Personal Liberty Sacrificed at the Altar of Covid Public Safety

by | Dec 23, 2020

If science had been followed in 2020 – in all fields – we’d be much healthier and wealthier than we now are. But control freaks have used Covid-19 to justify still more government controls, still more statism.

Repeatedly this year we have heard the admonition, from acolytes of Covid-19 lockdowns, to “follow the science.” Many of the admonishers presume that lockdown skeptics are myopic, “anti-science” miscreants infected with a reckless disregard for human health, safety, and life. Yes, some people are so emotional, phobic, religious, or political that they cannot reason right; but can there be no rational, healthy skepticism about the health effects of Covid-19 or the health-wealth effects of lockdowns? Nothing can be farther from the truth – nothing farther from . . . science.

Yes, of course we must follow science, but we must do so in every field, not only in epidemiology but also in politics, economics, and philosophy. The last-mentioned field – which means “love of wisdom” – teaches mankind to follow his nature, to be rational, logical, objective, and contextual. To be scientific in every field means to incorporate both theory and practice, to assess all real and relevant factors, not just a select few of them; it means cultivating a perspective that is likewise impartial (not biased), comprehensive (not narrow) view, and proportional (not imbalanced).

In Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt distinguishes between scientific and nonscientific methods in economics, but his distinction applies as much to other fields. “The bad economist,” he writes, “sees only what immediately strikes the eye,” while “the good economist also looks beyond. The bad economist sees only the direct consequences of a proposed course; the good economist looks also at the longer and indirect consequences. The bad economist sees only what the effect of a given policy has been or will be on one particular group; the good economist inquires also what the effect of the policy will be on all groups.” Likewise, I’d say, competent epidemiologists, political scientists, economists, and philosophers must look beyond what strikes their eyes or fits their predilections; they must consider also intermediate and longer-term effects, and effects on all types of people, groups, and livelihoods, not just those which bureaucrats favor as “essential.”

The purpose of “following the science” in every field is best captured in the immortal words of Ben Franklin: to be “healthy, wealthy, and wise.” But to be frank, not everyone shares these goals or wants this kind of world, for it is a world that only reason, science, liberty, and capitalism can deliver. As Alfred Pennington once observed: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Today’s most vocal admonishers condone political-bureaucratic micromanaging and controls; they seem to love shaming innocent people into obeying draconian, life-stifling edicts. If millions must sacrifice and suffer, so what? Most religions (secular and otherwise) say that this signifies “virtue.” Covid-19 bullies use science language to shield themselves from criticism and cloak their nefarious designs; they seem to sense that most Americans still respect science (not despotism).

The etymology of “science” originates in the 14th century and derives from the Latin scientia, which derives from scire (“know”). Our knowledge is the accumulation of all that we have come to know – and to know anything is to know it is true, that it derives from and corresponds to the facts of reality. As humans we are fundamentally distinguished from other animals and organisms in that we possess the faculty of reason; we are homo sapiens (from the Latin, sapere – “to know”). Additionally, and importantly, we know that knowledge does not come automatically, and surely not from faith, revelation, or intuition. Enlightenment thinkers taught mankind that knowledge comes solely from applied reason – a volitional tool. We must use experience, sensory evidence, and the laws of logic to verify our hypothesis and theories – i.e., to establish their truth. Verification is the process of establishing a “verity” (from the Latin, veritas) – i.e., a truth.

Science has three crucial components, each of which is necessary to acquiring reliable knowledge: description, explanation, and prediction. Description is accurate observation of facts, requiring careful data gathering and classification. Explanation is the provision of valid theories of how and why facts come to be, requiring a careful tracing and explication of causes and effects. Prediction uses facts and theories to project the future, which helps us anticipate, plan, prepare, act, and prosper. Mere description devoid of explanation or prediction is but a journalistic chronicling of that which is. Explanation devoid of facts is mere surmise, guesswork, assertion, or speculation; to merely surmise, as many do today, means not to prove definitively but only to “suppose that something is true without having evidence to confirm it.” Finally, if valid theories (those which correspond to the facts of reality) are to have practical value, they too must have predictive power.

Now, let’s consider the current status of science (and nonscience) in contemporary epidemiology, politics (governance), economics (production), and philosophy (epistemology and morality).

Scientific epidemiology carefully collects and classifies the relevant facts associated with a disease (or virus), identifies its origins and its effects, and advises mitigants or remedies. The ancients (Hippocrates) had a crude sense of it, but the modern field was effectively inaugurated in mid-19th Century London when John Snow, a physician, stopped the lethal cholera disease by investigating, mapping, and pinpointing its source (tainted water at the Broad Street pump). For two decades until Snow’s work in 1854, as nonscientists pushed crackpot theories, tens of thousands of people died of cholera. Snow also pioneered the development of medical hygiene and anesthesia.

For the most part, the investigation of Covid-19 has been scientific. Some of the best work has been done by the much-maligned pharmaceutical companies (e.g., Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca) while developing vaccines. In general, commercially motivated science is more practical than purely academic science and less corrupt than politically supported science. Tragically, many politicized health agencies in 2020 – e.g., the WHO (World Health Organization), CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), the NIH (National Institutes of Health) and HHS (Health and Human Services) – gave undue voice and power to a wide array of charlatans and political hacks in the epidemiological community. These agencies publicized and empowered various quacks who denied the source of Covid-19, overrated the efficacy of its mitigants (masking, social distancing, lockdowns), or exaggerated its positivity and lethality (generally and by sub-groups). As AIER has described it, “The Modelers Thought of Everything Except Reality.”

Less-than-scientific epidemiologists, although probably a small fraction of all epidemiologists, nevertheless have enjoyed disproportionately greater influence in political circles, especially among those with paternalistic predilections (pre-Covid-19) for authoritarianism. The harshest decree-issuers have been keen to follow those epidemiologists who’ve least followed the science.

Although science is not established by mere agreement among minds (or by polls), the New York Times recently conducted an “informal survey” of 700 epidemiologists, asking what precautions they have taken regarding Covid-19 and what it would take to end lockdowns. A large majority of respondents said they had cloistered themselves and “even with vaccines on the way, many do not expect their lives to return to pre-pandemic normal until most Americans [at least 70%] are vaccinated.” Indeed, “most said that even with vaccines it would probably take a year or more for many activities to safely restart, and that some parts of their lives may never return to the way they were.” This seems to be an overcautious if not phobic (irrationally fearful) attitude, given that Covid-19 lethality rates have been plunging this year, prior to any vaccines (chart). Phobias, being irrational, are never supported by reason or science (per psychology); perhaps in this case it exists mainly among those polled by the New York Times, not among epidemiologists generally.

Last March, prior to the imposition of harsh lockdowns, the same New York Times reported that public health policy on Covid-19 was being driven by the work of British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson at Imperial College of London – thereafter to be exposed as a quack. Even assuming masks and social distancing, his team of fifty epidemiologists projected that in 2020 the U.K. would see 510,000 deaths from Covid-19 while the U.S. would suffer 2.2. million.

The facts? The science? How good was the Ferguson prediction? Let us see. So far, deaths have totaled only 65,520 in the U.K. (14% of Ferguson’s projection) and 307,642 in the U.S. (13% of his projection). Not even the global total of Covid-19 deaths has reached 2 million (it is now only 1.65 million, a mere 0.021% of the global population). For those less than 70 years old who get Covid-19, the survival rate is quite high (99.94%). For this, dozens of the world’s major economies have been shuttered while millions of lives and livelihoods have been ruined. This is not a case of “following the science.” Many narrowly focused, phobic epidemiologists have allowed their work to be tainted and worse, weaponized by would-be political despots in the “public health” sector.

For decades, but especially in 2020, we have seen the awful effects of “junk science” – i.e., “the use of faulty scientific data and analysis to advance special interests and hidden agendas” – and the vast array of flawed public policies that rely on it. We can also observe a bipartisan politicization of public health, reflecting deeper defects in the health sciences as well as in political science.

What about political science? Has it been followed in 2020? It teaches that public governance (state action) necessarily entails coercion and thus should be deployed carefully, sparingly, and legitimately – by this last criterion, only in retaliation against those who initiate force. The legitimate state does not itself initiate force against innocents. That would be despotism. A proper state is constitutionally restricted to protecting individual rights; its main functions, therefore, include national defense, police, and courts. The proper state necessarily upholds the rule of law.

The “public choice” school of political science further demonstrates that political actors are by no means either angelic or omniscient “public servants,” and no less self-interested than economic actors, yet prone specifically to abusing power, absent a constitutional separation (into executive, legislative, and judicial powers) with inter-branch checks and balances. The legitimate state eschews both despotism and paternalism, leaving wide scope for voluntary private governance. This is how political science models the ideal state: one that promotes and preserves human well-being, whether manifested as liberty, safety, security, or prosperity. The scientifically structured, judiciously operated state maintains an equilibrium; it does not prioritize one aspect of human well-being over another, nor does it pit health versus wealth or sacrifice the latter to the former.

Obviously, in 2020 we have not witnessed elected officials (or their advisors) “following the science” of politics. Armed with dubious epidemiology and unreal conceptions of “public health policy,” they have imposed authoritarian lockdowns; they have violated rights to assemble, worship, speak, live, and work (earn a livelihood); they have severely eroded human liberty, safety, security, and prosperity. They’ve also allowed (and left unpunished) rioting, looting, and arson. They’ve condoned a spreading “rule of lawlessness” in streets and in voting systems alike.

What about economic science? It teaches that the production of wealth must be primary, the main feature of an ever expansive, durable prosperity, which necessarily precedes the exchange and consumption of wealth. Economics teaches that production is driven by creative intelligence, entrepreneurial energy, and the profit motive. People at every stage of production derive great value, self-esteem, and pride from work well done. Economic science further demonstrates how private property, the sanctity of contract, a free and flexible price system, fair taxation, sound money, free trade, and light regulation are indispensable prerequisites of prosperity (and human well-being).

Sadly, in 2020 we have not seen policymakers (or advisors) “follow the science” of economics. Lockdowns have been accompanied by a widespread violation of property and commercial rights, including the right to own, open and operate businesses, the right to work and exchange, to shop in person, to travel or congregate, to enjoy public entertainments. Licenses to do business – which already abridge rights per se – have been routinely revoked as a means of punishing and criminalizing the recalcitrant (those who wish to keep working for a living). There is no scientific evidence whatsoever that mandatory business closures materially mitigate Covid-19 lethality; but there is ample evidence that closures erode liberty, prosperity, solvency, and sanity.

Nor has economic science been followed in matters of public finance. So-called “stimulus” schemes, with cascades of newly issued public money and public debt, are depressive, in fact, since they only divert and divide existing wealth while curbing incentives to create more of it. Nor is wealth created by public deficit spending on the jobless – for work not done (“unemployment insurance”). The U.S. federal government spent $6.5 trillion in FY 2020 (year through September 30), up 47% from the prior year, the biggest increase since the Korean War (1952) and nearly triple the increase during the recession year of 2009 (+17%). Gross federal debt is now $27.5 trillion (128% of GDP), up $5 trillion in a year and double the level of 2010 (when it was 94% of GDP). Meanwhile the Federal Reserve has boomed the money supply (M-1) by 53% (to $6 trillion) in the past year, the biggest rise on record (since 1914). None of this has “stimulated” real output.

The science of economics is clear: the production of money and debt is not equivalent to the production of real wealth. To claim otherwise is to follow fantasy, not reality – or science.

Philosophy is the most important science of all, because it determines the status and health of the others. Among other things, it teaches us how to discover and validate knowledge (epistemology) and how to live virtuously, according to our unique nature (morality). Unless epistemology and morality alike are rational, logical, and reality-based, they won’t be scientific – and neither will their derivatives, the natural sciences and social sciences. Just as flawed epistemology generates junk science, flawed morality generates junk governance. The morality of rational egoism, derived scientifically from human nature, undergirds the scientific versions of psychology, politics, and economics. But notice: egoism is precisely the morality most vehemently disdained and denied by contemporary philosophers, who prefer to tout the alleged “nobility” of selfless sacrifice. Well, as they may have wished, 2020 has seen considerable pain, suffering and sacrifice – to no good end. Those who demand an end to lockdowns are smeared as selfish seekers of wealth over health.

On the bright side, we may be thankful that some people still appeal to science instead of faith, revelation, or fantasy. But how many are genuine? The art of deception is practiced by control freaks, charlatans, and groupthinkers who wish to impose their will for “the good of society.” In the words of Rahm Emanuel, one-time advisor to President Obama, “You never want a crisis to go to waste,” meaning “an opportunity to do things that you could not do before.” In short, reckless policies which would be rejected in normal, reasonable times are more easily adopted amid phobias and chaotic times – when fear and mere surmise replace reason and science. Actress Jane Fonda gushed recently that we are “lucky to be alive in a moment when decisions can make the difference between hundreds of millions of people living or dying,” adding that “COVID is God’s gift to the left.” Indeed. “Some men (and women) just want to watch the world burn.”

If science had been followed in 2020 – in all fields – we’d be much healthier and wealthier than we now are. But control freaks have used Covid-19 to justify still more government controls, still more statism. In every field they’ve cited chaos as an (alleged) reason to “reimagine” (i.e., sabotage) capitalism – a system they hated already, pre-virus – to promote despotism, a system they preferred already. For such people, crises are to be welcomed, if necessary, even concocted.

Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.

Dr. Salsman is president of InterMarket Forecasting, Inc., an assistant professor of political economy at Duke University and a senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. Previously he was an economist at Wainwright Economics, Inc. and a banker at the Bank of New York and Citibank. Dr. Salsman has authored three books: Breaking the Banks: Central Banking Problems and Free Banking Solutions (AIER, 1990), Gold and Liberty (AIER, 1995), and The Political Economy of Public Debt: Three Centuries of Theory and Evidence (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017). In 2021 his fourth book – Where Have all the Capitalist Gone? – will be published by the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also author of a dozen chapters and scores of articles. His work has appeared in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, Reason Papers, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Forbes, the Economist, the Financial Post, the Intellectual Activist, and The Objective Standard. Dr. Salsman earned his B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College (1981), his M.A. in economics from New York University (1988), and his Ph.D. in political economy from Duke University (2012). His personal website is richardsalsman.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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