As the coronavirus pandemic rages across the United States, the nation’s titans of industry have begun to style themselves as heroes by pledging millions of dollars to health care. Twitter and Square chief executive Jack Dorsey offered $1 billion — just under a third of his wealth — to fight the virus. Oprah Winfrey has donated $10 million. Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt have teamed up to fund the Pandemic Action Network, which seeks to influence world governments to increase their own spending on global health initiatives such as the World Health Organization.
It is tempting to laud these figures as self-made men and women paying back the spoils of their success to the rest of us. But the United States relies on, and worships, individual billionaires and their charitable efforts precisely because the country is so broken. The cultural and economic systems that made these people successful exist at the expense of the collective good. The quintessential American myth of the clever bootstrapper lionizes someone who triumphs despite the derelictions of government, infrastructure and health care that have made this pandemic so dire. Our very conception of success — resting on veneration of inimitable heroic individuals — has worsened the country’s failures.
Americans have, historically, been eager to view themselves as a nation of individuals, rather than a collective. Our early philosophers — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau — preached a gospel of self-reliance. “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” Emerson wrote in 1841. Nineteenth-century visitors to the country, such as the French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville, were struck by both American optimism and American obsession with individual liberties. “Americans believe their freedom to be the best instrument and surest safeguard of their welfare,” Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “. . . to secure for themselves a government which will allow them to acquire the things they covet and which will not debar them from the peaceful enjoyment of those possessions.”
So, too, today. The rhetorical specter of “socialism” — with its insidious hints of “death panels” and shadow governments — consistently casts a pall over attempts to reform health care, expand the social safety net and enact legal protections for gig workers (now a third of the nation’s workforce) who are disproportionately at risk in a pandemic economy.
The victory of President Trump’s identitarian populism is the clearest example that voters reject the concept of a shared common life. And it was bankrolled by such hedge fund donors as PayPal founder Peter Thiel and Thomas Peterffy, the founder and chief executive of Interactive Brokers Group, who recently told the New Yorker that his support of Trump was because “the U.S. will get to socialism” through “increasing government regulation.”
Yet our current suspicion of the institutions that might bind us together is unprecedented, even by American standards. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that almost three-quarters of Americans younger than 30 say that people generally “just look out for themselves.” Young adults are significantly more likely than older Americans to express mistrust in the military, religious leaders or police. The institutions and organizations that have shaped our sense of the common good, and our role within it, seem to have conclusively failed. The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus threat could easily justify anyone’s lack of faith in the federal government.
At the same time, the Bill Gateses, Jack Dorseys and Peter Thiels of the world — seemingly “self-made” men, whose money and resources are increasingly forming the spine of the nation’s coronavirus response — represent a new and uniquely American vision of moral and political influence. The origin stories of these founder-heroes tend to emphasize their sui generis qualities that owe nothing to our shared institutions (governmental, ecclesiastical and educational). Many were college dropouts; Thiel, who holds two degrees from Stanford, created an eponymous fellowship that pays promising young entrepreneurs to leave college to code.
The techno-utopian libertarians of Silicon Valley and the hedge fund billionaires of Greenwich, Conn., share a conviction in the power of individual human freedom and the danger of any collective (or governmental) institution that might stymie unfettered human autonomy. Google’s Larry Page has gone on record envisioning a global free zone — one he likens to Nevada’s Burning Man festival — a “safe place” for technological experimentation not subject to any laws or safety regulations. Former Sears chief executive Eddie Lampert, now among the highest-paid hedge fund managers in the country, famously restructured the company in alignment with the economic principles of libertarian novelist Ayn Rand: The result was Sears filing for bankruptcy. The uber-rich, explicitly or implicitly, value the narrative of the uber-mensch. In this myth, wealth inequality is justified as the natural, material expression of the fundamental inequality of humanity.
These billionaires, whatever the source of their wealth, tend to frame their success as something they have earned on their own, whether through business savvy, technological creativity or old-fashioned American gumption. They (and we) decry American institutions — government, universities, health care, regulatory bodies — as fundamentally static and bureaucratic, holding back promising people from their destiny of self-making. As Thiel put it to economist Tyler Cowen in a 2015 podcast interview, denying that the United States is a democracy or a republic: “We are actually a state that’s dominated by these very unelected, technocratic agencies [that are] . . . deeply sclerotic, deeply nonfunctioning.” Contemporary billionaires see our civil institutions as mere bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, about 1 in 6 American children grows up in poverty. Our wealthiest school districts outspend their poorer counterparts by as much as 3 to 1. Adults living under the poverty line are five times as likely to say they are in “poor” or “fair” health as those making quadruple that much. Social services across the country are chronically underfunded. Our cultural obsession with freedom leaves behind our most vulnerable.
The coronavirus made clear that the rhetoric of human liberty is illusory, and with it the false narrative that individuals can make themselves in isolation. In a pandemic, no man is an island. Rather, we are, as Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima says in “The Brothers Karamazov,” all responsible to one another for everything. Our bodies, our labor, our social ties to one another are all interdependent. And we can address this pandemic only by recourse to a common life and common identity.
It is perhaps laudable that many of the victors of capitalism’s spoils want to contribute to the common project of fighting the pandemic. But we should not forget that so many of the factors that have rendered the coronavirus particularly deadly in the United States — income inequality, the lack of a social safety net, the precarious standing of newly-essential gig workers, the obsession with freedom from government tyranny and the lack of a coherent civic identity — are direct products of the way we valorize self-making.
The same faith in atomized consumerism that drives people to make billions of dollars in profit also positions them to donate some of that profit now. Our faith in capitalistic individualism has allowed corporations to both circumvent and co-opt the institutions of our shared civic life. It has weakened the foundations of our political coexistence. What capitalism’s victors are contributing to the coronavirus effort now should not be celebrated as altruistic charity but rather evidence of the broken system we have helped them build.