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Democracies and Double Standards

Shortly before he died, François Mitterrand gathered his friends for one final grand meal.  The meal featured ortolan, a rare bird, that was, illegal to consume.  I recall discussing the meal with a colleague in Europe. His thinking was “Good for Mitterrand”; the great man ought to enjoy one final delight.  I responded that that’s part of what separates America from Europe. The Biblical injunction “do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich” is a democratic standard.  The law applies equally to everyone, from the poorest ditch digger to the wealthiest businessman and most powerful statesman.

The rash of Covid rule-breaking among our leadership class makes me wonder if Americans, at least those in our leadership class, still believe in that standard. (It was, to be sure, never entirely true, but it was, historically, more true in the US than in most countries). Consider a few instances.  Deborah Birx, one of our national health leaders in defeating the Corona virus, was guilty “of breaking her own travel guidance.”  In that, she was not doing anything that California Governor Gavin Newsom,New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and many others haven’t done.  Perhaps the image of New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and his wife dancing in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, while just about everyone else in the city was stuck inside is hard to top as an example of this phenomenon.

Dr. Birx’s excuse for breaking the rules that she promoted is illuminating.  As the New York Post notes, “her parents were so down in the dumps, they ‘stopped eating and drinking.’”  “’My daughter hasn’t left that house in 10 months, my parents have been isolated for 10 months. They’ve become deeply depressed,’ Birx said of the need to “recover from the trauma of the last 10 months.’”  As the story points out, that “justification [was] ripped by people who said it was her coronavirus restrictions that prevented them from seeing their own dying loved ones.” 

What gives? Dr. Brix is an expert. It’s not a big leap to conclude that she thinks she knows better than others how to navigate around the rules in a way that would still mean that there’s little chance of exposure.  Even so, a more thoughtful bureaucrat would understand that in a democratic nation there cannot be one standard for leaders and another for other citizens. To uphold the standard it must apply to oneself.

If Fauci and others think not simply that they are more expert than non-scientists, but if they also think that less educated Americans cannot be trusted to govern themselves in their day to day affairs, it suggests that our bureaucracy is turning into a post-modern form of robe nobility, with its own prerogatives and aristocratic elan.  

And the others?  Hypocrisy, like sin, is as old as Adam.  Even so, one wonders why politicians are so cavalier about following their own standards. Gavin Newsom is no scientist. He doesn’t even play one on TV.  But he and, presumably the others who attended the infamous dinner at The French Laundry, think highly of themselves.  They’re educated, and therefore are capable of making prudent judgments about when it might be reasonable to bend or even ignore the regular rules of conduct.  After all, no one, it seems, actually got sick at the French Laundry dinner.  At least I have not read of any cases. Perhaps there was one or two. One hopes the other cases of rule breaking had the same result. It is, however, true that several politicians have gotten Covid. But it is not clear what percent of those cases are due to hypocritical rule breaking.

The question is why aren’t we common citizens equally entitled to make such judgment calls.  There is a technical term for a regime in which the ruling class has one set of rules applying to it, and the common residents (“citizens” is the wrong word in this context) have to live by another set of rules because they, per the ruling class, cannot be trusted to abide those same rules with success. That term is “aristocracy.” It is what we Americans rejected in the founding era. The great struggles for racial equality were struggles to make US practice more in line with the US ideal.

That’s what is so concerning and revealing about Dr. Fauci’s “noble” lies.  Early in the pandemic, he lied about the efficacy of masks, downplaying their importance. Why? “”[W]e were concerned the public health community, and many people were saying this, were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply.”  And more recently he lied about herd immunity: “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent … Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit.’ so I went to 80, 85.”  In other words, he was managing the “truth” because he thinks his fellow Americans can’t handle the truth.  He was trying to shape American behavior, a task that, one would think, would not be the job of a civil servant.  Moreover, his chosen tactic was not rational persuasion. Instead, he chose to lie. And that’s a problem.

An equal America, and a democratic America is one in which the people can be trusted with the truth, and can be expected to be responsible about it.  It would be more honorable, and it would do more honor to democracy for Fauci to have said in February and March something like “masks probably are helpful, [it was early, and the data were not yet conclusive] but they are in short supply, so please hold off and let our hospitals and health workers buy them for now until production increases.”  Similarly, a more honest and straightforward leading by example would be to take the vaccine in public to show it’s safe, followed up with exhortations to take the vaccine because it’s necessary for normal life to resume.  Lying to the public is the easy, and anti-democratic way out. 

Fauci is a senior civil servant. He has been at or near the top of America’s public health bureaucracy since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.  If he and others at that level think not simply that they are more expert than non-scientists, but if they also think that less educated Americans cannot be trusted to govern themselves in their day to day affairs, it suggests that our bureaucracy is turning into a post-modern form of robe nobility, with its own prerogatives and aristocratic elan.  That Johns Hopkins University pulled a study showing that, thus far, Covid has not produced a net increase in mortality in the US, not because the data or conclusions were faulty, but rather because they worried that their fellow citizens might draw the wrong inferences from the data, suggests that as well.

This is not to say that democratic governments never have secrets, and never have to hide the truth in extreme circumstances. All governments have to do that sometimes, as Gabriel Shoenfeld’s fine Necessary Secrets points out. General Washington had so little powder at the Battle of Boston that he hid that truth from just about everyone. It was not a “noble lie” produced for the better management of the common soldiers.  It was, on the contrary, a necessary lie to bluff the British, and keep them from attacking when they had the advantage.

I am reminded of a passage in Henry Adams’ novel, Democracy.   The historian Nathan Gore (in some ways a proxy for the author), gives his political creed:

I believe in democracy. I accept it. I will faithfully serve and defend it. I believe in it because it appears to me the inevitable consequence of what has gone before it. Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to a higher intelligence than formerly. All our civilisation aims at this mark. We want to do what we can to help it. I myself want to see the result. I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking; the only conception of its duty large enough to satisfy its instincts; the only result that is worth an effort or a risk. Every other possible step is backward, and I do not care to repeat the past. I am glad to see society grapple with issues in which no one can afford to be neutral.

Note the line “democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to a higher intelligence than formerly.”  Formerly, in the Old World, the governing class assumed that the mass of men were too stupid to be trusted with serious power, or real decision-making authority.  Similarly, they assumed that only the fear of the lash and of starvation could get most men to work.  The American democracy, per Adams, was built upon a belief that the common man (we would say the common citizen, male and female), is capable of thinking. He needn’t be talked down to by governing officials. 

American Progressivism, although it claims to be democratic, has always had a strong Tory streak.  To be sure, in the place of the old aristocracy it places the modern expert with an academic credential, but the result is the same.  At the end of the day, it presumes that we the people can never know enough to manage our affairs.  Our freedom, in this Progressive dispensation is the freedom not of men who make their way in the world, taking on the responsibilities of providing food, shelter, health care, and the like for themselves and their families as much as they possibly can, but, instead, it is freedom of lifestyle liberalism—the post-modern version of bread and circuses. Don’t worry your pretty head with political judgments and public policy. Run along and enjoy your pleasures as they come.

It might be that today’s politics are so tense, and intense, because, thanks to Covid and the lockdowns, there’s no circus to be had, and the citizens are getting restless, as they begin to realize what is being taken away from us by our would-be betters. 

Reader Discussion

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on January 22, 2021 at 08:14:13 am

Fauci didn't lie about masks early. He told the truth. From the WHO's own report ("settled science") in October 2019, "Non-pharmaceutical public health measures for mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza":

OVERALL RESULT OF EVIDENCE ON FACE MASKS
1. Ten RCTs were included in the meta-analysis, and there was no evidence that face
masks are effective in reducing transmission of laboratory-confirmed influenza.

https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/329438/9789241516839-eng.pdf?ua=1

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Eric Morris
on January 22, 2021 at 09:23:15 am

Yes, the Johns Hopkins website in its pyramid of protective measures (last spring) put masks at the bottom and in commenting on it their scientists said masks could even be counterproductive because of all the fiddling and adjusting with potentially dirty hands. AND did you notice all the hugging going on at the inauguration, starting with VP Harris, who maligned the "Trump" virus but seems to have been first in line to get it.

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Naneen Neubohn
on January 22, 2021 at 11:14:40 am

Naneen, Exactly!

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Eric Morris
on January 22, 2021 at 09:01:31 am

The lies the author decries by politicians and administrative state bureaucrats were all Democrat lies, and they were driven by far more than merely the Democrat Party's "deplorables syndrome" or by the derisive opinion of the Democrat ruling elite for the lowly-worm capacity of the unwashed masses to act intelligently in the matter of China Virus prevention. At the real heart of the matter is the Democrat Party's intention to deploy law enforcement so as to gain and maintain political control by punishing its political opponents, destroying their economic well-being and defeating Republican candidates. And the strategy is deployed in far more insidious ways than the infliction of masking, travel and quarantine regulations which are carelessly adopted by Democrats, enforced rigorously by Democrats against the political, religious, small business and working/middle class enemies of the Democrat Party, and from which Democrat leaders, like Speaker Pelosi, Governors Newsom, Cuomo and Whitmer, and Mayors de Blasio and Lightfoot, blithely exempt themselves, at will and with unprosecuted impunity.

There is, rather, a generalized, society-wide, double legal standard, one that is nationwide and comprehends all matters of compliance with criminal and civil law. The deep double legal and law enforcement standard that is now the new norm is "one law enforcement for thee, another law enforcement for me." We saw it in spades throughout the incompetent failures to investigate and indict and the faux-investigations of Secretary of State Hillary's numerous, patently obvious, national security and obstruction of justice crimes, the Clinton Foundation's highly suspicious pay for play scam, and the Clinton Campaign's and the Obama Administration's malicious deployment of national security laws, the FBI and the FISA Court to investigate and undermine Trump's campaign and then his presidency. WE saw the double standard of law enforcement with the Democrat-motivated and Never-Trump sustained special counsel's persecution and the Congressional Democrats' impeachment of Trump, and the feckless investigation into myriad crimes and cover-ups of the Obama Administration in all of the above (and more) during Obama's 8 years in office. We saw it again with the "Blue State Special," the tens of thousands of special exemptions from riot control measures and the special exemptions from arrest and criminal prosecution that Blue State Governors and Mayors dispensed to thousands of Democrat-favored criminals (mostly BLM and Antifa) who committed assault, trespass, riot, looting and arson. Yet, whenever an opportunity arose during those "Summer of Love" riots to single out their political and working/middle class opponents for harsh criminal law enforcement Blue Government authorities did so, and with a vengeance. The double standard gets on stilts when one compare the Summer of Love with with the Democrat Party's official law enforcement handling of the Capitol Hill disturbances, even calling them an "insurrection" incited by the Democrat Party's greatest enemy and carried out by Trump's deplorable minions, so their insidious accusation goes.

All of it has been a continuous display of "one law enforcement for thee, no law enforcement for me." It has established a new norm of special treatment for the ruling Democrat Party and special investigation, persecution and prosecution for their opponents. That double-standards process is a calculated political strategy for achieving total public control. It a dirigiste thrust by the Democrat Party toward total government control of public thought and behavior, of human liberty.

Double standards in enforcing honest elections only made their task easier.

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paladin
on January 22, 2021 at 10:35:11 am

Were it not for DOUBLE standards, the Democrats would have no standards at all.
Wasn't that a song on HeeHaw. Oops, I must be channeling that vile creature Kevin D. Williamson from NRO yesterday.

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gabe
on January 22, 2021 at 11:24:18 am

Shorter version: Laws ae for the little people, says the aristocracy--who abide at their convenience.

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Forbes
on January 22, 2021 at 16:46:27 pm

I largely agree with the points the author makes. The rulers and experts need to live by their own words. They should trust that a properly measured statement of truth will persuade the general public. Lying is wrong and acting in a way that contradicts your own advice is wrong. That said, there are cases where almost all of us have to trust experts. There is such a thing as expert knowledge, and it would be foolish to ignore it or to claim to decide for oneself matters of fact that can be determined only by deep, long, and very sophisticated research. It remains an ongoing problem to learn how we can profit from expertise without blindly submitting to it. That is not an easy problem to solve and the answer will vary from case to case. It also has to be said that the problem of not wearing masks is not a problem of hypocritical elites. It is a problem of many individuals refusing to listen to perfectly sound expert opinion that is offered not to oppress but to inform and empower. The doctor is not oppressing you with expertise or insulting your intelligence when he advises you to stop smoking. He is advising you, and it is no testimony to the ordinary person's intelligence to question or reject that advice. Rather, it suggests that though people are generally know more than in the past they don't always show much intelligence. They can be as recalcitrant and stubborn as a surly teenager. I hope everyone will vindicate the true democratic principle, which is the capacity for self-government, by showing that we can govern ourselves--even to the point of wearing a mask because trustworthy experts advise us that it will help keep us healthy.

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Donald Marshall
on January 22, 2021 at 21:30:36 pm

When you say "It remains an ongoing problem to learn how we can profit from expertise without blindly submitting to it. That is not an easy problem to solve and the answer will vary from case to case.", I beg to differ. While it may not always be an easy problem to solve, it does not have to be all that difficult, given the large number of experts (or near enough experts) in most any given field. If we look to David Brin's aphorism, we have a decent solution: CITOKATE, or Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote to Error. If sufficiently knowledgeable "colleagues" question or rationally criticize an expert's proposal or opinion, even most laymen can begin to see that the stated opinion may not be entirely accepted or acceptable. And that if a decision must be made that favors the original opinion, that there may be greater risk with that path than originally supposed, and possibly suitable mitigations can be put in place.

The nature and/or result of the criticism may vary from case to case, but the validity of respectful tactful criticism in helping to avoid mistakes is almost "self evident". Wise experts acknowledge and respect such criticism as helping to unearth the better understanding of truth and reality, which should be the goal of all "experts". And the internet tells me it was Reagan who said "There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don't care who gets the credit." So global warming/ climate change; the merits and limits of wearing masks; the benefits of smoking cessation; etc. can all be addressed responsibly by assessing the merits and limits of the criticisms offered. After all, blog commentary has the same aim, often with outstanding results.

But when our hypocritical politicians and "leaders" (of all parties) become focused on their narrative at the expense of truth and reality, then they do become your recalcitrant, stubborn, surly teenager. And then measures stronger than mere criticism may be needed if the expected outcome is truly vile or tyrannical or onerous.

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R2L
on January 23, 2021 at 13:31:20 pm

Why Fauci lied.
because he is the exemplar of "Failing up."

https://thefederalist.com/2021/01/13/a-short-history-of-how-anthony-fauci-has-kept-failing-up-since-1984/

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gabe
on January 23, 2021 at 23:57:17 pm

It seems that the referenced "study" regarding mortality due to Covid-19 was nothing more than a superficial "first pass" Excel spreadsheet crunching of some (not nearly all) data for a discussion by the class of the lecturer (not a "researcher"), Dr. Genevieve Briand.
Note the update to that article:
Robert Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch of the National Center for Health Statistics, also disputes Briand’s analysis. According to Anderson, Briand didn’t account for seasonal changes in deaths. “In the spring of 2020, during a period where we normally should be seeing declining mortality, deaths continued to increase and were at unusually high levels through the spring,” he told Lead Stories. “So, the comparison of the most lethal weeks in 2018 with the most lethal weeks of 2020 is not appropriate.”

Other people commenting on that update in support of its critique appear to be much more knowledgeable and bona fide researchers in health statistics, and pointed out the need for much more detailed data analysis to reach valid conclusions (although I did not notice anyone doing so...) .
Although there are disturbing anecdotes of misclassified causes of death lumped into the Covid-19 category, it seems more than a bit incredible to me that it would be widespread enough to support the idea of a massive conspiracy to justify the lockdowns on this basis to gain more overbearing government control of our lives. I think there is plenty of evidence that such lock downs were justified on the more banal grounds of the elitist hypocrisy of the "ruling class" who use any handy rationalization to justify their power grabs.

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RO
on January 25, 2021 at 17:21:12 pm

One should note that hospitals received increased funding for any and all "Covid" deaths that were recorded in their hospitals.
One should also note the rather peculiar AND DRAMATIC decline in the number of deaths attributed to what were normally the #1 and #2 causes ofdeat h in the USA - heart disease and cancer. curiously those declines pretty much approximated the number of Covid deaths.
No, not a conspiracy but a "confluence" of interests by hospitals, Health agencies (also done for increased funding) and the usual suspects - power hungry politicians - see Gavin Newsomw, Andrew Cuomo, Bill DeBlasio, Governor whitmer, et al.

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gabe
on January 25, 2021 at 17:37:13 pm

And here we go again:

https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2021/01/25/biden-executive-order-could-have-taxpayers-fully-funding-san-francisco-homeless-hotels/

wherein we find that even more funding will go to hospitals to combat Covid (along with homeless shelters, homeless "hotels", etc)
Do you not see a perverse incentive to inflate covid cases and thereby gain increased funding.

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gabe
on January 26, 2021 at 17:30:30 pm

I have also learned, since posting the above, from a closely related source who is in a post in high level administration of a major university teaching hospital, that, indeed, any death there with any Covid-19 "taint", whether actual cause of death or not, would be counted in their reporting statistics as Covid-19 caused, which causes substantial distortion of its impact. Along with that, the ICU beds are ALWAYS near fully used.

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RO
on January 28, 2021 at 07:08:14 am

Year over year mortality rates have not spiked due to Covid. You appear to be cherry-picking data yourself. Deaths wrongly attributed to Covid have replaced deaths that should have been attributed to heart attacks, flu, etc.

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Dee
on January 24, 2021 at 12:37:49 pm

Those that can...do. Those that can't, work for Public Health.

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fred lhu
on January 25, 2021 at 13:19:24 pm

Smart writing by R2L and Gabe! And Lhu knows what's going on. It would have to hit others in the face before they get, if then.

Re the omnipresent danger and current reality of an ascendant political class (to quote R2L) "focused on their narrative at the expense of truth and reality," read Joseph Pieper's "Abuse of Language--Abuse of Power."

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Paladin
on January 25, 2021 at 15:21:17 pm

R2L's comment is particularly well put.

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Michael Bond
on January 25, 2021 at 17:24:25 pm

And NOW we find that the Sainted Dr Anthony Fauci, who has quite literally extended his "15 minutes of fame" beyond all calculation has now opined that if wearing ONE mask is good, "Two masks must be better."
Would someone please get this narcissistic abysmal failure of a little man off the stage?

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gabe
on January 25, 2021 at 17:37:45 pm

Well ain't this a hoot!

And here we go again:

https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2021/01/25/biden-executive-order-could-have-taxpayers-fully-funding-san-francisco-homeless-hotels/

wherein we find that even more funding will go to hospitals to combat Covid (along with homeless shelters, homeless "hotels", etc)
Do you not see a perverse incentive to inflate covid cases and thereby gain increased funding.

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gabe
on January 25, 2021 at 17:44:57 pm

AND THERE IS MORE ON THE INESTIMABLE DR FALSIE:
https://thefederalist.com/2021/01/25/dr-anthony-fauci-is-the-highest-paid-federal-employee/

View the embedded Fauci's Follies at the 2:00 minute mark.

AND he gets paid , get this, $417, 608 per year - the highest paid Federal Employee.
I thought we "get what we pay for". Well another truism falls to post-modernism.

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gabe
on January 26, 2021 at 19:24:58 pm

Since there is no new essay today, I will make this belated and somewhat tangential observation:

The title of this essay reflects a subset of a larger issue: Democracy and the Decline of Standards. It should come as no surprise that elites are not bothered by by double standards when we can readily observe the decay of standards generally. There are numerous of examples of our societal indifference, or outright hostility to standards. Would it really surprise anyone if some assistant professor from somewhere were to tweet that standards are racist, or a mechanism of "white supremacy?" The decline of standards is ubiquitous, seen in such phenomena as grade inflation, the debasement of academic degrees, the capriciousness of the impeachment power, the jettisoning of journalistic and professional ethics, treating as serious the allegation that the disturbance on January 6 was a "coup," and changing qualification standards of various sorts to accommodate political interests. We witness declines in standards of decency, journalistic integrity, civility, honor, competence, etc. We accommodate the idea that standards can be met with good intentions, even if the facade of those intentions is dishonest. We may quietly doubt, but not explicitly reject, that merit conflicts with arbitrary definitions of "justice" and therefore standards are obstacles to social progress. More consequentially, we defer to "experts," then unquestioningly let those same experts define their own standards, such that the experts never have to acknowledge failure.

We have largely abandoned the standards that demanded healthy skepticism. We thus are not really equipped to question the dubious "science" behind inaccurate climate models, COVID policy, and gender issues. We have so little respect for standards that we delegate selection of our political officers to "activists," and then wonder how we end up with senile, stupid, dishonest and craven elected officials. We do not hold these people's shortcomings against them because we no longer are serious about the standards against which we measure them.

Part of the reason that standards have slipped is, ironically, that we pretend to have high standards for some things, which requires having no standards for others. We fall for the idea that "safety" is the highest consideration, even though we know it is not, and become so convinced of this falsehood that we discard other standards that seem inconsistent with it. We, for example, discard educational standards in the interest of "safety" against the COVID menace. We pretend to have such high regard for a poorly defined and amorphous notion of "justice" that we repudiate standards and norms that protect against political violence, or violent crime. We become so seduced by safetyism and scientism and critical theory that we ignore the standards that protect liberty, and human dignity, and human decency. We contaminated our standards with pseudoscience, psycho-babble, nihilism, and adolescent solipsism.

Standards always exist on a slippery slope, because standards might result in disappointment, and because they require constant vigilance to maintain. Standards lead to unequal outcomes and this is taken as evidence that they are oppressive. Standards, like competition, are in fact essential to progress, to the mitigation of misery and ultimately to the achievement of human potential. Pretending otherwise is a show of ignorant self-righteousness and political opportunism, and is one of the glaring weaknesses of our current politics.

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z9z99
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on January 25, 2021 at 01:10:32 am

[…] – Roger D. McGrath at Chronicles Words of Division – Heather MacDonald at City Journal Democracies & Double Standards – Richard Samuelson at Law & Liberty Will the Media’s Biden Sycophancy Ever End? […]

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