Today’s guest author is a friend of mine, who lives in the same state that I do. I always appreciate his posts, and this one is entitled “Shifting the Conversation Around Covid”.
Over the past year or so, I have found myself disillusioned with respect to deference I once granted to a great many conservative pundits, thinkers, intellectuals. It may simply be a revelation of my own folly, having neglected to consider these voices as nothing more than exactly what they are: flawed human beings who happen to take the opportunity to write ideas and opinions for the rest of us to digest alongside everything else we observe in the world around us. They are not sources of authority, they are writers of opinion.
If it can be said that Trump broke a surprising number of intelligent conservatives, and it can, it must also be said that covid revealed the nakedness of an even greater number, exposing the discouraging reality that conservative theory, and a conservative view of how the world works, cannot, for many people, stand up to the absolute power of fear.
This has resulted in the lapsing of my subscriptions from many conservative sources of information, such as National Review and the Wall Street Journal. It has resulted in a very near-complete loss of respect for the intellectual integrity of a disturbing number of friends and acquaintances; or, better put, it has been less of a jolt, and more of a roundhouse kick to the face, reminding me that while many people are capable of grasping and discussing ideas and concepts over a beer in the comfort of a restaurant, bar, or home table, many more of these people are incapable of little other than a self-interested demand for protection when that comfort is removed and they are afraid. This is why totalitarian systems emerge even in the presence of freedom-loving citizens. Very few of those citizens believe what they preach enough to apply it to situations where they actually have something at stake.
Perhaps Donald Boudreaux, writing at AIER, puts this best when he says:
Among the most frustrating features of the pro-lockdown argument is the blind faith that those who make it place in the politicians who issue the orders and oversee the enforcement. This frustration is hyper-charged when such faith is displayed by classical liberals and libertarians, who normally understand that politicians and their hirelings have neither the knowledge nor the incentives to be trusted with much power. Yet in the face of Covid, executive-branch government officials are assumed somehow to become sufficiently informed and trustworthy to exercise the unbounded discretionary power – that is, the arbitrary power – required to prohibit vast swathes of normal human interaction ranging from the commercial through the educational to the personal (such as prohibiting family gatherings above a certain size).
Why this faith? The proffered answer, of course, is that Covid-19 is unusually dangerous and, therefore, we have no choice but to put faith in government officials. This answer is bizarre, for it insists that we must now trust with unprecedented power people who regularly act in ways that prove them to be unworthy to hold lesser amounts of power. My head explodes….
This brings me to my point. The American Institute for Economic Research is one conservative publication that I now read on a daily basis. In stark contrast to places like National Review, AIER has remained consistent even in the face of fear. It has generally understood that conservative truths do not disappear the minute something impacts you personally. We see this all the time, and it shouldn’t take us by surprise. I know better than to place AIER on a pedestal or to refer to it as authoritative, but I have been very impressed.
It is one of the very few publications that has taken a level-headed approach to COVID, and while (as I elaborate below), most conservatives have allowed themselves to be duped by the goal-stealing of virtually everyone who shifts the conversation away from the relationship between the governed and those who govern, AIER has consistently analyzed the present (year-long) situation in light of broader truths that have been thoroughly established and understood and articulated for several hundred years of conservative intellectual history. Fancy that. Truth doesn’t go out the window when you are afraid – it is only your ability to reason that gets lost.
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It is with those things in mind that I recently sent an email to Joakim Book, who wrote a persuasive and well-cited article at AIER, titled Lockdowns Don’t Prevent Coronavirus Spread. The article points to a recent study [perhaps the only one of its kind] that actually managed to control for important variables in order to isolate the impact of lockdowns on coronavirus spread. Considering the fact that virtually all of today’s power-hungry governors and politicians justify their new-found dictatorial powers by claiming to “follow the science,” it is certainly worthwhile to point out that their policies could not be much further from “scientific,” that virtually everything currently being imposed on the American (and worldwide) public is flatly anti-Scientific [Galileo’s critics would be proud of our present ability to suppress and censor all dissenting opinion, even when it comes from well-respected experts in relevant fields]. But that is allowing a very important stolen-base, as I point out in my email, which is copied here in part:
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“… I did want to mention something, though, with respect to your recent article regarding the Danish lockdown study. I have found myself engaging in some semi-productive conversation with intelligent friends over the past year; I have had less productive efforts in court, as it seems that judges have recently forgotten what it means to objectively analyze evidence. When I first read your article, I copied the address and was about to draft an email to my court commissioner and also to a good friend of mine who is a doctor here in town (very smart, but not nearly as skeptical as he should be). There is one reason that I decided against sending the article.
Specifically, I can anticipate that their automatic response will simply be this: “Everyone was wearing masks.”
This is the silver-bullet argument, unfalsifiable in their minds, ever-present, and perfectly convenient because it can be the explanation for everything. Do numbers rise in spite of interventions? People aren’t complying with mask mandates. Numbers are really good in someplace without a lockdown? People are voluntarily wearing masks. Nobody actually knows any of these things, and yes the overwhelming actual evidence is against the effectiveness of masks… but Doctors are wearing them. Fauci recommends them. The CDC and WHO have memory-holed all pre-2020 science and have turned self-contradiction into an art form. This is the argument that disproves literally everything else we say, because these facts can be twisted to counter virtually any other facts, studies, or observations.
Unfortunately, this silver bullet ends up diminishing the power of the study that you cite in your article as well. You don’t mention whether the people in these free regions were wearing masks or not, but either way, we fall back on the silver bullet. If everyone was wearing masks, the response will be that “see, these government mandates do work!” or, possibly, “this study cannot really observe whether lockdowns work because the high voluntary compliance with masks resulted in all of the numbers being similar.” If nobody was wearing masks, we are left with an un-tested government mandate.
What I am seeing, unfortunately, is that with covid, these studies and facts and numbers do not matter. Their only usefulness would be in the court of law, if we could find a court with the courage to declare that these public agencies simply do not have enough information to justify the elimination of individual freedoms. In Washington State, what we’re now seeing is that it has essentially been determined (seemingly overnight) that “public health” is pretty much always an emergency, always something that allows a governor to tinker in any way he chooses. With mask mandates, we see that little league fields are requiring children – outside! – to be wearing masks. You don’t need a study to show that this has no effect whatsoever. With “shutdowns,” we see certain businesses (Costco, Lowes, etc…) exempt from shutdowns while others are not. The facts are irrelevant, because governors have the right to tinker, to develop plans, to control your life in any way necessary, provided they still have “numbers” and “cases” and “benchmarks.” This has no end.
Meanwhile, we continue to allow this debate to focus on the issue of whether or not something “works.” When I oppose mask mandates, the counter-argument is that masks work. The debate about lockdowns is whether lockdowns work. But the effectiveness of any of these things is largely irrelevant when it comes to government action that eliminates constitutional rights. Let us pretend that the government floated a new mandate that every citizen needs to eat at least 2 servings of veggies every day, and that trans-fats are banned. It could cite to the ”real” public health “crisis” of obesity and heart disease. It could cite to actual deaths caused by these things. It could point to hospitals that become filled with individuals in poor health, with public health-care plans that become strained when tax dollars are spent on people in poor health.
What good would it do, in that example, for us to argue that 2 servings of veggies may not be as effective as the government believes? They could tinker and adjust. Wear two masks, now, right? Maybe we need to ban high-fructose corn syrup as well. Maybe we need 3 servings of veggies. We can find something that works, if that is the problem.
But the problem, here is not whether lockdowns work, or whether masks work. The issue is whether our constitutional rights were designed to be overruled by concerns over “public health,” whether it be vague concerns over depression or substance abuse, or a more concrete (though not much more) concern over a respiratory virus. And after covid, what? Don’t masks work against the Flu? Don’t they work against the cold? What about new “mutant strains” of any of the above? And so what if these things don’t work – we will find something that does work. The only reason that the Danish study didn’t show an effect of lockdowns is that the effect was drowned out by the massive impact of masks… so, let’s tinker. Keep the lockdowns and also require masks!
While writing to you, I have been sitting “in court,” remotely, via Zoom. A trial I had scheduled for next week was just continued … due to COVID. The lawyer requesting the continuance is on a plane and just wouldn’t feel comfortable being in the courtroom with his client (who cannot use Zoom). What if he gets sick between now and then and she ends up getting sick? She is old, after all. Well… continuance granted. I dared not mention the convenience of this concern, given the attorney’s many other reasons for wishing to avoid trial. I wanted to weigh in with “how is this going to be different, ever?” Can’t anyone get sick at any time? But I don’t make these arguments in court, anymore, because evidence is not required to claim COVID, and no evidence is good enough to counter it. But I can imagine how the exact same argument would be treated at any other time. “your honor, my client is immunodeficient, and what if someone in the courtroom has the flu?” How would a judge react a year ago if that question was asked? He’s not treating this differently because there is some evidence, some study, some proof that the risk of covid is so unique as to justify this amazing request. There is no line, no threshold where some particular “risk” becomes great enough to override these formerly-essential values such as the administration of justice and the protection of individual rights.
But that is the crux of the issue, is it not? The mere existence of covid grants power. It does away with petty inconveniences such as requiring evidence and compelling state interest before forcing behavior on others. We have had to deal with that pesky constitution for 200+ years, and finally, we have a state of emergency that will always be with us, which is so ever-changing that even if covid does happen to disappear, it can simply be shifted to the flu, or to anything else. A mutant strain can always be found. How quickly did we move from “action is necessary to flatten the curve and save our hospitals,” to the zero-covid “even one death, from this, is unacceptable. How convenient has COVID been for the triumph of that collectivist mindset, advancing the idealistic but nonsensical notion that all must act in concert in order to promote the interests of everyone, over the classical-liberal understanding of freedom of action based on personal knowledge and values, individual risk assessment, and individual responsibility? Once our rights have been eliminated, what sort of “scientific study” is required for them to be given back? Even granting the question places us on a field where the very purpose of those rights has already been relinquished.