Looking back to the “before times” – meaning before the middle of March 2020 – we were all quite naive about liberty, technology, the mob, and the state. Most of us had no idea what was possible and that the dystopia in movies could become real in our times, and so suddenly. The intellectual parlor games were over; the fight spilled over from the classrooms to the streets.
It’s even difficult for me to recreate the thinking behind my exuberant confidence that we faced a future of peace and progress forever, times when I could not conceive of circumstances that would disable the whole trajectory. I was previously sure that the state as we know it was melting away bit by bit.
Looking back, I had become like a Victorian-style Whig who never dreamed that the Great War could happen. To be sure, I might have been correct in my empirical observation that public institutions were losing credibility and had been for thirty years. And yet it is for this very reason that some major fear campaign was likely to come along to disrupt the trajectory. It had not occurred to me that it would succeed so marvelously.
The experience has changed all of us, making us more aware of the depth of the crisis and teaching us lessons we can only wish we did not have to learn.
#1 The Role of Information
My previous naivete, I think, was due to my confidence in information flows from my study of history. Every despotism of the past was marked by lack of access to truth. For example, how is it that the world believed that Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler were men of peace and could be skillfully managed via diplomatic relations? Why did people believe the reports emanating from the New York Times that there was no famine in Ukraine, that Mussolini had cracked the code to efficient economic planning, and that Hitler was over-the-top but essentially harmless?
My previous view has been that we did not know better because we did not have access to accurate reports. The same could be said about other egregious incidences of despotism from history. Humanity wallowed in darkness. The Internet fixes that, or so we (I) believed.
That turned out to be wrong. The speed and abundance of information actually amplified error. At the height of the pandemic response, anyone could have looked up the demographics of risk, the failings of PCR and masks, the history and significance of natural immunity, the absurdities of plexiglass and capacity restrictions, the utter futility of travel limits and curfews, the pointless brutality of school closures. It was all there, not just on random blogs but also in the scholarly literature.
But the existence of correct information was nowhere near enough. It turns out (and this is perhaps obvious now) that it is not the information availability as such that matters but people’s capacity to make sound judgments about that information. That is what was lacking all along.
Localized fear, parochial germophobia, general innumeracy, superstitious trust in talismans, meaningless ritualism, and population-wide ignorance of the achievements of cell biology overrode rational argumentation and rigorous science. It turns out that floods of information, even when it includes that which is accurate, is not enough to overcome weak judgment, a lack of wisdom, and moral cowardice.
#2 Trust in Big Tech
In the early years of their founding, companies like Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and even Facebook had a libertarian ethos bound up with the ideas of industrial disruption, free flow of ideas, and democratic participation. Legacy media was terrified. We came to see the new companies as the good guys and the old media as the bad guys. I wrote whole books heralding the dawn of the new, which in turn was connected to my confidence that more information would allow the best information to dominate public debate.
At some point in this trajectory, all these institutions became captured by a different ethos. How precisely this came to be has a mix of explanations. Regardless, it happened, and this became incredibly obvious and painful during the pandemic, as these CEOs volunteered their efforts to amplify CDC and WHO information no matter how wrong it turned out to be. The more users pushed back, the more brutal tactics of censorship and cancellation became the norm.
Clearly, I had not anticipated this but I should have. The long history of collaboration of big business with big government shows how they often work hand in glove (the New Deal is a case in point). In this case, the danger became especially pronounced because Big Tech has a very long and deep reach into our lives via location tracking and compelling notifications, to the point that nearly every American carries on his person what turned out to be a propaganda and compliance tool – the very opposite of the initial promise.
Another example of big business, and perhaps the preeminent one, was Big Pharma, which likely played a sizable role in policy decisions made very early on. The promise that the shot would fix everything turned out to be untrue, a fact which many are still unwilling to admit. But consider the expense of this misjudgment! It’s unthinkable.
#3 Administrative State Revealed
There are three kinds of states: the personal state, the elected/democratic state, and the administrative state. Americans think we live in the second type but the pandemic revealed something else. Under a state of emergency, it’s the bureaucracy that rules. Americans never voted for mask mandates, school closures, or travel restrictions. Those were imposed by edicts by “public health” officials who seem delighted by their power. Further, these policies were imposed without proper consultation. At times, it seemed like the legislatures and even the courts were utterly powerless or too cowardly to do anything.
This is a serious crisis for any people who imagine themselves to be free. The US was not founded to be this way. The administrative state is a relatively new invention with the first full deployment tracing to the Great War. It has only gotten worse.
The apotheosis of the US administrative state was surely the pandemic period. These times revealed the “political” class to be not much more than a veneer for something far less accountable. It became so bad that when a Florida judge ruled a CDC edict as inconsistent with the law, the CDC objected mostly on grounds that their authority cannot be questioned. This is not a tolerable system. It’s hard to think of a higher priority than containing this beast.
This is going to take a change more far reaching than a shift in which party controls the legislature. It is going to take foundational change, the establishment of walls of separation, paths of accountability, juridical limits, and, ideally, abolition of whole departments. That’s a tough agenda, and it simply cannot happen without public support which in turn depends on the cultural conviction that we simply cannot and will not live this way.
#4 The Issue of Inequality
With economics education, I never really took issues of wealth inequality as such very seriously. How possibly could it matter what the “gap” between the rich and the poor happens to be so long as there is mobility between the classes? It doesn’t somehow hurt the poor that others are rich; you can even make the opposite case.
I always found the idea of class itself to be largely exaggerated and even irrelevant from the point of view of political economy, a Marxian construct that has no real impact on social organization. Indeed, I’ve long suspected that those who say otherwise were seizing on class as a way of dividing up the social order that is otherwise universally cooperative.
And so it would be in a free society. That is not where we are today. And this much we know: the professional class exercises outsized influence over the affairs of state. That much should be exceedingly obvious, though I’m not sure that it was to me before 2020. What we saw was the unfolding of a coercive social system that favored the professional class over the working class, a group rendered nearly voiceless for the better part of two years.
Now it is very obvious to me why a society with entrenched social classes really matters for the operation of politics. Without class mobility both up and down the social ladder, the ruling class becomes protective of its rank and deeply fearful of losing it, even to the point of pushing policies to entrench its privileges. Lockdown was one of them. It was a policy constructed to deploy the working classes as sandbags to bear the burden of herd immunity and keep their betters clean and protected. It’s truly impossible to imagine that lockdown would ever have happened in absence of this class stratification and ossification.
#5 The Mob
Along with my confidence in information flows comes an implicitly populist sense that the people find intelligent answers to important questions and act on them. I believe that I always accepted that as an ideological prior. But the covid years showed otherwise.
The mob was unleashed in ways I’ve never witnessed. Walk the wrong way down the grocery aisle and expect to get screamed at. Millions slapped masks on their kids’ faces out of fear. The compliance culture was out of control, even when there was zero evidence that any of these “nonpharmaceutical interventions” achieved their goal. The non-compliers were treated as disease spreaders, subjected to demonization campaigns from the top that quickly trickled down to coronajustice warriors at the grassroots.
The cultural divisions here became so intense that families and communities were shattered. The impulse toward segregation and stigmatization became extreme. It was infected vs uninfected, masked vs not, vaccinated vs not, and finally red vs blue – severe indictments of others manufactured entirely in the name of virus management. Truly, I had no idea that such a thing would be possible in the modern world. This experience should teach us that the onset of tyranny is not just about top-down rule. It’s about a whole-of-society takeover by a manufactured mania.
Perhaps some form of populism will lead us out of this mess, but populism is a two-edged sword. It was a terrified public that backed the irrational response to the virus. Today the rational seem to outnumber the irrational but that could easily flip the other way.
What we really need is a system that is safe for freedom and human rights that protects those ideals even when the madness of crowds – or the arrogance of intellectuals or the lust for power of the bureaucrats – wants to scrap them. And that means revisiting the very foundations of what kind of world in which we want to live. What we once believed was a settled matter has been completely upended. Figuring out how to recover and restore is the great challenge of our times.
So, yes, as with millions of others, my naivete is gone, replaced by a harder, tougher, and more realistic understanding of the great struggles we face. People in wartime in the past must have gone through such similar transformations. It affects us all, personally and intellectually. It’s the great moment when we realize that no outcome is baked into the fabric of history. The lives we live are not granted to us by anyone. That we must make for ourselves.