Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Coronavirus, Ants, and Our Hard Right-Wing Reality

As the death toll climbs, we're reminded again why walls matter and why the grasshopper, in the end, died.

Aesop’s fable of the ants and the grasshopper is a familiar tale. All summer, the ants work away, piling up grain, while the grasshopper lazes about, happily playing his fiddle. And then, when winter comes, the grasshopper, having stored no food, is left to starve.

As with many fables, the story of the ants and the grasshopper is a bit cruel—the grasshopper dies. So yes, there’s an illiberal starkness to the tale. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of conservative thinking in 1841, “There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.”

Most likely, of course, our fate will turn out better than the grasshopper’s. We won’t die; we’ll just go into economic hibernation for a few months.

Still, in the wake of the coronavirus, it’s obvious: we’re the grasshopper.

That is, despite an annual GDP of more than $21 trillion (that was the old projection anyway) and a society-wide wealth of $98 trillion (also a pre-coronavirus number), we couldn’t be bothered to build up the public health infrastructure that we needed. We have only a little more than 900,000 hospital beds in the U.S. and just about 95,000 intensive-care beds. And how many ventilators do we have? We can’t seem to get a straight answer.

Yet now we’re looking at potentially millions of new hospital patients, many of them gravely ill. In other words, the unlucky among us seem destined for literal grasshopper status—even if they personally might have agreed more with the ants.

Speaking of grasshopper moves, the Trump administration routinely proposed cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as to virtually all other federal medical and health agencies. Happily, Congress said “no.”

Even more happily, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, doesn’t hold a grudge. Today, at age 79, he’s willing to deal with the people who thought his life’s work, fighting contagion, was over-funded.

Of course, the most grasshopper move of all was the 2018 decision made by former Trump national security adviser John Bolton to abolish the pandemic unit within the National Security Council. Just think: if Bolton had gotten everything he wanted during his time at the White House, today we might have not only the coronavirus, but also a full-blown war with Iran.

If we had thought more like ants, we would have had a lot more hospital beds. Okay, it’s true that ants, even at their social best, don’t actually have hospital beds, yet plenty of human cultures have lived by the realization that winter is always coming. The Mormons (whose symbol is the bee, a creature with the same hive-mindedness as the ant), the survivalists, and the preppers, to name three groups, are all stockpilers. Of these, of course, the Mormons have by far the best record of communal, as opposed to individual, concern.

We can also add to this roster of storers the military. Anyone who’s ever been to a military base knows that warriors are typically knee-deep in wares.

The commonality across all these subcultures, of course, is that they tend to have an instinct to hoard, a foreboding about the future—or both. (Anecdotal observation suggests that many within these groups have read, and taken to heart, Stephen King’s 1978 novel of the post-apocalypse, The Stand.)

Yet whatever the source of their inspiration, these groups have a plan for surviving. In a way that’s akin to nano-brained ants and their instincts, these big-brained humans have been led by their instincts to delay instant gratification in favor of future gratification—or survival.

Still, society-wide, we shouldn’t all have to be ants. A rich country such as ours ought to have a government that thinks ahead about essentials, with an eye, at least, toward making sure that these essentials are always available. We never need socialism, but we surely do need resilient capitalism.

And yes, that resilience includes such social services as health care. For the sake of our survival, we’re about to have Coronavirus Care For All, and soon enough, it will seem obvious, even to Republicans, that we need a Bismarckian version of Medicare For All.

Oh, and it’s worth bringing up another grasshopper move: whose bright idea was it to let all our health supply chains be routed back to China? The authorities—including the world-is-flat pundits who pose as our “thought leaders”—were surely fiddling when that outsourcing happened.

Senators Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio have been warning about our over-reliance on China for years, yet now the thought has spread to the mainstream—for instance, this headline in oh-so-trendy Buzzfeed: “Moving Our Pharmaceutical Factories Overseas Was A Huge Mistake.” Fact check: true.

If we were even as smart as ants, we would have had a lot more medicine, as well as medical equipment, close at hand. We’d have stockpiles, and we’d have domestic manufacturing, all within our boundaries.

And speaking of boundaries, we might note yet another ant virtue: ants build themselves a defensive structure, an anthill. It might not be much to look at, but by insect standards, it’s strong.

What do we have in the way of homeland defense? Nothing much. We have a military that’s great at sending commandoes and cruise missiles across the world, but we have little border security and, in some places, no border control whatsoever.

Moreover, we have airports, such as O’Hare and Dallas-Fort Worth, where just in the last few days, people have landed only to find out that they have to queue for many hours while the authorities figure out what do with them. Note to Uncle Sam: if you have no plan for entrants and migrants, don’t let them land at all. Surely the worst outcome is for folks to land, then stand around, sweating and perhaps sneezing on each other—that’s a formula for another outbreak.

More broadly, we can note that every civilization in the world started with a fence, or a wall, around its initial settlement. And as the settlement grew—if it grew—people could choose to live and work outside the perimeter, but only when it was safe to do so.

Yet in times of crisis, the wall around the city was vital, and not just against soldiers and besiegers; it was also a good defense against plague carriers and thus plagues. Here again we are reminded of what Emerson said: conservatives have a certain superiority of fact.

And if we can be permitted some whimsy, we can illustrate the way various contemporary ideologies would approach ye olde epidemic threat.

Medieval conservatives: “Plague! Lock the gates of the city! Keep plague carriers out! Prepare boiling oil atop the walls!”

Medieval progressives: “Keep the gates open! Foreign plague carriers have just as much a right to be in our city as the rest of us! Outlaw boiling oil and prosecute boiling oil company executives!”

Medieval libertarians: “Keep the gates open! But allow private neighborhood associations to construct barriers and pour privately-owned boiling oil on anybody trying to get in without belonging to the homeowners association. And if that doesn’t work, sue the plague carriers for damages!”

Thus we can see why there have been so few progressive, or libertarian, societies in human history. In the end, as Emerson would say, people have to grapple with stern right-wing reality—or they won’t be around to do the grappling.

Of course, over the centuries, as territories have expanded, leaders and peoples have felt safe enough to open up their cities, having extended their defense lines to some distant border. Nevertheless, that border was guarded carefully—if the country knew what was good for it.

Yet the last couple centuries of prosperity have brought about new thinking and new ideologies, notably, liberalism, libertarianism, and an odd hybrid fusion, progressivism. And with these have come new ways of living, loving, working—and supply-chaining.

It has all seemed so easy, as well as fun, to finally escape from the grim and joyless world of ants and their work-work-work.

Of course, that’s what grasshoppers always think.