The dire predictions made over a year ago should remind the mildly sentient among us of how cruel and pointless the lockdowns were.
A vision is a pre-analytic, cognitive act that is a human’s sense of how the world works. While visions themselves are subjective, the theories that spring from them can be evaluated objectively. Thomas Sowell’s informal trilogy of A Conflict of Visions, The Vision of the Anointed, and The Quest for Cosmic Justice discuss two conflicting social visions. The unconstrained (or anointed) vision is when someone believes that an individual can overcome self-interest through reason, and that knowledge and expertise are limitless; or at least they are among the anointed themselves. The constrained (or tragic) vision believes the opposite, viz. reason cannot defeat self-interest and there are limits to human knowledge and expertise. Throughout his brilliantly prophetic trilogy, Sowell uses several case studies to illustrate the failures of the anointed and draws the following pattern.
In Stage 1, the anointed declare a negative societal situation a crisis while with Stage 2 there is an unconstrained solution that purports to solve the crisis. Those who have the tragic vision criticize the proposed solution, warning that instead of giving a solution to the so-called crisis, it will instead cause unintended and detrimental consequences. The inevitable Stage 3 comes after the policies of the anointed go into effect, and the tragic results occur. When the anointed are confronted with the detrimental results, their response in Stage 4 is two-fold: First, the benighted are accused by the anointed as being simplistic and ignoring the complexities involved, thus placing the burden of proof on the benighted critics to demonstrate with certainty that these policies alone caused a worsening of the crisis. Second, the anointed claim that the situation would have been worse if not for their bold and wonderful actions. While Sowell’s own examples in the trio of books fit this pattern, it is worth considering if this pattern holds for the current Crise du Jour, viz. COVID-19. Not only will this allow us to test Sowell’s theory as he believes all social theories should be, but it also allows us to understand why governments have responded the way they have to this pandemic. We’ll primarily focus on the responses by different levels of the American government.
Four Stages: A COVID-19 Case Study
Stage 1: The Crisis. In December of 2019, a coronavirus disease was discovered in Wuhan, China. With COVID-19 being both contagious and novel, it spread around the world causing uncertainty and concern. While COVID-19 is undoubtedly dangerous to the elderly and those with certain underlying health conditions, there was a pronounced panic about the number of cases of the virus among many governments.
Stage 2: The Solution. To flatten the curve in mid-March of 2020, there would be mandatory and universal lockdowns of society, and if one was able to participate in society at all, then a mask would be required. During that time, there were many skeptics, particularly as the two weeks stretched to months and the anti-COVID policies became more draconian and Byzantine. These COVID-response skeptics all share the constrained vision to some extent, even if they disagree on any number of political and social issues. Here is a but a sample from Spring 2020: Bethany S. Mandel warned on Twitter of the dangers to the economic, medical, and social health of people. Tucker Carlson worried about the one-size-fits-all COVID response from the government. David Harsanyi argued against the Coronavirus authoritarianism, especially on the state level. Betsy McCaughey discussed who is in danger from COVID-19, and who is not.
Stage 3: The Results. As the benighted pundits predicted, the lockdowns and masking led to unintended detrimental consequences. Most significantly, the lockdowns were double-barrel shotgun blasts—they failed to stop the spread and destroyed parts of civil society. By late 2020, enough time had passed since mid-March to carefully evaluate the lockdowns and to declare them a failure. Sowell notes that one of the differences between the unconstrained and constrained visions is that the former considers solutions while the latter considers tradeoffs. John Tierney in City Journal and I in these pages made this very point by arguing that the legacy of the lockdowns after six months is that there are tradeoffs between safety and freedom. However, the anointed does not countenance tradeoffs since those necessitate compromise, which goes against his authoritarian impulses. It has now been well over a year since the initial lockdowns and there is even more evidence that the lockdowns have failed. Tierney’s more recent CJ piece is excellent as is data maven Matt Shapiro’s on his Substack.
Stage 4: The Response. The anointed have responded to these inconvenient facts by name-calling, lying, claiming things are better than they would have been (while ignoring evidence to the contrary, including the cases of Sweden or Florida), changing policies, and doubling-down. These responses answer neither the critiques in Stage 2 nor the facts in Stage 3. However, the anointed do not need to respond in good faith because not only has the solution changed since it was first offered in March of 2020, but so has the crisis.
The original solution of flattening the curve (for two weeks!) meant spreading out the number of cases so that hospitals could have time to prepare and respond to the pandemic. Flattening a curve does not mean that there will be fewer cases, just that the cases will occur over a longer period. Regardless, “flatten the curve” became “destroy the curve.” An extreme example of this is that Australia seems presently to have the goal of no cases.
An Exemplar of the Anointed
Anthony Fauci, the Chief Medical Advisor to the President and the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases, has become a household name during the pandemic. Regardless of whether Fauci has been generally correct or incorrect during the pandemic with respect to COVID-19 virology, he epitomizes the anointed when it comes to how governments should respond. Of the many examples of this, I’ll take one of his latest: “I’m sorry, I mean I know people must like to have their individual freedom and not be told to do something, but I think we’re in such a serious situation now that, under certain circumstances, mandates should be done.” In Sowellian fashion, let’s dissect this sentence, giving Fauci some benefit of the doubt with his verbiage since he stated this during an interview.
The proclamations of the anointed will be couched in emotional terms such as “I’m sorry” and an expression of empathetic understanding regarding the feelings of the tragic. This is cynical for the following reasons. The anointed do not care about the benighted. Also, note how an objective unalienable right becomes a subjective feeling in Fauci’s description of individual freedom. Once the unalienable is declared alienable, then Fauci slips naturally into the four stages of the unconstrained vision. There is not a tradeoff between freedom and mandates for the anointed Fauci, the mandates are the solution. In Fauci’s COVID calculus, freedom is irrelevant.
For the unconstrained vision, whenever there is a conflict between purported safety and actual freedom, the never-delivered promise of safety is always the solution. One can take the anointed view in favor of gun control and change a handful of terms and get the anointed arguments in favor of COVID-19 mandates: vaccine passports are background checks, lockdowns are the waiting periods, and masks are restrictions on magazines. Let’s repeat Fauci’s quote, but change “mandates” to “banning guns,” ceteris paribus: “I’m sorry, I mean I know people must like to have their individual freedom and not be told to do something, but I think we’re in such a serious situation now that, under certain circumstances, banning guns should be done.”
Cosmic Justice and COVID-19
Sowell states that there are two types of justice. Traditional justice is a process where all who go through it are treated with the same impartiality. Regardless of the outcome (guilty or innocent), a trial is just if the judge treats everyone fairly and the jury is impartial. Yet when the anointed speak of justice, they are referring to cosmic or social justice. This unconstrained type of justice seeks to create equality for selected groups. While we are likely all too familiar with the Social Justice Warrior wokeness with respect to subjective claims about race, class, and gender, the anointed’s response to Covid-19 is also a manifestation of the quest for cosmic justice.
Since the anointed believe in solutions (which only they can divine) and not in tradeoffs, they refuse to consider that, for example, affirmative action results in others being excluded who are otherwise deserving. Likewise, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are playing the role of the “traditionally underrepresented groups” in the Coronavirus morality play. As such, in the name of cosmic justice, they need to be equal with all of those who are at little-to-no risk of getting sick or dying from COVID-19. In this case, the anointed cannot artificially bring those who are in the high-risk group to the low-risk group. Even the anointed do not have the chutzpah to make someone younger or have someone lose 100 pounds. The anointed can, however, force all of those who are at low risk to suffer through the same extreme measures. Hence, lockdowns, masks, and now even vaccines become universal. It is an affirmative action of making all suffer in the name of the few.
For months, one could neither visit a loved one in a nursing home nor send a child to school. Olympic swimmers who are vaccinated and get frequent COVID testing had to wear masks immediately before and after getting into the water since someone watching the games on television must wear a mask when he goes to the store to buy a case of cigarettes. It is not fair that the Coronavirus does not kill all people with the same probability. Rather than rejoice that some demographics, particularly young children, are spared the horrors of the virus, the Molochian god of the unconstrained vision demands their sacrifice at the altar of equality.
The Tyranny of the Anointed
With a study of Sowell’s trilogy, none of what has transpired in the last 18 or so months with respect to the government and the pandemic is surprising. The constrained virtues of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are anathema to the unconstrained vision since they are rights of the individual that are primordial to the State. The anointed cannot admit that such rights exist since that would logically put limits on their power. They reject rights such as speech and due process that come from the natural law by declaring them to not be true rights at all. They are replaced with pseudo-rights like the “right to housing” or “right to health care” that come from the State and are controlled by the anointed. Those with the tragic view understand that any purported right that is created by the State can be dismantled by the State or used by the State to enslave the individual.
Like Daniel, Sowell sees the writing on the wall: the unconstrained vision of the anointed inevitably results in tyranny. The tyrannically capricious response of the government to COVID-19 is but a trial run for the next great crisis. It will most likely be “climate change,” but regardless of what the anointed exploit to advance their iniquitous vision, in the name of equality and cosmic justice, there is no individual, there is only the crushing weight of the State. And like a virus, the Leviathan is indifferent to who it destroys as it spreads.