As the USA moved to stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of covid-19, some conservatives objected to the policies on the grounds that they would harm the economy. In March, Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said he would rather risk his own life than impose restrictions on businesses, using the language of sacrificial exchange. Asserting that quarantine “is killing our country,” he went on to say “no one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the American that all America loves for your children and your grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in... I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.” Senator Ron Johnson blithely remarked, “Getting coronavirus is not a death sentence except for maybe no more than 3.4 percent of our population,” and therefore is not worth the economic cost of enforced business closures.

Liberal opponents like New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo responded by saying we don’t put a price on human lives. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington admonished his listeners to stay home in dire terms: “Going to the bar is fun, but you might be killing your grandad by going to the bar.” Whereas some conservatives spoke of lost jobs, their critics often accused them of merely defending elite interests, such as stock prices and corporate profits.

Of course matters aren’t that simple. We put a price on life every time we buy life insurance, and presumably even Dan Patrick would approve of at least some public health measures. But their respective public stances are revealing. Rhetorically both sides portray the situation as a stark choice: kill granddad to save the economy, or kill the economy to save granddad. By dichotomizing in this way, they converge in treating the situation as a version of the famous trolley problem in moral philosophy. In doing so, they express something fundamental and distinctive about the way Americans think of the public good and the limits of permissible agency.