All over the world governments are calling for national lockdowns, travel bans and other stringent measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. In South Africa most of the population seems to be pro most of the government’s decisions so far. For a country like South Africa, with limited medical resources and a high risk population, a lockdown seemed inevitable and necessary.
There are tons of think pieces on the political implications and plenty on how this will affect the economy. Some pieces are positive, some are negative. Ultimately, we do know that life will never be same again.
What has been clear from this crisis is that the free market system does not seem to provide for a crisis scenario. Let me explain.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, capitalism is described as such:
“an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
And according to investopedia the free market is defined as such:
“The free market is an economic system based on supply and demand with little or no government control. It is a summary description of all voluntary exchanges that take place in a given economic environment. Free markets are characterized by a spontaneous and decentralized order of arrangements through which individuals make economic decisions. Based on its political and legal rules, a country’s free market economy may range between very large or entirely black market.”
The main principle behind captalism is that of a free market. Now within the current crisis, do you think the free market provides for such a time?
What happens to the free market when markets drop? We’ve seen what happens over the last few weeks. Retrenchments and pay cuts.
Could you enforce a national shutdown to protect the survival of your population in a pure free market system? Technically, no.
Under the free market system could the consumer be protected from inflated hand sanitiser and soap prices? Again, technically, no.
While there are benefits to the free market system, when you are hit with a global crisis. It does not provide well.
If you even mildly agree with a national lockdown during this crisis, then you do not whole sale agree with capitalism.
I want to take a moment here to quickly admit that writing this blog post might feel a bit cheap. Maybe I am turning tragedy into a political agenda. To be honest, I am writing this blog post as a coping mechanism. It is helpful for me to contemplate the future during this period. Doing so helps me remember there will be a future after all of this.
After saying that, I want to do something fun and look at a political philosopher’s theory and with the knowledge of the current crisis discuss whether he was right or not. At this moment, it looks like he might just have been right.
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes wrote a book commonly referred to as Leviathan. The book was written during the English Civil War, which was between Parliamentarians and Royalists on the governance of England. Those names are as they imply. Essentially, it was a war over whether England should be ruled by royals or by parliament.
My memory is a bit rusty, but here was Hobbes’ argument. He started with the state of nature. It is a thought experiment. In the experiment you imagine the world before societies developed. There are people living but no society, no political system, just individuals trying to stay alive. Hobbes believed under these circumstances that the world would be “the war of all against all”. He believed that the only way to avoid this was by having a strong and undivided government.
He argues that as human beings we need to live under a social contract and be ruled by an absolute sovereign. What is a social contract?
A modern example to explain a social contract would be this. We agree that it is best to stay home to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. To go outside unless we absolutely need to would be to break that social contract. This example may prove Hobbes to be correct.
Hobbes believed that peace and social unity between people were best achieved through a social contract under the rule of a sovereign. The sovereign power according to Hobbes is in charge of protecting their commonwealth (or country). That is his argument in a short nutshell.
Back to the social contract. Most of us agree that when someone goes outside without a legitimate reason they are breaking the social contract of agreeing to stay inside, right? What should be done when someone breaks the social contract? Most of us would argue there should be consequences for that action. That is where the sovereign power comes in. They should be there to enforce that agreement.
A real life example of a sovereign power would probably be China. While an example of a state that does not have a sovereign power would be America. The reason that America is not a sovereign power is because of their multi-state political system, meaning that different people are make making different decisions for different parts of the same country. On top of that those decisions are supposedly semi-democratic.
Why use those two examples you say? Well, go and look at the stats of China vs America in handling of Covid-19. As it stands America has 142,737 confirmed cases with 2,489 confirmed deaths and only 4,562 recoveries. China on the other hand had 81,470 confirmed cases, 3,304 confirmed deaths and 75,700 confirmed recoveries.
Naturally, there is the fact that China may have skewed the stats — a conspiracy theorist may argue so. However, if the stats are completely true. In times of crisis what government has so far been more effective? I think we could confidently say China.
There are of course other factors such as health and age of patients contracting Covid-19. We do all know Americans to be, well…unhealthy. However, let’s just take the numbers as we have them. They do suggest that a sovereign power is more effective in times of crisis.
Who has been more effective in protecting their people like Hobbes argues a sovereign power should be? The answer to that question is China.
Do you see why he just might be right?
When I was studying Hobbes, I utterly disagreed with his theory. I thought he was an absolute fool. Now, I see that he had some good points. I still disagree with him for the most part but appreciate his argument far more.
Looking at China and the US. We see that capitalism and democracy in times of crisis have massive pitfalls. I am not anti-capitalism or anti-democracy, in fact I’m pro-democracy and partial to some aspects of capitalism. Even though I am more of a socialist. That being said, with what has happened to the world, it is clear the world will never be the same again.
I wrote this article because I think we really need to look into our current systems and critique them. Ask ourselves, is this really the best way of living? We can do that on a macro-level like looking at systems of government and economies. We can also do that on a micro-level, wondering if the way we were living was actually the best way we could have been. What should we change and what should we keep?
I think we need to take a moment to really reflect and know that we need to change. From there to be willing to change, without committing to our ideologies purely because they are our ideologies. As we are seeing in America the results of that can be deadly.