Last Friday, GoFundMe sent out a mass email from Arnold Schwarzenegger announcing the creation of the Frontline Responders Fund. Schwarzenegger, whose estimated net worth is $400 million, promised to donate $1 million. He urged everyone reading to “chip in anything you can” so the fund would reach its goal of $10 million by midnight.
As governor of California, Schwarzenegger frequently proposed and signed off on cuts to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, and in particular to California’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal. He spent a lot of time battling the California Nurses Association, the SEIU, and other unions representing health workers. Even so, he concluded his email on Friday by saying that while he may have played “the part of the action hero in the movies . . . doctors, nurses and hospital staff” are the “real action heroes.”
A couple days earlier, GoFundMe — or rather, “PANDEMIC RELIEF via GoFundMe” — emailed about another midnight deadline. This one was for America’s Food Fund, which “feed[s] our neighbors during this unimaginable crisis.” Schwarzenegger’s email about the Frontline Responders Fund talked about “rush[ing] life-saving supplies to our medical heroes.”
These are not only worthy goals but urgent social needs. So why are they being handled by GoFundMe and not by government institutions funded by progressive taxation? What does it say about our society if your neighbors’ struggles with food insecurity depend on whether random people happen to get guilt-tripping emails? Or that medical workers’ ability to get their hands on necessary supplies depends on whether they can convince GoFundMe users to foot the bill for their needs rather than for someone about to get evicted?
Ron Paul’s Dream Is Our Nightmare
When the eccentric Republican congressman Ron Paul was running for his party’s presidential nomination in 2011, he was asked at a debate whether an uninsured person who needed an operation would simply be allowed to die in his libertarian utopia. Paul answered that if Medicaid and Medicare ceased to exist, “our neighbors, our friends, our churches” would pick up the slack.
The rise of crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe has provided a real-world test of Paul’s basic point that we don’t need government programs because citizens in need can turn to other citizens for individual charity. And it’s been a disaster.
Millions of people create GoFundMes for cancer treatment. Some raise the money they need. Far too many do not. Trying to “go viral” on such platforms can often feel like buying a lottery ticket. The tips offered by GoFundMe itself include having a good picture and a “captivating” story. And there’s no telling what’s going to captivate the internet on any given day. I’m guessing that cancer stories, for example, aren’t doing very well right now, given how little public attention the coronavirus leaves for any other disease. This pervasive focus means that even fundraisers for restaurants and bars in danger of going under due to the economic effects of shelter-in-place orders may well do better than fundraisers for diabetics who desperately need insulin.
No one in a decent society should have a worse chance of paying their rent than anyone else because they aren’t as photogenic (or because the friend or spouse who took their picture wasn’t a very good photographer). No one should have a worse chance of paying their medical bills because their story isn’t as “captivating” as the viral fundraising sensation of the week.
Even if everyone who started a GoFundMe for a desperate need did get the money they requested, forcing everyone in such situations to sacrifice their privacy and throw themselves on the mercy of strangers by crafting a “compelling” story would still be obscene. And it’s absurd to ask random people to “chip in anything they can” rather than funding basic social goods through redistributive taxation.
The $1 million Arnold Schwarzenegger donated to the Frontline Responders Fund represents one-quarter of 1 percent of his net worth. The equivalent for someone with $30,000 would be $75 — except that they’d notice the loss of the $75 a hell of a lot more than Schwarzenegger will notice the loss of $1 million. At bare minimum, any reasonable solution to the “shortage of masks, gowns, gloves, and other critical supplies to protect our medical professionals” involves taxing far more of the necessary funds from the Schwarzeneggers of the world and making collective democratic decisions about where the money needs to go, rather than hoping that enough individual eyeballs happen to be caught by any particular story.
Nor should this be the limit of our imaginations. A solution truly adequate to the needs the pandemic has created would also involve collective action through government to directly produce these goods. There’s no reason we shouldn’t nationalize factories currently making far less socially necessary goods and revamp them to produce masks, gowns, gloves, and the rest.
The scale of the current crisis casts the absurdity of relying on GoFundMe for these social needs into sharp relief. It’s as if we were living on an island about to be wiped out by a volcano and we were relying on a multitude of individual fundraisers, each jostling for attention, to purchase each individual boat or plane to be used in the evacuation. But it’s even worse: the fact that anyone has ever needed to use GoFundMe to pay for things like rent or health care is a symptom of a social sickness far older than COVID-19.