Richard Epstein, prize fighter for capital

J Turk

Summary: A purveyor of pseudo science blogs from the Hoover Institution, calling expert estimates of COVID-19 deaths an ‘overreaction’ – Editors.

Heather Brown excellently elaborates how capital seeks profits, both despite the prevalence of a pandemic but also benefitting from the disease’s existence.[1] She also describes Trump’s wish to send Americans back to work by mid-April, whether sick and contagious or not, and she ends with Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s nihilist offer to sacrifice seniors for the good of capital. After the article was published, Trump reversed himself in a crass attempt to build his image as a leader in time for the general election in November. He extended the administration’s recommendation to stay at home until June, but not without more confusing signals. Historian Heather Cox Richardson observes, “We are seeing government officials rewriting our history in real time.”[2]

Jeet Heer made an astute connection between “therapeutic nihilism” and libertarian capitalism, both of which are in play by Trump and his circle: “What they are arguing for goes beyond Social Darwinism and is, in fact, a kind of cult capitalism. The existing system is viewed as so sacred that it is worth sacrificing innumerable human lives to keep it going. Even nonrevolutionary changes to the system are anathema.” Heer notes that “Therapeutic nihilism was also an influence on the Austrian economics of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, the foundational thinkers of the modern libertarian right.”[3]

Social Darwinism entered the brain of the President when a column by evolutionary law expert Robert Epstein of the Hoover Institution was passed around in the White House. It was one of three columns which set out to attack the science behind the best thinking of public health experts. Epstein argues that the “balance” between economic recovery and public health had been skewed by irrational “hysteria” fanned by “alarmists,” “modern conceit,” “doomsday models,” and “gubernatorial dictatorship in each state” which implemented measures to stanch the spread of COVID-19, against Trump’s misdirection and incompetence — while stifling consumption and the markets.

One has to read the columns to catch the explicit contempt for anything outside the pale of profit-taking. Epstein argues that The New York Times model for COVID-19’s spread and mortality is overblown.[4] He explains the reason for his “contrarian” attack: “Progressives think they can run everyone’s lives through central planning, but the state of the economy suggests otherwise. Looking at the costs, the public commands have led to a crash in the stock market, and may only save a small fraction of the lives that are at risk.”[5] Setting aside whether Epstein’s “small fraction of the lives that are risk” are the same lives which will be lost from Trump’s hesitation, someone brought to Epstein’s attention some glaring errors in the columnist’s “Darwinian economics.” Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker asked Epstein about fallacies in his analysis, such as COVID-19 existing in both strong and weak strains and the potential of transmission varying between people depending on their age and health.[6]

Actually economics were less a part of the Chotiner interview with Epstein than the bogus epidemiology. Still, artificial facts were made to underpin an artificial argument. Chait lists other lunatics in office, academia, and the media getting in line to promote their own pseudo science ideas. Taken together they dissemble and disorient, with the interests of business, served by state capitalism, as a constant. (In the midst of the crisis, the Trump administration has rolled back Obama-era standards for auto emissions, mindful according to some that the presidency and congress may roll to the Democrats in the fall. And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced online learning guidelines that clear the way for for-profit colleges to return to fleecing students and their families.)

Epstein’s March 23 column gets to the point. It is in the self-interest of people — the elderly — to quarantine. The state needs to stay out of these decisions. And “for low risk groups, a different set of precautions may fit the bill.” Evoking the “central Hayekian principle,” he stands up for deregulation: “All of these choices are done better at the level of plants, hotels, restaurants, and schools than remotely by political leaders. Our governors have failed to ask a basic question: When all the individual and institutional precautions are in place, what is the marginal gain of having the government shut everything down by a preemptive order? Put otherwise, with these precautions in place, what is the extent of the externalities that remain unaddressed?” And then a lie: “there are lost lives on both sides of the equation as many people will now find it more difficult to see a doctor, get regular exercise, stay sober, and eat healthily. None of these alternative hazards are addressed by the worthy governors.” As Heather Brown notes, adverse health care outcomes are surely not a concern of the corporatists in charge of the U.S.

What should be a condemning statement about capitalism is offered as fact by Epstein: “common estimates of the utility of any individual life are far in excess of the material wealth that society has to deal with them.” So even capitalism’s champions see a limit to wealth creation in capitalism, when it’s convenient. Epstein does have a solution, as it relates to the crisis: “The best way to minimize that problem is to rely more heavily on private responses to the difficulty and to be relatively cautious in applying broad coercive measures that will shut down the productive institutions of society by government fiat.” This brings to mind the seventeenth century political economists who earnestly envisioned unlimited wealth creation but couldn’t understand why that couldn’t happen. (Adam Smith was a philosopher of ethics). In the next century, Karl Marx critiqued political economy, but of the nineteenth century economists who where left to make excuses for the poverty and the failure of capitalism, these he called “hired prizefighters” for capital. Epstein follows that tradition well.

Trump’s blustery declaration of war on the “invisible enemy” has another purpose, to put down anything that would short-circuit growth opportunities for Big Pharma and the lucrative health delivery system in the U.S. (Of that system the medical anthropologist and public health innovator Dr. Paul Farmer says that it’s awful, despite its advanced technologies for treatments. Inspired by Liberation Theology, he founded Partners in Health, which began in Central Plateau in Haiti, to successfully involve the poor in their own health outcomes.)[7] In the COVID-19 crisis, it’s obvious to all that achieving “efficiencies” in healthcare has resulted in shortages of staff, ventilators, beds and so on. When Trump first responded to the call to invoke the Defense Production Act, that is, to fast-track the production and delivery of goods for health care, he declared that he will not “nationalize” industry. Later he invoked the act haltingly plus weaponized it by (again) slamming a female, the CEO of General Motors.

It was two years ago when the eventualities of pandemic were unknown that the White House Council of Economic Advisors issued a white paper which provided proof that “socialism” is inefficient and denies choices to consumers.[8] (Corporate welfare was not analyzed.) Michael Roberts pointed out that the report knocked down straw men (like nationalization) and was an attack on policies like taxing the rich and national health care (mostly the Sanders’s positions) and showed the absurdities in it.[9] But in light of a real crisis now and pressure for a lite version of nationalization, it bleeds through in the ambling Coronavirus Task Force press conferences. In his response to the COVID-19 epidemic, Trump would still have us believe that free markets are possible even though the role of the government to execute relief and recovery, albeit on capitalist terms, is undeniable in this crisis. Epstein further feeds the fiction by insisting that individuals can take care of themselves against COVID-19, while capitalism mends itself. He continues the decades-long illusion whereby, as Mehrsa Baradaran puts it, “the right has reconciled the public to gross inequality and wrenching economic dislocation by framing impartial market forces for the crimes of reactionary policy-makers. But it is hard to maintain the fiction of an apolitical economic sphere when the ‘invisible hand’ is so clearly attached to Jerome Powell’s forearm.”[10] The invisible enemy isn’t so mysterious either.

The trouble is that the virus has pulled back the covers from a sick system. The global economy faces a reduction of 8.4% GDP and 1.5% drop in global output for 2020.[11] In China, the Philippines, Kashmir, Sweden and prisons in the U.S. show just how those in poverty and at the margins of society face the pandemic without protections available to the affluent and powerful.[12] In fact, in nations from Hungary to Israel and Chile to Britain, absolute powers have been unleashed to contend with social rather than epidemiological contagion.[13] Raising a mirror to bald inequality and repression is a start to revolt. Spontaneous actions by workers at Fiat-Chrysler and Instacart punctuate the rise to visibility of masses of workers — labor itself — as “essential” and smart about what’s good for society. Neighborhood food mobilizations, extra-special efforts of healthcare workers, and people finding ways to socially bridge the quarantines in their locales portend rips in the capitalist fabric and the emergence of conversations and organizing to replace a moribund system. Trump’s hectoring and Epstein’s evolutionism comprise an artifice whose goal it is to choke off — and more — these challenges to the rule of capital.



[1] Heather Brown, “Covid-19 lays bare capitalism’s deference to profits over lives,” The International Marxist-Humanist, March 25, 2020

[2] Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American (blog), March 31, 2020

[3] Jeet Heer, “Trump Toys With a Let-Them-Die Response to the Pandemic,” The Nation, March 23, 2020

[4]Coronavirus in the U.S.: Latest Map and Case Count,” The New York Times, updated daily

[5] Richard Epstein, “The Grim Costs Of Total Lockdowns,” March 30, 2020; “Coronavirus Overreaction,” March 23, 2020; “Coronavirus Perspective,” March 16, 2020, defining ideas, a Hoover Institution journal.

[6] Isaac Chotiner, “The contrarian coronavirus theory that informed the Trump administration,” The New Yorker, March 30, 2020; see also a gateway article to the interview: Jonathan Chait, “The coronavirus and conservatism’s war on science,” New York/Intelligencer, March 30, 2020.

[7]Bloomberg Big Decisions: Dr. Paul Farmer,” streaming video, December 18, 2019

[8] The White House, “CEA Report: The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” October 23, 2018

[9] Michael Roberts, “Socialism and the White House,” blog, October 27, 2018

[10] Quoted in Eric Levitz, “Coronavirus Creates an Opening for Progressivism — Also Barbarism,“ New York/Intelligencer, April 1, 2020

[11] Nelson D. Schwartz, “Coronavirus Recession Looms, Its Course ‘Unrecognizable,” The New York Times, March 21, 2020

[12] Regletto Aldrich Imbong, “Covid-19 and Social Inequality: How Poor Filipinos Suffer More During Pandemics,” March 31, 2020; Khalfani Malik Khaldun, “Prisons, Prisoners, and the Coronavirus,” March 30, 2020; Zahoor Ahmad Wani, “Kashmir: Lockdown Succeeded by Covid-19,” March 29, 2020; Jens Johansson, “Sweden and Covid-19: Social Democrats Hesitate,”March 28, 2020; Correspondent, “Letter from Wuhan,” March 24, 2020, The International Marxist Humanist

[13] Selam Gebrekidan, “For Autocrats, and Others, Coronavirus Is a Chance to Grab Even More Power,” The New York Times, March 30, 2020


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