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Tragedy of the assholes: History showed up, and we’re chained to these selfish jerks

Attorney Scott Pilutik wrestles with the news of the day, from a lawyerly perspective…

For most of our lives, we Americans have had little to endure, by and large, in the way of collective sacrifice, save the stories of the great depression and World War II, told by our elders to remind us we’ve been spoiled rotten. As fate would have it, we suddenly find ourselves in our grandparents’ shoes, no longer having to only imagine how we’d react if the world changed for the worse overnight. A lot is being asked of some, particularly healthcare workers, but most of us are merely being asked to take a number of polite, low-cost precautions intended to lower the risk we pose to each other.

By and large we’re heeding those precautions. It’s the exceptions to the rule — the assholes — who’ve been a problem. You’ve probably noticed them, given that being noticed is the core function of an asshole. And given the nature of this pandemic, the quiet and well-behaved among us have thus far declined to risk their health counter-protesting assholes. Assholes, on the other hand, have been happily obliging local news reporters with colorfully hyperbolic interviews. Consequently, they win news cycles by forfeit, resulting in the appearance of a hotly contested debate that’s actually fairly settled.

For me it brings to mind the tragedy of the commons, an economics term to describe how shared, finite resources are easily depleted when everyone acts in their own self-interest, leading to ruin without intervention. The classic example usually offered is fishing: without size limits, licensing, seasonal prohibitions, certain species would simply disappear.


But tragedy of the commons also stands for the general proposition that if we all act to only serve our immediate self-interest, we’re reducing the chances of our own species’ survival. That’s not to say that if we all take a penny from the tray next to the cash register and no one ever leaves a penny, humanity will crumble to dust. But without altruists we’ll quickly run out of pennies.

Despite not being a classic fit for a tragedy-of-the-commons framing, the COVID-19 mask issue — wherein assholes refuse to wear masks, assault store workers for asking them to mask and on occasion harass mask-wearers — epitomizes the dilemma, given that the finite resource at issue is life itself and the inconvenience asked of most everyone else is relatively minor. If we all decided masks were too itchy and the 1 percent mortality rate was acceptable — that is, if we let it “wash over” us as a certain president suggested we do — millions would likely die.

It’s true that many of us, perhaps most even, wear masks and stay home out of self-interest more so than altruism, given the risks this particular virus poses. But it’s also true that the risk of contracting COVID-19 is disproportionately distributed depending on age, race, and economic class. From the vantage point of self-interest, we naturally each calculate this particular risk differently, at least compared to, say, driving, where the risks are roughly equal.

So it’s perhaps less than surprising to discover that at least relative to those with whom they share oxygen, assholes perceive their own risk to be quite low, else they’d not be gathering every few days on the steps of various state capitols, mostly mask-less, as brave cosplayers in Ayn Rand’s army.

To be fair, the risk of death for those contracting the virus isn’t, say, 51 percent, or some high enough number where self-interest would render society’s need for altruism moot. But assuming for the sake of argument COVID-19’s 1 percent mortality rate holds, that’s still an extraordinarily high risk relative to the risks we ordinarily take. For instance, it’s exponentially higher than dying in a car accident in any given year, yet most of us have bought into seat belts as a good idea to lower risk.

The problem, of course, isn’t assholes’ perceptions of their own risk, it’s that they evidently perceive risk as an exclusive affair, either oblivious or dismissive of the risk and costs they impose on others as potential asymptomatic virus spreaders. While most of us can easily grasp the immorality of, say, coughing all over the subway when we’re clearly sick, assholes in particular can’t quite fuse the unintuitive bridge between appearing to be well and potentially being an infectious vector. And if feeling well means you can hit the town like Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra on shore leave, well… look out town!

The car analogy is useful to extend here, because we don’t each drive on our own personal highways, we share the road with other drivers, and I hardly need to tell you that many of those drivers are certified assholes. Sometimes drunk drivers — assholes, as if I really need to point that out — cause fatal accidents. Maybe they survive in a cruel and ironic twist of fate.

Assholes have been conditioned to disclaim collective responsibility for society’s ills in the name of individualism over so many other contexts, so it should come as little shock that a pandemic would be no different. Gun deaths? My gun only defends the innocent against tyranny and bad guys. Racism? Don’t look at me, it was like that when I got here. Plastic straws? My straw isn’t going to be the one that breaks the earth’s back. Most people want fewer gun deaths, equality, and a stop to daily catastrophic weather events, but sadly not enough to override what a minority of assholes want instead.

As I’ve noted, our shared pandemic isn’t quite a tragedy of the commons problem, given that most people are indeed acting altruistically. We’re mostly staying in, mostly wearing masks, and even committing far fewer violent crimes (though it’s quite possible the drop is in reporting as opposed to incidents, given the rise in domestic violence). Health care workers, many self-isolating from their families, are risking their lives on a daily basis simply by showing up to work. An asshole might point out that, well, ackchyually, saving lives is literally their job.

Our shared pandemic is instead a “tragedy of the assholes” problem. Most of us are indeed leaving pennies, but a loud minority of assholes are grabbing fistfuls. Unfortunately there’s not a lot we can do about it, given assholes’ herd immunity to shame. Our collective risk aversion and altruism only get us so far when it’s within the grasp of even one asshole — let’s call them “super-spreading assholes” — mistaking modern conveniences for liberty that can ruin everything for everyone, including, paradoxically, themselves.

Precisely why assholes obstinately refuse to meet this historical moment with empathy is beyond the scope of this treatise. I would hold, though, that assholery, unlike economics, trickles down from the top, and state and federal governments hold the levers to incentivize and disincentivize assholism. It’s probably too much to hope for given our current environment and elected officials, but until a critical mass internalizes our interconnectedness as integral to our survival, we’ll continue to be joined at the hip to assholes.

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