President Donald Trump is getting a lot of grief for a point he made during a virtual town hall on Fox News. In answering a question about his contention that the shut downs should come to an end soon, Trump returned to a now-familiar analogy:
“We lose thousands and thousands of people every year to the flu. We don’t turn the country off… We lose much more than that to automobile accidents. We didn’t call up the automobile companies and say, ‘Stop making cars. We don’t want anymore cars.’ We have to get back to work.”
This is being roundly derided with screaming headlines and outraged tweets. An editorial in the Washington Post takes Trump to task for the “bad” analogy, arguing that car accidents and the coronavirus are not the same because diseases are transmissible and their death rate can grow exponentially. This seems to be the standard response. We cannot make these kinds of comparisons, we are told, because two very different things cannot be compared in this way.
I’m tempted to simply respond that comparisons are in fact only valid when they are made between two different things. Comparing the coronavirus to the coronavirus would be rather redundant. Nothing that is not the coronavirus is exactly like the coronavirus, but we can still pull from our experiences dealing with other deadly problems in order to inform our efforts in dealing with this one.
But more importantly, the response from the Washington Post and others misses the basic point that the analogy is meant to make. Trump was not suggesting that we handle the coronavirus like we handle car accidents, or that the two things are similar in any practical sort of way. Rather, this is a point about the fundamental ethical dilemma.
About 35,000 people die in car accidents every year in this country. Many more are maimed and crippled. That works out to about 100 dead per day, half of them under the age of 50. Globally, the yearly death toll is more than a million. An immense amount of pain, misery, destruction, and death is absolutely guaranteed every year that we allow cars to remain on the roads. We all know this. Yet almost no one ever suggests that all cars be banned. Indeed, rarely is it even argued that the speed limits be dramatically reduced. Even something like raising the driving age to 30 — a move that would save thousands of young lives — is not seriously suggested or considered.
Why? Well, though nobody would ever put it like this, it’s because we’ve decided that 35,000 dead people is a cost worth paying in order to keep our cars. All of that death, all of that pain, all of those countless lives destroyed — it is all worth it, we say, so that we can get from Point A to Point B quickly. Again, nobody would ever phrase it quite like this, and we don’t like to think about it in these terms, but this is the calculation. Anyone who disagrees — I mean really disagrees — would call for the prohibition of all motor vehicles. But the “ban all cars” movement garners preciously little support.
You might argue that cars save more lives than they take. After all, how would a person in a medical emergency get to the hospital quickly without an ambulance? But it is at a minimum debatable whether ambulances save more people than car accidents kill. And besides an easy solution is available: ban all cars except emergency vehicles. This would save even more lives because ambulances and fire trucks and police cars wouldn’t have to navigate congested highways and cluttered streets. Yet, again, nobody argues for this. We have decided that the infringement on our lifestyles and our liberties that a motor vehicle ban would entail is not worth the lives it would save.
Look all across society and we find these sorts of calculations. In our homes, too. Just a few days ago I had to run outside and rescue my son who had been out there for only three minutes or so but had managed in that time to get himself stuck 2o feet up a tree, perched on a precariously thin branch. Had I not gotten there in time, or had his sister not had the good sense to come get me, he may have fallen, broken his neck, and died. Does this mean that I will never let my son play outside in our yard unattended again? No. It would certainly make him safer if I kept him locked inside, under our watchful eyes at all times, but we as parents have decided that the risk — not substantial, but also not entirely unsubstantial — is a price worth paying in order to give him a little freedom and a chance to have some fun and be a normal child. When you put it like that — I am willing to risk my child’s life so they can have fun — it sounds insane. But is that not in fact the bargain you are making any time you open your front door and let your child play outside?
Now, God forbid, if my son did tumble off that branch, I’m sure I’d wish that I’d kept him chained to me at all hours. And if a family member ever dies in a car accident, I would wish that all cars had vanished from Earth before that point. And if my parents died of the coronavirus, I would probably wish that the entire economy had been burned to the ground and millions had been made destitute to save them. But, in my grief and longing, would I be looking at these issues more rationally and ethically or less? Should I approach life at all times with the mentality of a grief-stricken man desperate to preserve his loved one’s lives at literally any cost whatsoever? Or should I allow for certain risks — even risks I know I would regret if tragedy were to strike?
The coronavirus itself is not like car accidents or a boy stuck in a tree. But the ethical question is essentially the same. Our cars and the positive impact they have on our lives, we say (even if we don’t say it), are worth the 10 million people who will die in them or because of them across the globe over the next decade. Our children’s fun and freedom is worth the risk to their physical health that must inevitably accompany it. The balance could tip the other way. Obviously there are many fun things my kids would like to do that have far too much risk attached. And maybe if enough people died in cars — maybe if, say, 5 million were perishing on our highways every year — we really would consider banning them. There is a line somewhere. I just don’t know where, exactly. And neither do you. But apparently it’s comfortably above the 35,000 dead body threshold.
So, then, what about the coronavirus? If our cars are worth 35,000 dead, what is our economy and way of life worth? If the benefit of having heavy chunks of metal flying around at terrifying speeds outweighs the substantial downside, how do we weigh our whole economy against the risk of an out-of-control viral outbreak? If I said right now that I think 35,000 dead people from the coronavirus is a price worth paying to save our economy — yes it may well kill more than that, or less, but that’s not the point — many would call me a monster. Yet you have already signed onto that price just for the mini van in your driveway. Could the mini van be worth more by itself than the mini van combined with your house, your job, your food, your retirement savings, and everything else that would be put on the line during an economic crash? Clearly not.
We, in fact, it turns out, should not destroy the economy and embrace destitution to save “just one life,” as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) would have it. We won’t even commit to riding a bike to work for that. Would its destruction be worth it to save 50,000 lives? 100,000? A million? I don’t know the answer. But this is the question we are all asking, and the conversation we must have, as unsavory as it seems. And it should be noted, as President Trump already did, that the people appalled by the conversation are participating in it whether they like it or not. Every time they drive to the grocery store they take part in the dialogue. They just don’t give their answers out loud.