Economic Revival or Virus Containment? Economic System Justification and COVID-19

Should we risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans by reopening the economy too soon or risk the livelihood of tens of millions of Americans by opening the economy too late? 1

An ongoing debate relating to COVID-19 features the tension between opening the economy versus containing the coronavirus, with ethical overtones on both sides. Proponents of opening the economy insist that economic revival should be prioritized over virus containment, with ethicists asking, “What about the risk to human life?” Defendants of restricting the spread of the virus endorse virus containment over economic revival, but contend with the ethical concern “What about people’s livelihoods and human rights?” It is often believed that these differential preferences are driven by political ideology: economic revival is favored by conservatives while virus containment is preferred by liberals. We examine this lay belief and find that economic system justification (ESJ), an ideology that defends the economic system when under threat, is a more reliable predictor than political ideology.

Across four studies, we find consistent results: compared to those who scored low on ESJ, people who scored high on ESJ judged China as more justified in concealing the spread of virus within its borders, found price gouging more acceptable, shelter in place less desirable, and opening of the Texas economy more legitimate. We also find that multiple psychological mechanisms might be at work – perceived legitimacy of opening the economy, perceived seriousness of the health crisis, and violation of human rights. The effect of political ideology is inconsistent and unreliable, dissipating after the effect of ESJ is accounted for in two studies and producing effects that are significant but weaker than those of ESJ in the other two studies.

1 Fein, Richard (2020, May 24). COVID-19: Saving lives or livelihoods?

“Economic Revival or Virus Containment? Economic System Justification and COVID-19” is the work of Shailendra Pratap Jain, Shalini Sarin Jain, and Yexin Jessica Li.