False Wit and The Greed Is Good Fallacy
The other day, I happened upon the Twitter account of Jonah Goldberg — a sort of conservative establishmentarian writer who has maintained an anti-Trump position throughout the past five years, but has failed to endear himself to me nonetheless — where I noticed this:
— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahDispatch) January 3, 2021
“Good.” That is Goldberg’s attempt at an argument-by-witticism. That one word answer is meant as amusing shorthand for the longstanding libertarian idea that the profit motive, i.e., “capitalism,” is moral, and therefore that a corporation making enormous material gains from its efforts is inherently admirable and praiseworthy.
This view, which was expressed most influentially by Ayn Rand, and then less persuasively aped by lesser thinkers like Milton Friedman for decades, is one of the great fallacies at the heart of modern North American “conservatism,” and perhaps the single most important difference between modern conservatism and the classical liberalism that today’s conservatives sometimes claim to be embodying. It is not so much a theoretical position as an attempt — originally mired in Rand’s childish idealism, but lately reduced to post-Friedman cynicism — to wear sheer brazen bluntness as a mask for illogic.
Goldberg’s pert but impertinent reply to the person angrily citing Pfizer’s and Moderna’s massive financial gains from their coronavirus vaccines serves as an excellent object lesson in so much of what is wrong with this “greed is good” nonsense.
To keep this simple, let me reply to his implicit argument here — I do not waste time playing with verbal selfie toys like Twitter, but if any of you know Jonah Goldberg personally, you are welcome to pass this post along. (Just kidding; I am neither famous nor connected enough to interest him.)
Why is it inherently “good” that Pfizer and Moderna are getting stinking rich from their vaccines? If you answer, “Because they have spent time, money, and effort researching, creating, and then mass-producing a product that billions of humans need,” then I ask: “How do you know that?” Define the need here. Prove that the products from which they are deriving these profits are actually meeting that supposed need.
The world has been shut down this year, costing trillions of dollars, harming billions of families, and causing incalculable numbers of human beings to die in frightened isolation, from old age, from illness, or from despair — and it has been shut down entirely, one hundred percent, by acts of government. The pandemic itself has caused none of this general societal cataclysm. The new virus that has afflicted us this year is manifestly less severe in its immediate effects than many previous global outbreaks, in large part because, as has been obvious since at least February, it is taking by far its greatest toll among the segment of the world population that might reasonably have been expected to die this year, or at any rate very soon, without this virus, while having an extremely limited effect on any other segment of the population. More than ninety-nine percent of those infected with this virus survive without life-threatening illness, usually without any significant symptoms at all. Even the vast majority of elderly sufferers recover from it in fine shape.
However, due to the manipulations, social restrictions, and tyrannical “lockdowns” of authoritarian governments the world over — and to the fact that most of the advanced world has abandoned a large portion of its elderly population in disease factory isolation chambers called “nursing homes” — we are suffering through this pandemic for much longer than was likely necessary, and with much greater immediate and long-term social damage than the actual death numbers should warrant.
And no, that is not “belittling the dead.” Dirty little secret to spoil the narrative for late-modern idealists and fantasy-dwellers: We all die — but that fact is no reason to cancel life for those still living. We don’t get much time here — none of us — and that is all the more reason not to be cavalier about curtailing opportunity for our neighbors, merely to (falsely) assuage our own fears. Who, after all, are we?
In this climate of totalitarian fearmongering and artificially-produced mass hysteria, major pharmaceutical companies have raced to gain their material advantage by providing something that governments can pitch to their populations as “the solution” for a crisis that is largely government-manufactured in the first place. Even on their own terms, these alleged vaccines are fraught with unknowns. Are they really going to prevent anyone from being infected? Are they even advertised as providing this benefit? Or are they merely (at best) going to weaken the symptoms in some people, thus potentially giving millions a false sense of security, and therefore increasing the risk of “silent spread”?
This vaccine rush has always struck me more as a stunt to amplify the optics of “government taking care of us,” rather than as a response proportionate to the problem. And since there seems to be no research indicating that Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines actually do what proper vaccines ought to do — prevent infection on a massive and trustworthy scale — I do not see why they are being pushed on the world population as indispensable and life-saving solutions to what is, remember, a far less serious global crisis than the world controller types would have us believe.
With this context, then, let us return to the question I asked Jonah Goldberg at the outset: Why is it inherently “good” that Pfizer and Moderna are getting stinking rich from their vaccines?
Because people have been stoked into a massive overhyped panic by governments and media propagandists?
Because the governments that have used this pandemic as an opportunity to create precedents for hitherto almost inconceivable intrusions into, and disruptions of, daily social life, wish to further advance their emotional grip on their infantilized, slavish populations by promising that if they stay home as ordered, and take their injections as demanded, they might, just might, be granted a permission document to visit Grandma for Christmas next year?
Because Jonah Goldberg has bought into the hysteria, and is therefore so personally scared for his own safety that he would inject himself with anything, everything, that anyone put in front of him promising to make it all go away?
Because every peddler man who offers you a magic elixir is to be admired and respected for his efforts, merely because he claims his potion will solve all your problems? For this last option, after all, is what is implied by the “greed is good” mantra, even if those peddling it fail to recognize that their “profit motive as morality” fallacy is itself a magic elixir no more effective than the other kind.
The profit motive is not inherently evil. Nor is it inherently moral. Everything depends on what a man is seeking to profit from, how he hopes to gain that profit, whether the need he is claiming to meet is a legitimate need in natural human terms, or a harmful and illegitimate one, and what interests are being furthered by the efforts and gains the profit-seeker is pursuing.
Pfizer and Moderna have created quick and untested products, and prepared them for mass distribution as promptly as possible, to be first in line for government contracts and the accompanying massive financial advantages. We do not know (and neither do they) whether these products really do much, let alone do enough to warrant being treated as the solution to all our problems — much less whether those problems are even susceptible to being solved at all by government-corporate partnerships aimed at mollifying government-media-manufactured hysteria.
At the very most, all Goldberg can legitimately say against the person who tweeted about the vaccine companies’ profits is, “Too early to tell.” And even that is granting much about the nature and extent of this “crisis” that I, for one, would not be willing to grant other than for the sake of argument.