Nothing like a virus pandemic to let us know that we’re all on this earth together. Since medicine eliminated the most common infectious diseases in the United States after World War II, the country has had a relatively smooth infectious disease glide for about 80 years.
Baby boomers were the last cohort of children to experience polio, measles, mumps, German measles, and chicken pox. Smallpox vaccine took care of that scourge, with the vaccine scar on baby boomer upper arms proving immunity. Diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and typhoid fever vaccines eliminated those diseases except when people turned away from immunization.
HIV showed our vulnerability to “new” viruses. But its infection path didn’t involve sneezing or hand touching. Other epidemics, including viral hemorrhagic fevers like ebola, scare the patooties out of everyone, but so far, they stay localized with intense effort.
This infectious disease control has made us complacent. It’s put a lot of distance between us and the natural and man-made worldwide catastrophes that people experienced through World War II. It’s as if, in our lives, we believe we’re above nature, or outside nature, other than the final, inevitable event of dying.
Inside this bubble, economists theorize about free markets, pricing feedback loops, globalism, trade, entrepreneurism, and product innovation. Milton Friedman and John Keynes set the terms. Instead modern economists should look to Daniel Defoe, 1660 to 1731, as their guide.
Defoe’s "A Journal of the Plague Year" describes exactly the impact, in all its forms, of “nature, red in tooth and claw,” that Alfred, Lord Tennyson cites in the death in 1833 of his 22-year-old friend Arthur Hallam of cerebral hemorrhage. Both writers remind us that nature will have its way.
Defoe’s narrative, based on the eye-witness diaries of his uncle, starts this way: “It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbors, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland for it had been very violent there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.” These data points track 17th century globalism.
Then Defoe pulls his story to England and its government: “It seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private.” This record covers how governments react.
Nothing happens for some days, but then two Frenchmen die “at the upper end of Drury Lane” in November and December, 1664. From then into early 1665, the number of deaths increases in St Gile’s and St Andrew’s parishes, then disease spreads to St Bride’s and St James’ parishes. The rate of deaths defines how insidiously the disease spreads — slowly at first then exponentially.
Defoe’s narrator, a single man, describes the choices he’s forced to make: “I now began to consider seriously with myself concerning my own case, and how I should dispose of myself; that is to say, whether I should resolve to stay in London or shut up my house and flee… I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop, which was considerable, and in which was embarked all my effects in the world; and the other was the preservation of my life…” This young entrepreneur, like small business owners today, must choose whether to keep his enterprise operating and workers working or leave.
Defoe’s saddler, the narrator, stays in London, which he describes as an empty city. He counts up the quickening pace of the epidemic. In three weeks’ time, 100,000 Londoners sicken and 30,000 die. He describes the scarcity that comes when disease hits — people are stuck in London because all the horses are gone. He acknowledges goodness of the clergy, physicians, surgeons, apothecaries, magistrates, and officers of every kind who strived to help and who “lost their lives.”
Finally, as the epidemic wanes and it’s ordinary times again, he observes that the people sang God’s praise but “they soon forgot His works.”
Defoe is a keen observer of human nature in nature (see Robinson Crusoe). He doesn’t declare that the saddler made the right decisions in the face of calamity. Rather, the moral is that nature’s laws will prevail, economies aren’t exempt, and humankind’s well-being isn’t exempt, either.
Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.