In the midst of all this, where can we turn for a rational basis to hope?
Believe it or not, the dismal science, economics, might have something to offer.
If you had to reduce economics to a phrase, but were not allowed to use “there is no free lunch,” it would probably be “incentives influence behavior.” People generally do what is in their self-interest.
This oft-confirmed finding is a source of economists’ killjoy reputation. They specialize in showing how markets or public policies create unintended consequences by failing to account for incentives.
However, the influence of incentives on behavior works the other way, too: When group members share a common interest — when incentives “align” — obstacles to cooperation, even seemingly intractable ones, fade. The more vital the interest, and the less it can be obtained through individual effort, the greater the incentive to cooperate.
Even as conflicts over civil rights raged back home, white and black soldiers laid down their lives for each other on the front lines of the Vietnam War, for example.
The good news, at least potentially, and at least for now, is that the novel coronavirus pandemic may create a similar dynamic. “We are all in this together” is no mere feel-good slogan, but an accurate statement of reality, consistent with social science theory.
Everyone in the United States has the same overriding incentive: protect their own lives, and those of their loved ones. People don’t have metaphorical skin in the game, they are literally trying to save their own skins.
And, for the most part, you can’t buy your way to safety. Your best bet is the same as the next person’s, rich or poor: Obey hygiene rules and social distancing to reduce the community spread of the virus, which, in turn, minimizes your chances of getting infected and maximizes the chances that hospitals won’t be overrun if, God forbid, you need one.
Our job is to produce a public good — the “flattened curve” of epidemic spread, made famous by Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — and there is no alternative.
Looking at the pandemic through the lens of economics also helps keep the role of politics in perspective. We would be a lot better off if the titular head of our society, President Trump, were capable of inspirational leadership. If he were, the intangible ideals he aroused could augment tangible self-interest.
However, the power of the latter, we may learn, is enough to compensate. Meanwhile, we can and do find inspiration elsewhere, from Fauci, from governors and mayors, from neighbors.
More damaging than Trump’s failure to inspire — from an incentives-influence-behavior point of view — is his failure to speak accurately and truthfully about what is going on, or even, at times, the details of his own policies. Homo economicus can function without lofty motivation; imperfect information, though, is his kryptonite.
Nevertheless, Republicans and Democrats seem to be coming together on Capitol Hill, and with Trump, to pass laws that should help alleviate the crisis, at least initially.
This conduct at a time of extreme partisan polarization in an election year shows that they, too, are rational maximizers — of votes — and calculate a high price to pay for failing to cooperate while their constituents are doing so.
Of course, there will be free-riders: those who take advantage of the crisis for profit or other selfish gain. The longer the coronavirus crisis goes on, in fact, the more antisocial behavior could develop, as people come to regard the emergency as a new normal from which they can or must deviate because threats to their survival even greater than the virus have arisen.
If economic privation deepens beyond a certain — still unknowable — point, so will the risks of cheating, hoarding, looting or worse. Even during World War II, home-front discipline began breaking down in 1943, which saw a wave of strikes and race riots.
If, however, the war against the virus proves reasonably finite in duration, and if the public and private sectors step up with sufficient financial support, cooperation may prove surprisingly durable — and coercion surprisingly unnecessary.
A profiteer in Tennessee who hoarded hand sanitizer and other scarce cleaning items just agreed to give it all away, after a public outcry — but before a prosecution threat materialized. He had every incentive to do so.