From the end of World War II through the present day, the United States has maintained a position as the world’s premier superpower. For decades, the American values of hard work, individualism, liberalism and free-market capitalism appeared to lead to massive successes, including technological advancement, economic prosperity and high standards of living. However, as COVID-19 has exposed, the values which people once associated with America’s brand of strength and prosperity now appear antiquated and outdated and are ultimately holding the U.S. back. While countries around the world have responded to the virus in different ways, American society’s fundamental focus on individualism, freedom and economic growth have exposed the inequality, distrust of government institutions and lack of protections for vulnerable populations within our country. 

First and foremost, the spread of COVID-19 has highlighted America’s extreme inequality, something which is largely a product of American society’s fanatical devotion to economic growth. As economist Milton Friedman declared in a 1970 New York Times Magazine article, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” In the decades since Friedman’s article was published, it’s clear that America has taken his advice to heart. Today, the U.S. has 10 of the world’s 20 most profitable companies, but at a cost: It also ranks 39th worst in income inequality, worse than countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Turkmenistan. Last year, a study found that nearly 60 percent of Americans had less than $1,000 in their bank accounts, another sign of America’s staggering income inequality. 

Unsurprisingly, America’s focus on profits, and its acceptance of the inequalities that philosophy inherently produces, has greatly contributed to the nation’s disastrous response to COVID-19. On April 21, a day on which over 2,600 Americans died of the virus, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said that “there are more important things than living and that’s saving this country.” Similarly, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie commented, “there are going to be deaths no matter what,” but “we have to stand up for the American way of life.” In saying this, Christie clearly implied that the American way of life is primarily focused on economic growth — inequality and public health be damned. When faced with skyrocketing unemployment rates, the U.S. Congress was both unwilling and unable to come up with an economic solution that addressed America’s income inequality. Although the federal government ultimately sent out a one-time $1,200 stimulus check to citizens, by April 23, only 10 days after the first checks were deposited, 84 percent of Americans said they already needed another check to make ends meet. That federal relief bill, which cost over $2 trillion in total, simply proved how unassailable American inequality has become. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed the problems with the American society’s support of free-market capitalism, as workers often find themselves under-protected and devoid of rights. Although there has consistently been some opposition to America’s overly laissez-faire attitude — such as Upton Sinclar’s 1906 novel “The Jungle” — support for deregulation and limited government oversight of the private sector is a major component of both America’s society and economy. As of 2015, American employees worked an average of 1,779 hours per year, the seventh most of any nation globally. Additionally, American workers often have far less negotiating power with their employers than their global counterparts: only 10.6 percent of Americans are part of labor unions, far lower than countries of comparable wealth and development such as the U.K. (24.7 percent), Canada (26.5 percent) and Germany (17.7 percent). 

COVID-19 has exposed the fundamental flaws of this anti-regulatory attitude, showing the danger of limiting workers’ rights in favor of supporting businesses. A quarter of U.S. workers have no paid sick leave, meaning many essential workers face a difficult choice: do they go into work and risk getting themselves or others sick, or do they stay home and risk getting fired, losing essential benefits such as healthcare? Even when workers have attempted to demand better treatment in response to the virus, the power imbalance between them and their employers makes this an impossible battle: On March 30, Amazon fired an employee who had planned to lead a strike demanding safer working conditions. Ultimately, America’s support for businesses has hamstrung workers’ ability to receive the protections they deserve, leading to preventable deaths.

American society’s individualism and distrust of government institutions have worsened the COVID-19 crisis, creating an atmosphere in which necessary measures are seen by some as totalitarian attacks on freedom and liberty. Across the country, protestors have come out to defend their self-proclaimed rights to things such as haircuts, believing that the government’s stay-at-home orders infringe upon their personal liberties. While other countries’ citizens appear to understand the importance of deferring to public health experts in the name of safety, the American ethos of individualism appears to include defending one’s right to contract the virus. More broadly, this represents American society’s fundamental distrust of government: At a time when trusting institutions is essential for a cohesive response to a deadly virus, some Americans are unwilling to put aside their personal biases for the communal well-being.

This focus on individual liberties above all else is also apparent in the federal government’s response to the pandemic. In comparison to America’s constant concerns about creating too extensive a welfare system, which has limited the federal government's willingness to intervene, other countries have taken much more comprehensive responses: Canada’s plan includes C$2,000 stimulus checks for four months, while Denmark’s government “agreed to cover the cost of employees’ salaries at private companies as long as those companies do not fire people,” effectively freezing the Danish economy until after the worst of the virus has passed. 

In conclusion, COVID-19 has exposed a bevy of problems with the once-fabled American value system, showing the downsides to the tenets which had previously been associated with creating the world’s wealthiest nation. Today, those same values of free-market economics and individual rights are responsible for America’s inhumane response to the pandemic and have laid bare the deep-rooted inequalities, weak worker protections and unwillingness to sacrifice for the greater good. 

Zack Blumberg is a junior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.

 

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