1968 Strong – 2020 Soft

Anatomy of Fear and Panic

The 1968-1969 Hong Kong Flu pandemic killed one to four million people worldwide, and over 100,000 in the United States.  Most of the American victims were over 65. 

Adjusted for population, this would have been the equivalent of almost 164,000 deaths in the United States today.

Despite the lethality of the Hong Kong Flu, it didn’t create the kind of panic found today over the coronavirus, nor were any economy-killing lockdowns instituted, or even proposed.  By and large, people took the Hong Kong Flu in stride – taking sensible precautions, but not making any substantial changes in routines.  Schools and stores remained open, sporting events were held, and people went to restaurants and movies.  A full presidential campaign was conducted in 1968, and the large Woodstock concert was held in 1969.  No one gave any thought to closing down society in order to “flatten the curve.”  People recognized a terrible virus was circulating, as viruses are wont to do from time to time.  They did not panic, they did not demand government “do something,” and they did not try to force the entire population to cloister at home.  The population of the late 1960’s recognized the reality of the virus, took sensible precautions if they felt vulnerable, but continued to go about their lives.

In terms of infections and fatalities, the Hong Kong Flu pandemic appears very similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In light of this, why did the public react very differently in 1968 than they do now?

First, we have to look at the constitution and characteristics of the people influencing society and making policy in the late 1960’s.  These individuals lived through the Great Depression and defeated the Axis in World War II.  They knew true deprivation firsthand, and learned to cope with the challenges and risks of life.  They were self-sufficient and reluctant to lean on anyone else for assistance of any kind.  Hard work, saving for a rainy day, personal accountability, and personal accountability were still considered moral virtues.  Communism and socialism were the enemy; they were not something to emulate and implement.

Secondly, there were real challenges and hardships in society in the late 1960’s.  The civil rights movement was still very active, and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated early that year.  The Vietnam War was raging.  Anti-war protests were breaking out on college campuses.  Cities were devastated by urban riots.  Political assassinations became all-too common.  The Cold War was still raging with people living under the constant threat of global nuclear annihilation.  Worry about a virus took a backseat to the more pressing problems of the day.

Compare that to those in positions of authority today.  Today’s leaders and influencers were raised in the most prosperous time in American history.  By and large, our nation has been at peace, with a small number of volunteer professional soldiers addressing any violent outbreaks.  Employment is plentiful, and technology not even conceivable a generation ago is available to virtually everyone, including those below the poverty line.  There are very few people alive today who have weathered the adversity common to the Greatest Generation.  Self-sufficiency and individual responsibility are increasingly considered quaint traits – those raised by helicopter parents now expect the state to provide them similar security.  Much of society has demanded government become in loco parentis – providing protection from bad individual decisions and socializing personal responsibility, accountability, and initiative.  The collective has become paramount over the individual.

Whereas the Greatest Generation developed character though hardship and adversity, much of today’s population seek “safe spaces” from “triggering” comments and events.  A 24/7 media trades in sensationalism, emotionalism, and fear, moving seamlessly from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis.  Much of the population no longer wishes to confront challenges head-on – they want and expect someone else to do it for them.  The skills of critical thinking and balancing options with risks have degenerated into blind fealty to comforting authoritarianism.  Planning for the future and making wise choices is no longer important because someone in the government will always bail them out.  Rather than be hardened by adversity, the current crop of leaders has grown soft from prosperity. 

Let’s look again at the biggest issues and concerns of 1968 – 1969.  They included civil rights and equality of all races, the draft and the Vietnam War, the raging Cold War, riots which forever altered communities, violent protests, demonstrations, and political assassinations.  Each and all of these real events were consuming the thoughts of the population.

Contrast that with some of today’s biggest issues.  Worry about which restrooms transgendered individuals should use and debates over whether taxpayers should pay the student loans of individuals having difficulty obtaining gainful employment from their Gender Studies degrees. 

COVID-19, like the Hong Kong Flu before it, can have devastating consequences, including a large number of deaths.  Yet we did not destroy our economy during the Hong Kong Flu pandemic and did not subject millions to joblessness and poverty because of a virus.  We did not prevent individuals with other health issues from accessing their doctors.  We did not force our population into a form of house arrest in order to placate the panic and fear of some. 

In 1968 – 1969, we still thought and we still considered things from the perspective of reason.  In 2020, far too many of us relinquish our thinking to others and operate solely from the perspective of raw hysteria and emotion.

Why Must we Surrender our Rights during times of Perceived Crises?

Once again, our nation surrendered its liberties – our natural rights endowed upon us by our Creator – because of fear and panic.  We did not sacrifice our rights to some “greater cause,” for there is no cause greater than the natural state of freedom that makes us all human.  Instead, we compliantly surrendered that which makes us human, that which makes us American, to scare-mongering “experts” who conned us into believing their priorities, preferences, and judgements were somehow superior to everyone else’s.  We willingly relinquished our own powers of critical thinking and allowed our emotions, particularly our fears, to limit our own judgements.  We allowed a small cabal of so-called experts and politicians to strip us of our right to free will and choice, in exchange for being serfs to their own choices.

The United States of America was founded upon the principle that all humans were granted natural rights by our Creator.  These rights are not abstractions that a benevolent or despotic government can freely grant or deny.  They are an extension of the free will provided to us by our Lord – a recognition that such free will, choice, and liberty is the natural state of every human.  Legitimate governments strive, at all times, to preserve and protect individual liberty.  Despotic governments seek to control humanity by infringing upon these natural rights.

Anatomy of Despotism

During the coronavirus pandemic, governmental officials, usually governors and members of the federal and state executive branches, abandoned any pretext of protecting individual rights and, instead, chose to rule by dictate and decree.  Most of the nation’s governors chose to put their own citizens under various forms of house arrest, through “stay at home” or “lockdown” orders.  They arbitrarily closed businesses they deemed “nonessential” with little thought given to the real impact this would have on the business owners, their employees, their suppliers, and the communities they serve.  When confronted with a perceived crisis, these supposed leaders reflexively resorted to the most intrusive and excessively coercive mechanisms of governmental power, rather than trusting their citizens to independently make the choices right for them.

This was partially caused by mass hysteria driven by the sensationalist and alarmist pronouncements of the media and by opportunistic “experts” seeking personal publicity or the raw exercise of power.  The so-called “experts” were granted levels of influence and power far beyond their areas of expertise, and the public eagerly and willingly acquiesced to even the most draconian recommendations of these individuals.  It is a sad reality of human nature that when given an opportunity to exercise power over others, most people will gladly wield that power to their own ends.  Far too often, the public meekly complies.

Whether you choose to call the technique “gaslighting”, or as Hitler termed it, “the Big Lie,” when something is repeated often enough and with enough conviction, the public will eventually believe, and then, embrace the lie.  The panic and raw emotional reactions to the perceived threat of COVID-19 was a classic example of this phenomenon.

The Path to Dictatorship

Initially, most Americans, including most politicians, believed COVID-19 would not cause much trouble, and even branded those who disagreed as racists against the Chinese.  It was not uncommon to see mayors and other political figures tour Chinatowns in their cities and encourage people to visit their restaurants and businesses.

That all changed in late February and early March of 2020.  The news media seized upon the worst aspects of the outbreak in Europe, particularly in Italy and quickly sensationalized their coverage in a desperate search for ratings and readers.  Then, on March 16, Imperial College in Britain published a model which predicted that half a million people in Britain would die from COVID-19, and two million from the United States.  Even though the authors of the Imperial College model quickly walked back their predictions, the press, and swiftly afterwards, the public and the politicians, seized upon these alarmist predictions and repeated them like a mantra.

Driven by public demand to “do something!,” California’s governor issued the first “stay at home” order on March 19, 2020.  All but seven states quickly followed.  These “stay at home” orders closed businesses deemed nonessential by the state governors, prohibited elective surgeries in hospitals, limited gatherings of more than a handful of people, and often closed public parks, beaches, and other outdoor recreation venues.  Some restrictions, such as those imposed by Michigan Governor Whitmer, were more arbitrary and draconian than others, including forbidding lawn service companies from cutting lawns, preventing residents from purchasing plants and seeds from shops already open, and banning motorboats on waterways, but permitting non-motorized watercraft.  Clearly, all these restrictions violated the rights to free exercise of religion, the right of the people to peaceably assemble, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, the right to not being denied liberty or property without due process of law, the right to not have excess fines imposed, and a host of other Constitutionally-enumerated rights.

Few governors gave thought to the health and economic consequences of their decisions, and often imposed restrictions in spite of the lack of empirical evidence supporting them.  The initial justification was that the restrictions were necessary to “flatten the curve” and later, to limit new cases of coronavirus. When it became obvious COVID-19 was still spreading in spite of stay at home orders, governors opted for new requirements, like mandating masks in public, even though the value of the public wearing homemade masks is questionable.  Instead of admitting their policies were little more than ineffective political theater and abandoning their overreaching dictates, pot-committed governors often doubled down by extending existing restrictions and even imposing new ones.

The Myth of “Killing Grandma”

Those who questioned and protested the governmental dictates were attacked as being selfish, anti-science, and even racist.  Those who protested the infringement of their liberties were even accused of wanting to “kill grandma.”

In many states, these lockdowns, which often weren’t even voted upon by state legislatures, still exist, despite statistical evidence stay at home orders have no impact on coronavirus infection or fatality rates.  In fact, nationwide, over 1/3 of all coronavirus cases and fatalities occur in long-term care facilities like nursing homes and assisted living communities.  The fatality rate predictably rises by age, with those under 65 unlikely to perish from the disease unless other comorbidity factors already exist.  Transmission of COVID-19 is very rare during fleeting contacts, such as passing an infected person in a store.  Even governmental officials are implicitly recognizing this, by limiting contact tracing to persons with close and constant contact with infected persons.

There is no disputing COVID-19 is more contagious and more serious than typical strains of influenza.  Worldwide, the fatality rate appears to be about 1.3% for those with symptomatic cases of coronavirus.  The vast majority of people who contract coronavirus recover, including a majority of the most vulnerable patients (those over the age of 85).  In addition, it is estimated that 25% to 50% of all coronavirus cases are asymptomatic. Although the risk of coronavirus should not be understated, it need not be exaggerated either.  Although the raw numbers of cases and deaths may appear alarming, the chance of contracting COVID-19 and having a bad final outcome is still statistically minimal.

Humans are naturally social animals.  They create family units, extended clans, communities, and entire civilizations though voluntary interactions.  These voluntary interactions and socialization are essential to the success of the species.  The United States has developed the most advanced nation in the world through its principles, which are eloquently documented in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The inevitable advancement of our nation was never hindered by the temporary challenges of disease, war, financial depressions, or any other perceived crisis.  Indeed, it is the values of individual liberty that allowed us to weather these challenges.  We are not weakened by our rights and our liberties; we are weakened when we surrender our rights and our liberties.

There are risks throughout life, and each person has the natural right to determine how best to navigate through these risks.  Some may choose to avoid most risks by sequestering themselves in safe environments and avoiding any activities that may potentially be dangerous.  Others may choose to embrace risks, feeling they experience life best while risking it.  Most people fall somewhere in the middle, prudently avoiding likely risks, attempting to mitigate serious, but unlikely outcomes, and living normal lives.  Everyone has the right to determine how they each, individually, wish to balance life’s risks with actually living their lives.

By instituting policies, particularly one-size-fits-all policies, in an attempt to slow the progressions of coronavirus, those holding governmental power have not only implemented ineffective “solutions” that have likely generated more problems than they solved, they have also denied people the natural right to determine their own fates.  The individuals possessing the coercive power of government have determined they alone, not the people themselves, possess the unerring wisdom to dictate the preferences, priorities, and risks each individual may hold.  They have failed to consider that every policy decision has trade-offs, which are often negative.  While responding to the unbridled panic of the public by infringing upon individual liberties, these pandering politicians have failed to address the social and health costs of deferred medical care, the loss of jobs and income, the loss of life savings and businesses that took a lifetime to build, and the ensuing stress, anxiety, and depression tied to these factors.  Most importantly, these smug “leaders” have denied the nation’s citizens their inherent rights to choose their own actions, their own tolerance for risk, and their own paths in life.

Individuals should not be subjected to the whims and preferences of governmental officials and “experts,” especially when those whims directly infringe upon the liberties of the citizens.  Each person has a right to determine the actions he or she wishes to take as it pertains to COVID-19.  A younger adult, in good health who has invested her life savings in a small business may legitimately arrive at the conclusion that the risk of contracting coronavirus, and the risk of permanent adverse impacts, is much less than the risk of losing her business and life savings.  A senior citizen with high blood pressure and diabetes may decide sheltering at home is the safer alternative.  When people decide they have more important priorities than hiding from a virus, particularly if the virus is unlikely to cause them significant harm, no one has the right to prevent them from engaging in the activities of their choice.  Likewise, a person who may be at high risk of adverse outcomes is free to choose to shelter at home until the threat abates. 

Nobody will be “killing grandma.”  If grandma feels she is at risk for adverse outcomes, she is welcome to shelter in place until the viral threat subsides.  Grandma, however, does not have the right to demand everyone else put their lives on hold.

We’re Not “All in This Together”

It is always troubling when someone pretentiously announces “we’re all in this together,” and “everyone must make a sacrifice for the common good.”  There is no common good; there are only tradeoffs inherent in any policy that may benefit some and disadvantage others.  Those demanding “sacrifice” are usually only demanding others sacrifice their liberties to those most fearful in society.  They, themselves, are the last to truly sacrifice anything.  Those who most loudly demand government solutions to somehow manage a natural phenomenon are viewing government as in parentis loco.  In other words, they are plaintively begging their mommies to tell them everything will turn out all right.

Things won’t turn out all right.  COVID-19 is a very contagious disease with a higher-than-average fatality rate.  Although the odds of any one person dying is statistically remote, particularly those in their younger years, millions of people will contract the virus and hundreds of thousands or more will die from it.  Unless an effective vaccine is developed in record time, or the virus unexpectedly mutates into a less potent form, the virus will likely be with us for several years to come.  We can hunker down, destroy our society and economy in the hope the virus will pass us by, or we can live our lives, with each of us taking the precautions we each feel are necessary to avoid or mitigate the impact of the virus.  This is not a decision that should be dictated from above.  It’s a decision that rightfully belongs to each and every individual.

An old adage says, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” 

Similarly, when politicians are asked to address a problem, their only tool is the blatant exercise of coercive governmental power, usually resulting in the infringement of people’s rights.  Why do we, as a citizenry, compliantly accept the dictates of those wielding political power, especially when those dictates involve an unconstitutional infringement of individual rights?   Why shouldn’t we demand that our representatives figure out ways to address problems (if they really should be involved in the first place) that don’t involve the diminution of our natural and constitutional rights? Why should every response to perceived crises first involve dictatorship and infringement of our liberties?

The media and politicians thrive on creating, exaggerating, and fueling perceived crises.  Addressing crises gives them purpose, drives reader and viewership, and wins them votes.  Unfortunately, crises are also used to instill emotional reactions in the populace, usually fear.  When the population is driven by emotions, particularly panic and fear, they are often willing to surrender their individual rights and sovereignty to whomever promises them security, whether that security really exists or not.  As citizens, we must use reason, rather than emotion, to address the validity and severity of alleged crises, and demand that any governmental actions not involve dictatorship or the deprivation of liberties.

The Romans lost their republic when they voluntarily ceded their rights and self-representation to magistrates granted dictatorial powers to respond to crises or “emergencies.”  Over time, these crises and emergencies grew so frequent that Rome was constantly ruled by dictators, rather than their own Senators.  It did not take long for the Roman Republic to be replaced by the autocratic Roman Empire.

Every time Americans were required to surrender their liberties in response to some perceived crisis, it was later concluded that such actions were unnecessary and an example of governmental overreach or abuse of power.  In spite of this historical reality, we are constantly told it is selfish to resist the dictates of the state, for those dictates are for our own good.  Instead of compliantly submitting to regular governmental dictates to surrender our rights, we should be demanding government respect and protect our rights, and seek out solutions to any emergencies that don’t infringe upon individual choice or liberty.

The Tyranny of Legislation

In a society based upon the principles of individual liberty, there is a need for only seven laws:

  1. One may not take another’s life unless one’s life or property is in imminent danger.
  2. One may not physically assault another individual unless one’s life or property is in imminent danger.
  3. No one has a right to take, use, or damage another’s property without the voluntary consent of the owner of such property.
  4. Commerce must be conducted honestly. All products and services must be represented accurately and function as described and intended.
  5. All parties who voluntarily enter into an agreement or contract are obligated to fulfill the terms of said agreement or contract.
  6. All social and economic interactions must be undertaken on a voluntary basis. No one must be coerced to engage in any social or economic activity.
  7. An individual’s personal rights must always be respected and protected. No personal, moral, societal, or other preferences supersede the rights of personal liberty.

Laws may be legitimately passed to clarify each of these seven laws. For example, laws or regulations preventing one from causing pollution may be legitimate, since pollution emanating from one individual or concern may damage the property of another. Laws that ensure commerce is conducted honestly may be legitimate, provided that such laws don’t hinder commerce or provide an advantage or penalize any party.

Any type of law not addressed by the above seven laws is probably illegitimate in a free society. These include laws in which one’s personal morality, preferences, or ideals are coercively imposed upon another. Examples of these types of illegitimate laws include laws that regulate individual behaviors that do not infringe upon the liberties of others. Sexual practices, religious preferences, economic decisions, personal moral beliefs, and lifestyle choices are areas that should not be subject to coercive legislation.

Laws should also not be passed to address the economic or social preferences of any group of individuals, regardless of how noble or useful such preferences appear. Not only do attempts to establish a “nanny state” paternalistic society inevitably fail, they also are an affront to the concept of personal liberty. One should have the freedom to make one’s own decisions, even if those decisions are bad. When government tries to act as the arbiter of “good decisions,” or attempts to protect people from the consequences of their decisions, that government creates a society of mediocrity. In such a society, the population has no personal incentive to make good decisions, since government protects them from their own failures. Conversely, and more importantly, such a society also discourages risk taking. Those who have accomplished the most throughout history have usually been those who were willing to assume the largest risk and to deviate from conventional thinking. A paternalistic nanny state merely reinforces and rewards the status quo. It actively discourages new thinking and the new ideas that fuel economic and social progress.

Attempts to create social or economic engineering solutions through the coercive power of government, besides infringing upon personal liberty, inevitably lead to unintended consequences. These so-called solutions usually involve providing an advantage or reward to a certain group, while denying the same advantages or rewards to other groups. This means that government, instead of protecting individual liberty and initiative, actively interferes with the organic growth of the economy or society by imposing its preferences for behavior or outcomes. For example, providing tax incentives to specific industries artificially inflates the value of these industries, while ignoring or penalizing industries that may actually produce more societal or economic good if left to compete in a free marketplace. This also creates an atmosphere that invites governmental corruption, as any special interest will lobby, petition, or bribe the government for special favors. When a favor is granted to any specific interest, other interests are, by definition, penalized by not being allowed to compete on the same level. Rather than competing on merit, by the strength of their own products or services and their acceptance in a free marketplace, organizations are forced, in this corrupt environment, to compete upon the basis of the clout they wield in government. There is no economic or societal advantage in using clout, rather than merit, to determine the success or failure of any undertaking.

The same argument about unintended consequences holds true to legislation that attempts to regulate personal behavior. The attempt to ban the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages failed miserably. People routinely ignored the law (leading to a breakdown in respect for government) and illegal organization sprung up and thrived in order to satisfy the demand for the now-illegal beverages. A similar situation exists in the consumption of recreational drugs. Legislation outlawing the consumption of recreational substances and the so-called “War on Drugs” did little to stifle demand for these substances. Instead, these laws caused the emergence of illegal organizations and cartels to supply the inherent demand for these substances. Since this commerce is illegal, there are no contractual controls to govern the behavior of these organizations or ways to ensure that such commerce is conducted honestly. It should come as no surprise that these illegal organizations engage in violent behavior, since their basic trade is illegal to begin with.

In order to combat the violence caused by organizations that have sprung up in response to such ill conceived laws, public law enforcement has had to become more militaristic in order to fight the violence, and more and more laws that restrict basic civil rights and liberties have been passed in order to address the problems caused by this illegal trade. For example, in order to prevent cash transactions and money laundering by drug cartels, Americans can no longer conduct any cash commerce in excess of $10,000 without notifying Federal authorities. Even if the authorities are notified, civil forfeiture laws allow government authorities to seize property if they claim to suspect such money or property was obtained through illicit drug sales. There is no need for due process before seizing a person’s property – suspicion is enough. It is up to the owner of the property to prove that their property was obtained through legitimate means. The basic concept of innocence until proven guilty, which is a cornerstone of a free society, is abandoned in order to maintain the façade of legislation initially enacted to create a socially engineered solution to a perceived problem.

There is no denying that addiction can be a tragic and debilitating experience. However, the choice to consume an addictive substance rests solely with the individual choosing to indulge in these substances. He or she should bear the brunt of those decisions, not society as a whole. The entire population should not have their behavior constrained, or liberties restricted, because a small proportion of the population fails to make good decisions. Attempts to use the coercive power of government to regulate specific behaviors not only fails to ensure good decisions by the targeted population, such legislation usually has significant negative effects on the rest of the populace.

Laws that exceed the seven listed above are fundamentally an attempt by a group of people to impose, through threat of government-enforced force or forfeiture, their will upon others. No matter how well-intentioned, laws that impose the will of one group upon another group are an assault on personal freedom. The United States was not founded upon the principle of the mediocrity of collectivism. It was founded upon the principles of individual liberty and personal initiative. We must be very vigilant when leaders or candidates propose “solutions” that exceed the scope of these seven basic laws. Although they may craft a compelling argument in favor of their solutions, these “solutions” are merely the leader or candidate’s attempt to impose his or her will on the populace. There is a term for the form of government that coercively imposes its own preferences on the population, even if the leaders are “freely” elected by the populace. That term is “dictatorship.”