The economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis will be felt for some time, even after the current lockdown is over. In response to the threat posed by the rapid spread of the virus, governments, churches, and businesses have been enforcing severe social distancing measures by suspending regular operations and limiting public gatherings. This is devastating to a service-based economy that depends on a healthy level of discretionary spending. Financial markets have responded accordingly, with many commentators already making comparisons to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Depression. In this crisis, a renewed sense of shared suffering is essential to recovering the deeper truth about our economy: it is utterly dependent on responsible and loving individuals.
To share another’s suffering is a deeply Christian concept, as Jesus himself bore for us the punishment of our sins. We too are called to bear our cross and share in the suffering of others. Pope Benedict XVI writes in Spe Salvi,
The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. (38)
A person who sees things as they truly are and sympathizes with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness. He or she is consoled, not by the world but by Jesus. Such persons are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. (76)
When this crisis passes, we will likely hear many stories about acts of generosity, both large and small, that helped sustain people and families through unemployment, illness, and isolation. We will be able to point to these generous people and say that they truly shared in the suffering of others. Sadly, we have also heard of hoarders and price gougers, selfish acts that deny others the resources they need.
As we already know, an economic system, even the most heavily-regulated one, cannot possibly control all the ways people interact with one another during the exchange of goods and services. In the absence of external pressure, we must be internally driven to act not only in our own interest, but in the interest of others–and ultimately in the interest of the common good. Along these lines, in Laudato Si’, Francis quotes Benedict, saying, “Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act” (LS 26, Caritas in Veritate 66). In simple terms, our economy absolutely depends on a fundamental orientation toward the “other.” As Cardinal Ladaria of the CDF wrote,
It must be noted that the systems that give life to the markets… are in fact founded on relationships that involve the freedom of individual human beings. It is evident therefore that the economy, like every other sphere of human action, “needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred” (Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones 8).
There are benefits and drawbacks of a free market system. Within a free system, price discovery happens more quickly and resources naturally flow where they are most needed. As businesses try to compete for profit, they naturally drive down costs, make products cheaper, and raise the standard of living. Entrepreneurs can be justly compensated for the risks they have undertaken while laborers can find dignified work that is the best use of their time and resources.
By definition, however, a free market system also allows for bad actors. It typically does not punish greed or selfishness in all its forms. Bad actors can treat workers poorly, pollute the environment, and engage in unethical–but legal–business practices. Over time, these evils undermine trust in markets and in other people, potentially upsetting the entire foundation of the markets. This is, in part, why the Church over the last century has extolled both the virtues of free markets and the kind of regulations and oversight that are required to temper humanity’s worst impulses.
Still, there is no perfect system; we cannot simply legislate or regulate away man’s capacity for sin. Pope Benedict XVI summarizes this in Caritas in Veritate when he writes, “Integral human development presupposes the responsible freedom of the individual and of peoples: no structure can guarantee this development over and above human responsibility” (CV 17).
The need for personal responsibility toward the other is apparent when ostensibly healthy, robust free markets cannot immediately alleviate human suffering. For example, when a forest fire depletes the supply of timber to build new low-income housing, it becomes more difficult for the young and poor to afford new homes. Or perhaps a new international trade agreement drastically alters the makeup of labor demand in a country, causing many people to lose their jobs and workers to be retrained. Although mismatches in goods, services, labor, or capital can occur at any time, this does not mean that markets have failed. In general and over time, things will work themselves out. But in the real world, people may have to endure the negative effects of these regular economic cycles indefinitely. Sadly, people often get left behind or tossed aside in the interests of the economy as a whole.
We must realize that even in healthy markets that typically work well, the ebb and flow of the market will still cause people to suffer. Governments can provide “safety nets” or programs to help people cope, but in moments of crisis–when markets themselves are breaking down–even strong safety nets will be stressed and will likely be insufficient. Our call to exercise responsible economic freedom quite often requires us to break out of the narrow constraints of a strict capitalist paradigm and provide aid to our neighbor in need. Ladaria writes,
In reality, it is evident that in the transmission of goods among persons there is always something more than mere material goods at play, given the fact that the material goods are often vehicles of immaterial goods whose concrete presence or absence decisively determines the quality of these very economic relationships (for example, trust, equity, and cooperation). It is at this level that one can well understand that the logic of giving with nothing in return is not an alternative to, but rather is inseparable from and complementary to the exchange of equivalent goods (OP 9).
There are three areas, due to the present crisis, where the need for personal responsibility is readily apparent: healthcare, hoarding, and price gouging.
In American society, healthcare is treated primarily as a good or service, subject to many of the same free market principles that undergird our economy at large. If one wishes to be treated for a disease or condition, one will need to pay for the treatment. Health insurance offers a way to spread the risk of having to pay for treatment that goes beyond one’s ability to pay.
Still, for a variety of reasons beyond my ability to understand or explain, the cost of healthcare remains a significant burden for many families. Treatment for coronavirus is no exception. In general, a risk shared by the general population should be a cost shared by the general population. Despite this, and despite the obvious public health benefit of ensuring that the sick are isolated and cared for, the burden of paying for that healthcare is largely put on each individual patient. This means that it is less likely everyone will get the treatment they need, and therefore it is more likely that the virus will be spread to others. We cannot, of course, share the physical suffering of others, but by sharing the economic burden, we can mitigate the burden on our healthcare systems more effectively.
Hoarding is another problem that stretches the limits of free markets. On one level, hoarding necessities is an entirely rational response of consumers acting with imperfect information about the resiliency of supply chains and the future course of events. If we don’t know that something will be available when we need it, we will strive to get as much of it as we can now. This makes sense, but it is also entirely self-serving. Inevitably, those who have immediate needs for certain products will not have access to them, while others have more than they could possibly need.
Only a “people-centered” ethic reveals the immorality of such hoarding behavior, and (broadly speaking) many places of business unilaterally implement “purchase limits” to prevent it. A “people-centered ethic” teaches us to recognize that the suffering during a time of crisis is to be shared and distributed, not shuffled off on those most in need. Our faith reveals that it is better that we all suffer than for a few to escape suffering through unjust means.
Price-gouging is the flip-side of hoarding. Defenders of the free market system will point out that drastically raising prices in a time of crisis is a necessary signal. They argue that the simple mechanics of supply and demand dictate that when demand rises, so does the price, incentivizing producers to make more. Some might also argue that price-gouging in a disaster zone compensates those who take the risk to bring products into the disaster zone. In other words, defenders of free markets argue that price-gouging is an entirely rational economic response that serves the interests of all.
But of course, the products often subject to price-gouging are also necessities: water, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, food. The people most willing to pay for these goods are those with the greatest need, but only those with the ability to pay can do so. This results in an unjust distribution to the wealthy. Ladaria writes, “No profit is in fact legitimate when it falls short of the objective of the integral promotion of the human person, the universal destination of goods, and the preferential option for the poor” (OP 10).
One solution to this problem may be for wealthy individuals to buy these products, and then distribute them as fairly as they can. A more practicable solution may be the implementation of systems that seek to share the burdens on society as a whole, working to ensure that those who need supplies have access to them at affordable prices. It is certainly true that our society’s generosity is often exhibited through the work of volunteer response teams, which have been vital in places struck by disasters. However, this cannot happen everywhere all the time. A people-centered ethic requires thinking outside the narrow constraints of the capitalist paradigm to find other, creative ways to ensure that all have affordable access to the things they need.
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis wrote about our environmental crises with words equally applicable to the present moment. He wrote, “Our goal is… to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (LS 19).
“Hard cases make bad law” is a legal maxim, suggesting that policies that address the worst of circumstances are impracticable during long stretches of normalcy. To be clear, I am not arguing in this piece that we should upset the entire system to solve this crisis today. Free market systems, with sensible regulations and when filled by responsible citizens, are generally good and serve the development of people.
But when even a healthy economy cannot immediately solve the immense suffering of individuals, it is imperative to find new, creative ways to share the suffering of others. Sharing another’s suffering, however, is incompatible with a strictly capitalist approach that diminishes people to mere objects within the free market paradigm. We can argue over what policies are good and helpful during normal times, but the best solutions during times of crisis involve all of us, in our neighborhoods and communities, thinking and working together. Only by sharing each other’s burdens, sustaining our free market system through charity, trust and mutual concern, will our economy once again thrive when this crisis is over.