The American Right to Work Under COVID-19

By Joaquin Trujillo, PhD

Poor Americans Hit Hardest by Job Losses Amid Covid-19 Lockdowns, Fed Says  - The New York Times

“Man produces himself through labor.” Marx’s seminal insight speaks to the psychological effects of the American response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The psychological health of the human person, regardless of his gender, race, ethnicity, class, or status, is coupled to work. Persons create and recreate themselves through work. Persons who choose not to work alienate themselves from the fullness of human living. Persons who are proscribed from working are disenfranchised from their immanent right to live and be.

The therapeutic effects of work have been largely ignored by the political-economics of COVID-19. The omission is remarkable given the appeals to “science” commonly voiced by US political representatives and public health officials. NIAID Director Fauci’s sermons to the American public exemplify this deficiency. His exclusive COVID-19 focus on support for shutdowns and mass sequestrations disregards the total health of the individual. There is little science in the straight up death counts that have shaped the public discourse about the pandemic. The numbers are easily misinterpreted when separated from their greater context, remarkably susceptible to sensationalistic readings, and liable to political machination.

The hard empirical problem of COVID-19, aside from the development of a vaccine, and the one endemically ignored by proponents of economic shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, and self-quarantines, is the question of the impact of mass sequestrations on the psychological health of individuals. Discussions of the “emotional distress” that the New England Journal of Medicine reports is “ubiquitous” in populations affected by disaster, “certain to be echoed in populations affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and likely include “psychopathology” such as “depressive and anxiety disorders” have been largely absent from discussions of public health. How often are we presented with data on the increase in suicides attributable to COVID-19 economic closures?

Concern about the effects of economic shutdowns on the psychology of business owners also has been absent from the public discourse about COVID-19. The failure is striking in light of the importance of economy to public health. Persons who raise the issue are often deemed uncaring, cruel, or abhorrent. They are depicted as moralistic monstrosities insensitive to the tragedies suffered by victims of the pandemic. Forced business closures produce their own crises, however, and the psychopathology they induce should not be discounted. The Brookings Institution reports the “psychological costs” associated with “involuntary” business exits resulting from shutdowns are higher than those associated with losing a “regular job.” Not only does it typically result in larger financial losses, it also poses greater risks to self-identity, emotional stability, and psychological health.

The relation of property to American identity amplifies the psychological effects of US economic shutdowns. The self-evident truths Jefferson underscored in the Declaration of Independence, the notion “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” are a more palatable iteration of the natural rights to life, liberty, and property illuminated by Locke. These rights intrinsically belong to each other. The right to property, as discerned by Locke and implied by Jefferson, extends beyond the prerogative of ownership, however. It is also unrelated to utopian dreams where “everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted.” It means, among other things, the intrinsic right to keep the bread earned from one’s sweat and the intrinsic right to sweat! Lincoln leans heavily on this understanding of the right to property in his Second Inaugural Address: “It may be strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.”

Scientism, the appeal to method as the standard of truth, and not science, the rigorous investigation of phenomena, appears to be the God of supporters of economic shutdowns. Although advocates of the formulae are quick to cite CDC statistics, they overwhelmingly disregard the impact of the policies on American psychology. They often also supplant the empirical meaning of the numbers with political motivations, individual prejudices, and authoritarian impulses. The constitutional rights Pittsburg Federal Judge Stickman IV cites in his ruling against the business closures, restrictions on outdoor gatherings, and stay-at-home rules ordered by Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Wolf to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are grounded in the individual prerogatives illuminated by the Declaration of Independence. These “liberties,” Judge Stickman writes, “are not fair-weather freedoms.” They are not “in place when times are good but able to be cast aside in times of trouble.” They signify “the commitment to individual liberty that stands at the foundation of the American experiment,” and can never be allowed to be superseded by a “solution to a national crisis.” Judge Stickman’s ruling denotes a basic truth about American constitutional rights. Their power to guarantee our freedoms ensues from their capacity to protect us against ourselves.

New Jersey Governor Phillip Murphy evidenced the indifference of business closures to American liberties when he defended his lockdown by claiming the “Bill of Rights” was “above his pay grade.” The antipathy of this calculation to the American Creed is overlooked at the risk of undermining basic American freedoms. US governors, indeed, all American political representatives, are elected to govern constitutionally. They are not elected to govern arbitrarily. Neither their personal beliefs nor their affection for power supplant the immanent authority of the US Constitution.

The rationale cited by proponents of economic shutdowns begs scrutiny. New York Governor Cuomo, whose policies to confront the pandemic have been associated with geronticide, says he wants to save lives. So do most of us. There is no human experience more private or more profound than the experience of death, and we are all equal in it. As soon as a person is born he is old enough to die. But death is also about the living. It provokes an appreciation of life and the realization of concrete values. COVID-19 is tragic, but it is not the final plague. It does not mandate ensconcing in homes and shuttering of windows and doors until the virus passes over us. It obliges a courageous and balanced confrontation with the pandemic that does not renounce the principles that define us as a nation and empower us as a people.

One’s commitment to the values one professes is evidenced by the moral regularity of one’s deeds. One must be first in line to live them if one is to convince others to follow suit. The fiercest proponents of economic shutdowns have not shown this consistency. California Governor Newsom (D) takes an annual salary of $201,680, a figure that does not include the value of the governor’s residence, transportation and miscellaneous allowances. He is the highest paid governor in the country and has implemented some of the harshest business closures in the US. He did not submit his pay to the mandatory ten percent salary cuts imposed on state employees to offset budget shortfalls until after the media published the alleged “oversight.” Governor Cuomo (D) is the second highest paid governor in the US, and he continues to draw his $200,000 annual salary despite the draconian measures he has imposed on businesses. It is estimated that as many of one-third of small businesses in New York City will permanently close as a result of the pandemic. Pennsylvania Governor Wolf (D) is the third highest paid governor in the US. He pays himself $194,850 per year. Thousands of businesses in his state have closed because of economic shutdowns. New Jersey Governor Murphy (D) is the tenth highest paid governor in the US and continues to draw his $175,000 annual salary despite not ruling out another lockdown. Michigan Governor Whitmer (D), whose orders to combat the pandemic were deemed unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court, boasted she would take a ten percent reduction in her $159,300 annual salary while the businesses in her state reeled under her drastic shutdown measures.

These persons have not demonstrated a willingness to undergo the suffering they have required their constituents endure. They have failed to show solidarity with the persons whom they have ordered to sacrifice their livelihoods so others may live. They prosper from the sweat of others while denying them the right to earn bread.

Joaquin Trujillo, PhD is CXO of Authenticity LLC.