Let me engage in hyperbole for a change — and let fears rather than facts guide my judgment.
It was a good run, wasn’t it? A few centuries or so — or perhaps about 75 years if we count only since the end of WWII. And a splendid run it was, lifting so many people out of poverty, improving every part of life for so many people.
All good things must come to an end, and many are we feeble intellectuals who have called the end of <whatever>. Progress-minded optimists like myself shouldn’t despair, but sometimes we inevitably do: and we can point to many potential ills: cancel culture; feelings rather than reason; identity politics; the coddling of the American mind; environmental hysteria; rampant inflationism; migration crises and the inevitable collapse of welfare states.
But let’s set aside all that. Like I discussed on the Dan Proft Show on Friday: does anyone seriously think that we’ll get our rights and our dignities back after this corona debacle? I’m all for the Great Barrington Declaration that AIER has launched, and the impressive impact it has had in the media, but I’m ultimately skeptical that it’ll become anything but a thankful target for the dogmatic, autocratic classes — those whom Judge Napolitano dramatically describes as suffering from “libido dominandi — the lust to dominate.”
You can’t help somebody who doesn’t want to get helped — and Western societies love their top-down planners, the power to shut down society, cancel fun and controlling everyone’s words, minds, and actions.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” they quipped throughout the pandemic, “and we’ll overreach just this once,” and “we’ll go back to normal soon — ok, maybe not quite normal; and maybe not quite so soon, actually.” Not even Orwell himself could have dreamt up this sh*t.
No, ‘not better safe than sorry’: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And we didn’t have extraordinary evidence when we started this nonsense. And we most certainly don’t have it now.
We never make calculated and risky decisions on this extremely silly version of the Precautionary Principle. Not when we drive to work; not when we eat seemingly good food that’s one day past expiry; not when we travel to poorer countries, well aware of the (minor) danger that we might be robbed or harmed or kidnapped. We don’t overreact: we take the good with the bad, stoically or at least knowingly accepting the risks — we don’t reach for unheard-of extremes without precedent in the modern world. This pandemic response was a new move out of a new playbook. Restrictions on life and liberty are not going to end here.
Authoritarians of whatever flavour and whatever political colour got a taste — an ever greater taste than usual, we might say — for bossing people around: Restrict this, limit that, centrally-plan those.
That’s not going away any time soon. And if you think this was a unique instance of a particular once-in-a-century danger, you’re in for a treat. No, good sir or madam, you’ll find that the power-hungry authoritarians of the world (read: politicians and bureaucrats) will invoke whatever’s next as The Big Danger. There’ll always be some new fear for which it’s worthy of shutting down society.
You thought the problem with corona would be tightening and loosening restrictions like a societal Yo-Yo? Uh-uh. That’ll be the natural state of everything.
Have you noticed, also, that the master governors of the world — with zero evidence to support this, by the way — specifically targeted places where people have fun: bars, restaurants, movies, music events. Wrote Jeffrey Tucker persuasively at AIER:
If an activity is fun, it is a target. There is a moral element here. The thinking is that the more fun people are having, the more choices that are their own, the more disease (sin) spreads. It’s a medicalized version of Savoranola’s religious ideology that led to the Bonfire of the Vanities.
When I first came to Iceland in June, after they dismantled their fortress for a few blissful months, they had eradicated the disease from the island. No infections for months, and only a dozen people had died way back in March. People behaving recklessly — even daring to be close to others — did no longer pose a risk. What did the authorities do? They limited bars and restaurants to 11 p.m. nonetheless. Pandemic risk averted, no risk that even recklessly drunk behaviour would contaminate your friends or family — still the malicious strategy was held in place: People. May. Not. Have. Fun.
For decades, intellectuals have mused that “late-stage capitalism” would crumble under its own contradictions — or that foreign powers would overtake us, economically, socially, or militarily. Or inequality would spiral out of control under a society that came apart at the seams, collapsing under its own top-heavy weight.
Nope, none of that. We ended progress and flourishing — willingly — under the heavy hand of government. In the past, every flourishing empire ended sooner or later. What was so amazing about the Great Enrichment was that it didn’t end. Beginning in the 17th century, we began a new cycle of material and ideological improvements — and we just didn’t stop. A few hoops, dead-ends, and near-misses in the great European Civil wars 1914–1989, but we kept our wits with us and carried on to unknown heights.
Prepare. Because where we’re about to go is not a pretty place.
That’s hyperbole for you. Do I really think that’s what the future has in store for us? Sometimes. That’s definitely a possibility. Present times always seem scarier when you’re in the middle of them.
Some days pessimism conquers even me.
The scenario I outlined above — that this is the height of freedom, the end of liberalism — is precocious and naive and unsupported and probably very silly. But it’s a possibility that I’m seriously afraid of: I give it about 10% to 20% probability of actually happening. What’s your guess?