The exodus of the wealthy from cities reveals the problems with individualism

Wish you were here?
Wish you were here?
Image: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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New York’s gilded Upper East Side has been rendered a ghost town. The tourists are at home; the shops are shuttered, with their shelves bereft. Many of its residents, meanwhile, are as far away from the new center of a global pandemic as their wealth can take them—in the country, by the shore, on a hilltop, virtually anywhere else.

It’s the same story all over the world: The wealthy are experiencing coronavirus differently. Some have gone to their second or third homes or to visit family members in more remote locations. (In the interests of full transparency, I have spent the past two weeks staying with my mother at her home in rural Connecticut.) Others have paid thousands for short-term rentals: In France and the UK, sleepy country towns are overrun with weekenders hunkering down for the long haul, while entire hotels in Ireland have been bought out by families fleeing cities. In the US, Airbnb saw year-on-year revenue in rural areas increased by $280 million in March 2020, or almost 30%, while revenue in urban areas fell by $75 million, according to data from AirDNA. In the same period, bookings in Manhattan and New Jersey fell by 66%, while bookings in some Cape Cod towns have soared by as much as 600%.

Fleeing the pandemic outside the door

The reasons to get out of the city are fairly straightforward. Social distancing in New York or Paris may mean committing to weeks or months inside an apartment of a few hundred square feet, in the knowledge that a global pandemic lies just beyond your front door. Heading for the hills, meanwhile, should mean peace and quiet, more outside space, and the opportunity to opt out of the city’s plague by being in the country, like so many wealthy Europeans during the Renaissance.

Some examples are admittedly more egregious than others. For every person who follows the rules—quarantining in place, bringing food and other sundries with them instead of depleting supplies at local stores, keeping to social distancing protocol—there are others who approach a dangerous situation with jaw-dropping wantonness. (In one case, a Manhattanite tested positive in the city, then took public transportation to be treated at Southampton Hospital, in a Long Island beach town.) Regardless, no matter how careful you are, if you get sick, you will be relying on rural healthcare systems that have most likely not factored the arrival of outsiders into their planning. Insisting that the property taxes you pay on your second home gives you the right to local healthcare probably won’t help.

Commentators widely agree that this is selfish, unfair, and in some cases actively dangerous. Writing in the Atlantic, travel journalist Nathan Thornburgh warns prospective emigrants that by leaving now, “you are nakedly prioritizing your comfort and peace of mind over the physical health of others.” Even tourism officials have asked would-be visitors to stay home: “This is something I thought I’d never have to say throughout my tourism career, but please stay home at this time,” Carol Chaplin, CEO of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority, said in a press release.

But people keep on traveling, and are almost certain to continue to do so until stopped by the strong arm of the law. In Norway, for instance, citizens have been officially banned from going to their vacation cabins. It all comes down to one key question: In a crisis situation, to whom do you owe the greatest responsibility—yourself and your loved ones, or the wider population?

The individual vs. the collective

Individualistic societies such as the US stress the prioritization of one’s own needs over the needs of the collective, writes the essayist Meghan O’Rourke. In part, this is pragmatic: If you don’t look after yourself, you can’t assume that the wider population (or the state) will step in to do the job. But this notion of self-reliance comes at a considerable cost, O’Rourke said. “We are so addicted to the concept of individual responsibility that we have a fragmented health-care system, a weak social safety net, and a culture of averting our eyes from other people’s physical vulnerability.” Moreover, the values we applaud—self-preservation, agility, problem-solving—are precisely those that inspire us to leave town (if we can afford it).

Writing in The Conversation, philosopher Matthew Barnard, of the UK’s Manchester Metropolitan University, suggests that it’s hard to break these habits of a lifetime, even in extremely unusual circumstances: “We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest,” he writes. “We have an innate tendency to make exceptions for ourselves when it comes to a matter of self-preservation.”

It’s part of the reason why it has proven so hard to get societies to co-operate with lockdowns, Barnard argues, where people must make decisions that compromise their individual freedoms to benefit the community at large: “Only a truly collectivist society would ever be able to self-isolate on a mass scale. Those that praise the individual and encourage us to make exceptions for ourselves will struggle, even in the face of a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic.”

Ethicists often make a distinction between actions which allow harm and actions that actively cause it. In the first case, that might be someone spending money on a fancy car rather than giving it to charity. In the second, that might be someone using their wealth in actively harmful ways—hiring a hitman, to give one particularly cartoonish example. There isn’t anything wrong per se about leaving the city for somewhere more pleasant—it might seem a little crass to pitch up in some tropical paradise while others endure a cramped one-bed in deepest Queens, but it doesn’t necessarily do anyone any harm.

A risk of spreading the virus

The problem here is the gamble: Many of the people who have left urban centers have done so because they believe they and their families are less likely to contract the virus in a more remote setting. But they are operating under the assumption they have not yet contracted it. If they’re right, they aren’t really causing much harm, beyond the irritation to locals of having to share services like grocery stores. If they’re wrong, and they are spreading the virus, they’re putting other people in danger, and actively causing harm.

There’s another complicating factor. New York’s healthcare system is overwhelmed—thus far, regional equivalents in places such as Truckee, California, or Litchfield County, Connecticut, are not. Moreover, getting sick in Lake Tahoe, or some other rural location, might mean getting better healthcare in the short term, even as if exposes other people to considerable risk. For someone thinking primarily about themselves, that might be the difference between life and death. The stakes are sufficiently high that it’s hardly surprising that people are not fighting against the tendency to make exceptions for themselves.

The 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant suggests that a good test for whether we should do things or not is whether those same actions would make sense if everyone else did them—what he calls “the categorical imperative.” Lake Tahoe would be a far less desirable quarantine destination, for instance, if it suddenly had to accommodate eight million New Yorkers. To encourage people to act morally within this framework, Barnard writes, Kant tried to invoke the power of God. Now, in a much more secular world, “modern leaders are now being forced to invoke the power of the state” to get people to fall in line—and to make decisions for the greater good, rather than their own self-preservation.