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So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
This has unintentionally turned into a sort of “Notes to Mr. Boudreaux” series, but for good reason. He has regularly touched on what I have found to be the most discouraging (and even shocking) phenomenon of the past year. I have written about why that surprise, for anyone well acquainted with the history of totalitarianism, is largely unfounded. But while otherwise right-thinking individuals have always had that one event or set of circumstances that cause them to demand protection from a king, it is still somewhat jarring when it happens with your own friends, while you plead in vain with them to open their eyes and turn around.
In a recent post at Cafe Hayek, Don responds to his colleague Tyler Cowen’s criticisms of The Great Barrington Declaration. Also posted is a response from another well-respected colleague, Dan Klein. I do not know the extent of any friendship between Don, Dan, and Tyler (or any combination thereof). I know that they are all colleagues, and there was a time when I would have placed them all in roughly the same category as being libertarian or classically liberal intellectuals. Over a year into covid hysteria, this category is now full of people who are all distinguishing themselves in different ways, some respectable and consistent, and some not.
I initially wrote this as a letter to Mr. Boudreaux in response to his column (the “you” in this essay is Mr. Boudreaux), and I will preserve that tone for the sake of convenience (though I would encourage you to stop and read both his and Mr. Klein’s articles right now).
With respect to both of those articles, I strongly relate to the frustration of attempting to converse with formerly conservative or libertarian friends who now seem to speak an entirely different language. My only small disagreement comes with the closing line used by both. They say to Mr. Cowen: “You are better than this.” Frankly, I am not so certain that this is true.
That someone who has spent much of his career arguing against government interventions should suddenly pivot to what is, in essence, complete centralization and unchecked (and unaccountable) power – what we’ve experienced over the past year has amounted to an elimination of individual liberty, the separation of powers, and checks on authority – because, quite simply, “I’m scared,” makes me question how much he ever understood these ideas in the first place. As you say, arguments should stand or fall on their own merits, and certainly if I were to go back and read old essays or books or listen to old podcasts with Cowen, I would not pretend that anything he says is somehow wrong because I now question his own understanding (or commitment to truth). But you made a more personal statement by saying “you’re better than this,” and I, therefore, respond to that statement with a more personal analysis.
I have a handful of former acquaintances (not friends, but people I spent some time interacting with online over the past 10 years or so) who have undergone a very similar transformation. Among these few, what were once recognized as fairly standard classical-liberal truths, now applied to covid, are met only with ad hominem complaints and dismissal (“COVID broke Ryan,” or “here he is saying the same old garbage, dressed up in lawyer-speak,” or “he has joined the ranks of my crazy mother-in-law, and all because he doesn’t want to wear a mask.”) Of course, my own ideas never changed, nor were they ever uniquely mine, which means it is Smith and Hayek who are insufferably dense. But old truths applied to new situations have always been appropriate; as this last year has gone by, I’ve wondered how all of this would read as another chapter in Hazlett’s great “economics in one lesson;” the lesson applied to COVID hysteria.
But there was one thing I noticed among the group of former acquaintances: each one of them had some reason for feeling personally threatened by whatever his idea of COVID was. One believes himself particularly at risk because he has a certain blood type, another because of obesity. Another believes himself to be particularly at risk because he has asthma, another because he suffers from insomnia and stress. But the underlying thread was that, for all of these individuals, their understanding of the world, of the way markets and economies work, of the way governments work, was unable to stand up to something that they perceived to be a personal threat. I have elsewhere called it narcissism, or in the very least a failure to look around at the world around you and consider that literally everyone else you see has some personal health issue or other consideration … but I’ll leave that psycho-analysis for someone better equipped.
Of course, this is exactly the phenomenon that justifies virtually all totalitarian action, is it not? You are somehow in danger; you are somehow threatened. It is real, now, because the threat is at your doorstep. When you are afraid of guns, you wish them all to be forcibly removed from your neighbors. When you are afraid of competition, you favor government intervention to limit (or eliminate) your competitors. I suppose the same could be extended to most areas where individuals demand government interventions. The form this most commonly takes in libertarian circles is when it deals with social-type interventions that come at the risk of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. It isn’t a fear of oppression or discrimination, but it is a type of fear nonetheless – of supporting or defending something that is not accepted within your social circles, or that might cause your friends to associate you somehow with them. As you have observed, his fear was most apparent in conservatives, who, since 2016 and even into today, are eager to contradict anything that might in any way be viewed as “Trumpian.”
I don’t know whether it is possible to get through to someone who has decided that all previously accumulated understanding is rendered moot the minute a threat reaches his doorstep. It may be that many of these people didn’t really understand the arguments they were making, and it may also be that they utilized conservative or libertarian sounding arguments only because it happened to be convenient or advance their immediate purposes. There is a possibility of some, who I would only describe as being in the grip of a sort of temporary insanity – who really did understand classical liberal ideas, and who really did believe that those ideas are sound; people who are legitimately afraid of something, whether they have any business being afraid of it or not. I think the only way to convince a person like that is to get that person to acknowledge his fear and express some willingness to discuss it. COVID is not uniquely horrible; it is not uniquely threatening. Our response has caused some individuals – unfortunately, the majority of people in the world! – to lose any sense of context. But if that was true for some conservatives and libertarians, it is inexcusable one year later; rather, it is not a plausible explanation one year later.
My wife and I were in a grocery store (happily maskless, of course) the other night. We saw a man at the customer service counter buying cigarettes. He was probably in his mid-20s; his hair was made into dreadlocks and pulled haphazardly into a rasta-style knit hat, and he wore gray sweatpants, a pair of galoshes, and … an N95 mask covered by a blue surgical mask, and a pair of blue disposable rubber gloves. A betting man would have decent odds that this individual, in addition to being a smoker, is also a regular user of Kratom and any number of other drugs (I’m basing this on appearance and behavior, as this is a demographic I know well). When we walked out to our car, he was standing in front of his van, spraying each individual one of his newly-purchased items with Lysol.
My wife was kind enough to indulge in a rant on our way home. Given his age and weight, this person likely has something like a .05% chance of complications from COVID, if he were to get it. Given the time of year in this particular town, and our current “numbers,” I have no idea what his percent chance of actually being exposed to COVID actually is, but in a population of half a million, there are maybe a few hundred who might ever be out and about and infectious? Regardless, these numbers express chances that are extremely low, of even getting an illness for which this man’s chances of survival approaches 100%.
Seemingly lost was a handful of ironies; this man drives, per his social preferences, a vehicle that is decades old and equipped with all the safety innovations of the late 1980s. He uses at least one substance whose carcinogenic properties are well known and understood. The list goes on and on and on. Perhaps it is somewhat fruitless to play the game of “what if we treated X the way we treat COVID,” though it would provide some much-needed context and sense of proportion with respect to everyday threats. The end result would be ludicrous and would render a person incapable of performing even the simplest daily tasks.
What I’ve found is that the COVID-hysterical, when confronted with that particular “what if,” respond with anger and defensiveness, insisting that (though somehow they are willing to compare mask mandates with laws prohibiting public nudity) the comparison is grossly unfair. This is because one of the primary defining characteristics of covid hysteria is that COVID is understood – however poorly – to be a threat that is imposed upon us by someone else.
This man, like Tyler Cowen, very clearly feels personally threatened – and it is likely that he also supports government intervention, the purpose of which is to infringe upon my neighbor’s liberty in order to restrict that neighbor’s actions and movement, thus reducing that neighbor’s ability to do whatever it is I am afraid of.
Restrict him – in order to protect me from my neighbor.
Now, it doesn’t surprise me that the guy in the sticker-covered van, which encourages everyone else on the road to “feel the bern,” believes that covid, like everything else, is a zero-sum game. If I believe that the rich get richer only because they have figured out some way to make the poor even poorer, it would not likely cross my mind to think that my neighbor’s pursuit of his own self-interest, when faced with a pandemic, might lead him to become educated, and even to take whatever steps he feels would be necessary to protect his own health and the health of those around him. That he might also desire to keep his friends and loved ones safe. And Heaven forbid I should ever even countenance the thought that wisdom, thus accumulated, employed, and tested across entire populations might actually lead to outcomes that fail to materialize when governments enforce the views of a small group of self-proclaimed “experts” while silencing open dialogue and new (in addition to old) ideas; after all, who could possibly be better at responding quickly to ever-changing facts than a massive government that is filled with self-interested bureaucrats acting on the advice of attention-seeking egomaniacal … bureaucrats? That’s how the economy works, right? That’s why the 5-year plans were such a raging success, and why soviet-era Russian technology and prosperity was the envy of the entire world for … well … so why should it not work for this, too?
But I do at least get why my lemon-lime Lysol, BO, and patchouli scented friend believes that the only solution to a problem that causes him to fear is to hunker down and wait for some powerful and omniscient recess teacher to step in and enforce some rules. What I don’t get is this complete shift among libertarians and conservatives, or rather, how that mode of thinking could persist over an entire year and a wealth of evidence showing that their formerly-held understanding very much applies in this as ever it has applied to anything.
Unless it is something more than just fear. If it is not a lack of understanding that the same principles that render governments incompetent in the coordination of whole economies should also render them incompetent in response to complicated matters of health; if it is not a failure to recognize that the same market forces that bring price signals and allow for efficient allocation of resources will also produce the most reliable and responsive actual science and dissemination of information regarding emerging health issues, while a centralized authority will, in the best case scenario, always be several steps behind emerging data and remain extremely hesitant to alter plans or ditch programs that have only taken form after months of planning and millions of dollars spent; if it is not a lack of understanding that more likely, this authority will be perversely incentivized to recommend actions that are most convenient for his employers, that save face, or that serve the purposes of whoever has the privilege of bending his ear; if it is not a lack of understanding that either way, the scientific method, whose primary mode of service is in causing one to say “our hypothesis was wrong,” is extremely unlikely to be employed by this authority with any genuine rigor; if it is none of these things – as it is unlikely to be in the case of someone intelligent and relatively well educated – it is something more than just plain old fear. It is fear, but now with an acceptance that all of those devastating consequences are likely to be someone else’s problem. Someone further down the road, someone less equipped than I am to weather the storm that these actions are sure to bring about.
I would argue against the man on the street who holds a sign demanding a $15 minimum wage that such actions are likely to result in an overall increase in unemployment … and he might very well reply that he doesn’t really care who is unemployed, so long as he’s making $15 an hour.
Here I am again tempted to talk about narcissism. Think about a mass shooting. In the confusion, one’s true character emerges. Someone dashes for the exit, trampling over anyone who happens to get in his way. Someone else grabs his closest family members and covers them with his own body in an attempt to protect them. Someone else looks around for the shooter, hoping to fight back and end the threat. Someone else stands absolutely frozen in fear. And not everybody does what they wish they would do, but everybody does something.
What worries me about the classical liberal, whose understanding of markets, economies, and human action has always been firm, and who is perfectly capable of applying these principles to COVID, is that this person is simply afraid, and is willing to make sacrifices in order to protect himself, provided he is immune from the consequences of those sacrifices. This man demands a king for protection, and he ignores the advice of Samuel, thinking that somehow this time things will be different. Maybe he really is foolish enough to believe that the king will voluntarily relinquish his power when the threat has passed (rather than ensure that there is always a threat and always a need). Maybe he believes that this time, things will be different. Or maybe he simply believes that the king will not come for him, for his land, for his sons and daughters… and maybe he is willing to sacrifice everyone else for his own personal guarantee of safety.
There’s one important final observation I would add to your thoughts regarding Cowen’s response to the Great Barrington Declaration, and to all of my own former acquaintances who refuse to engage the substantive arguments: ad hominem is the argument that makes the most sense when I’m frightened, and when I believe that the biggest threat to me … is you.Published in