78.9 years.
Since the COVID-19 crisis emerged, the picture has changed. There is no vaccine for the virus at this time; everyone is susceptible to it, and it can affect us in different ways. Some people may not even know they are carriers, while for others it is life threatening.
The consequence is that we all know, instinctively, that a collective response is needed. To get through this crisis, every country in the world needs to act responsibly to inform and direct its citizens. Every nation needs to avoid being overwhelmed by this virus because one nation out of control can affect every other nation. This is no time for libertarianism.
Will We Change?
I’m not sure if there can be good news following a pandemic. Many people are and will be affected, and many have and will have their lives cut short. I worry about my friends and family members, and I worry particularly about elderly people who are close to me.
I wonder, though, whether, after the pandemic passes, life will just return to how it was or whether internationally we might have learned something. I wonder whether we might learn that while libertarian attitudes can be good, collectivity is still necessary. I wonder whether we can return to the question of climate change knowing that indeed collective concern and cooperative engagement do work to solve problems. I wonder whether we might look at the world differently and understand that people fleeing violence and seeking asylum are not criminals or social deviants of some kind but human beings, just like us, afraid of what has happened to them and of what they might be facing.
It is extremely sad if only a crisis like COVID-19 can inspire future cooperation internationally and a new understanding of the value of the common good. However, it will be extremely tragic if a crisis like COVID-19 eventually makes no difference at all.
David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University. He is the author of God's Human Future (Polebridge, 2016), Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press, 2012), and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press, 2011). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.
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