In the iconic movie Casablanca, Captain Renault (Claude Raines) is forced by the Nazis to close down Rick’s Café (really a casino, where he’s been gambling). Rick (Humphrey Bogart) asks why he’s being shut down. Renault’s ironic response, as the dealer hands him his winnings, is now a classic, “I’m shocked – shocked that gambling is going on here!”
This response of faux shock or outrage to the patently obvious is how I categorize white responses to the news of the disproportional number of black COVID-19 deaths. I’m shocked – shocked that structural racism and capitalism are going on here.
Black Americans are not victims of COVID-19 so much as they’re the victims of structural racism and laissez faire American capitalism. Structural racism is the reason for the huge health disparities between black and white America. As pernicious as structural racism is, the real killer in this pandemic for Black America is capitalism and profit-driven healthcare.
You have no right to healthcare in this country; you only have the healthcare you can afford. All of the underlying conditions that make COVID-19 more deadly in the black community are a function of the lack of access to healthcare prior to the pandemic. That lack of access is a function of profit-driven healthcare.
Commerce or trade are not unique to capitalism. Prehistoric humans bartered with each other, and historians believe the first long-distance trade occurred between Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan around 3000 BC. Commercial activity is an inherent element of human relations and not a function of any specific economic system.
So, what is laissez faire capitalism, and why is it at the root of what has caused the disproportionate loss of black lives during this pandemic?
Capitalism is an economic and political system in which a country's trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit. Laissez faire translates as “leave us alone,” meaning that the government should allow individuals to freely carry out their own economic affairs.
The normative economic policy of the United States is that the economy should be controlled by a small class of individuals and operated for their private profit. Any benefit derived by anyone else is a fortunate unintended consequence, and any damage done is a collateral cost of doing business. The government’s role is to protect the prerogatives of this economic elite. The only rationale for any economic activity in the United States is to generate a profit for some private interest, and you as a citizen only have access to what you can pay for.
What about things that are essential to everyone? These are public goods to be provided to all members of a society that any individual can consume without reducing the availability to others. Examples are roads and bridges, public education, public parks, sewer and water systems, courts, law enforcement, national defense, and clean air. The reason any government exists, from an absolute monarchy to a direct democracy, is to provide public goods.
In 1776 Thomas Jefferson wrote that there is an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that the purpose of government was to secure these rights. In 1789 Gouverneur Morris declared in the preamble of the new U.S. Constitution that one of the purposes of government was promotion of the general welfare. (Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution mentions capitalism.)
There can be no right to life or promotion of the general welfare without access to healthcare. A government that fails to provide a public good so essential to the wellbeing of its citizens has forfeited its legitimacy. And, as Jefferson noted, the people have the right to alter or abolish such a government.
A system of private, profit-driven healthcare is antithetical to promoting the general welfare and protecting the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of black Americans (and white Americans, too). Whether you call it a public option or Medicare for all, it must be foundational to whatever the new normal is going to be.