Lockdowns or not? That’s been the primary question for social, economic, and political organizations for the past year. It’s a new question for humanity. Lockdowns were previously unconscionable and contrary to settle public-health practice. Suddenly, and for reasons never explained, that changed. Then everything changed.
[Note: the day I filed this article, the governor of Texas announced a complete repeal of all lockdowns, including mask mandates, curfews, capacity limits, and quarantines.]
Never before has such a globalized and comprehensive regime of closures, curfews, quarantines, travel restrictions, and surveillance been deployed for any excuse much less under the guise of virus control. A century of high-level public health practice never deployed anything like this, and that’s for a reason. No matter how bad the virus, such policies turn a challenge into a catastrophe.
Everyone has been put to the test – not only politicians and public intellectuals but everyone who has suffered under these strictures. A small group of people want everyone else to accept lockdowns as a fait accompli, just something that has to happen when a new virus comes along, as if it is not the permanent state of human experience to live amidst forever mutating pathogens.
You can quickly identify the venues that do not want us to ask fundamental questions. The New York Times habitually blames the pandemic rather than the lockdowns for the breakdown of society, the depression and suicide ideation, the lost medical services, the mandatory masking, the forced human separation, the loss of our rights to associate and travel, the crushing of business, and treats all dissent from lockdowns as seditious and pathogenic.
Even now, the word lockdown has stopped appearing in the newspaper of record, except as something that “conservatives” irrationally oppose. Which is ridiculous. Plenty of civil libertarians from all sides are opposed to despotic imposition, in addition to vast numbers of people with no political axe to grind at all. The NYT wants you to believe that only crazy people question turning society into a big jail, but they cannot stop the debate and cannot control the terms.
The questions will not go away. Nor should they. Are lockdowns effective? No. Even if they were, are they justified given how they upend everything we previously believed about liberty, equality, democracy, property, and law? No. What if a sizable portion of the American public regards lockdowns are both ineffective and unjust? The political ground beneath our feet will begin to quake. What can people do to prevent them from happening again? There must be ironclad promises never to go down this road again, and there might even be a need for those responsible to compensate their victims.
Now one year into this disaster, my worry that humanity would just accept this and move on is proving unwarranted. We’ve been prevented from gathering in groups for most of the year but people are starting to creep out of their homes and communities and talking to neighbors, friends, and other groups. People are discovering that there is plenty of dissent out there, and it stretches across the partisan divide.
At the famous CPAC event last week in Florida, the audience roared in approval as speaker after speaker condemned the lockdowns. The two leading stars of the Republican Party apart from Trump are the most anti-lockdown of the governors. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, previously obscure, has become a mega-star in this world because she was the only governor of any US state that never experimented with business closures or stay-at-home orders. She trusted freedom and the rule of law.
At the event, Governor Noem admitted that she was shocked that she was alone in this since she takes it for granted that freedom is the primary American value. The second person is Ron DeSantis of Florida, who more than any other governor was willing to listen to scientists and learn from them, even when doing so ran contrary to his own previous shutdown orders. He opened up the whole state in September, and the virus outcomes in Florida are much better than still-closed California (to say nothing of New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts).
The main point is that this CPAC crowd – the largest gathering in Republican circles since pre-election rallies – was deeply animated by the anti-lockdown message. If we can infer that the sensibilities of this group indicate something about public opinion more broadly, we could be looking at a generation-defining political and intellectual issue.
Think of the big historical events that echoed for generations in American politics. The struggle over slavery. World War I. Prohibition. The New Deal. World War II. The Cold War. The last one I know well, having come of age in the latter years. In retrospect, the long episode of the Cold War was packed with mythology. Still, the struggle was expressed in ideological terms of freedom vs. communism. The alliances that lined up remained for decades and impacted cycle after cycle of political controversy at home and abroad.
It also became deeply personal and people chose tight and enduring alliances. The struggle with the Soviet Union shaped the politics of nearly everyone for decades. It had all the right themes: liberty vs. authoritarianism, individualism vs. communism, nationalization vs. private property, freedom of movement and ownership vs. central planning. On which side do you stand? This question was the overriding political question from 1948 until 1989.
After the end of the Cold War, we saw the gradual fracturing of the coalition that had been shaped by conflict with Russia and the drive to roll back communism. A new antiwar “right” was born and split with the internationalist interventionists on war after war. Opposition to Obamacare held some currency here but it was never enough to put the old Reagan coalition back together. Trump’s nationalist protectionism made surprising inroads but it also alienated the Chamber of Commerce and free traders among libertarians, while presidential overreach offends many conservative sensibilities.
For strange reasons of timing and loss of principle, the “woke” left found itself mixed up in lockdown politics. By the spring of 2020, many of them lined up with policies that violate the very rights they had spent decades defending. So much for the Bill of Rights, the freedom of movement, the appreciation for the classless society, and so on. The left lost its soul during 2020, and thereby alienated multitudes of sane lefties who watched in horror as their own tribe abandoned them in favor of the authoritarianism they had long decried.
Lockdown vs not: this has the capacity to be a theme that will resonate far into the future. It also unites people on the political “right” again with small business, genuine civil libertarians, and champions of religious liberty. It permits the “left” to again find its voice for human rights and freedoms. For that matter, they do not have to be activists; they only need to be people who do not want their houses of worship padlocked, their business closed and bankrupted, or their speech curtailed.
It also put the emphasis on the correct point: the protection of American libertarians not from some shadowy foreign enemy but from our own governments. It also draws in the left that has long been suspicious of the place of big business, and, in this case, rightfully so. The largest corporations such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook, for all the good that they achieve in this world, have leaned decisively in favor of lockdowns. Same with large media. The reason is not just that they are harmed less by lockdowns and, in many cases, actually benefited from them. It’s because the people ruling these companies enjoy ruling-class lives, and they see the world through them. Lockdowns were the favored policy for cultural and political reasons, which is itself a scandal.
There is another group of powerful people in a position to dedicate themselves to the anti-lockdown cause: parents. In an astonishing act of despotic ignorance, governors closed schools down all over the country, with zero medical benefit and grotesque levels of abuse for children and parents. These are schools for which people pay heavily in property taxes, while parents using private schools pay twice. Governments shut them down, robbing parents of their money and smashing their settled lives. Many children in this country have lost a full year of education. Many people with two incomes had to drop one of them in order to babysit their children at home as they pretended to learn on Zoom while being denied access to peers.
As much as I’ve researched this, I still cannot understand how this came to be. Public schools are the crown jewel legacy of the Progressive Era. One might expect that they would be protected against all attacks, and certainly never be shut down. For decades, intellectuals and activists have urged market-based reform of public schools but the administrators and unions resisted any change, even while suppressing and smearing those who choose to educate their children at home. In the blink of an eye, people were not only entitled to homeschool but forced to. What was truancy one day was compliance the next.
Then you have the problem of colleges and universities. Rightly or wrongly, parents and students make extreme financial sacrifices to pay for college in the hopes that the right education and degree sets people up for a lifetime of success. Whether this is true or not, parents are risk averse with their children’s future so that they do whatever is necessary to make it happen. Then one day, the kids were locked out of the universities that they pay to attend. No parties. No study sessions. No going to other people’s rooms. No in-person instructions. Many thousands of students in this country have been fined and harassed for noncompliance. They’ve had masks forced on them even though their risk from the virus approaches zero, and the memory of this humiliation will last a full lifetime.
Then you have the increasingly ridiculous “track-and-trace” regime that pretends to hunt down and control the virus, even though the CDC now speculates that as many as 1 in 4 or perhaps 1 in 3 people have caught this virus with a 99.8% survival rate (it approaches 100% for people under 50 years of age). Get a positive test (never mind that more than half or more could be false positives) and you find yourself kicked out of school and work for two weeks, stigmatized like the lepers in the bible. It’s grotesque and pre-modern, and it has no public-health benefit.
Why have the people put up with this? Under normal conditions, they never would have. None of this would have been possible. The one reason they did this time: fear. Fear of getting sick and dying or, if not dying, experiencing permanent health effects. This emotion can last far longer than one might think. But eventually emotions do catch up with facts, among which is that the danger of severe outcomes was wildly exaggerated and the lockdowns achieved nothing in terms of disease mitigation. You mean all this suffering and horror was for naught? Once that realization dawns, fear turns to anger, and anger to action. If you understand that dynamic, you can see why the architects of lockdowns from Dr. Fauci to the CDC are doing their best to delay that dawning, with daily doses of alarmism designed to keep people hiding in their homes.
The fear cannot last. When it breaks, we are going to see multitudes of people – small business owners and workers, parents of kids in school, patients who couldn’t see their families while in the hospital, adults with parents in long-term care facilities from which they’ve been locked down, families who canceled one vacation after another, people of faith whose religious communities were shattered, and all those people who were forced for the better part of a year to live life with zero fun or entertainment outside the confines of their homes – lash out at those who did this to us. And they will be inspired to understand why and make sure nothing like this happens again.
We might have lost as much as one year from American life expectancy, the biggest drop since 1943, and not only or even mainly from Covid. For a full year, Americans have avoided doctors, dentists, and hospitals, and their health has sunk further and further, with drug overdoses and other substance abuse at record highs. The bad news on suicides will continue to pour in month after month. It was all predicted. It all happened, even worse than we predicted. Meanwhile our cities are in shambles. The arts are wrecked. The population is demoralized.
We will reflect on all the incredible health theater to which we’ve been subjected for a year, the hopping around people to stay 6 feet away, the silly ban on restaurant menus, the on-again-off-again mandatory masking of the people, the curfews and capacity limits, and we’ll realize that the people who passed on all these emergency measures were just making things up in order to appear decisive and precise. We will look back and feel mortified at how we treated each other so brutally, how so many turned into rats hungry to get our friends and neighbors in trouble with the compliance police, how we willingly believed so many untrue things and practiced such preposterous rituals out of a belief that we were avoiding and thus controlling the enemy pathogen we couldn’t see.
None of this will soon be forgotten. It’s the trauma of our lives. They stole our freedom, our happiness, our way of life, and attempted to replace them all with a stern regime with puritan sensibilities that rivaled the Taliban, forcing the whole population to hide their faces and live in fear of the American Mandarins. And it was done not by scientific consensus but rather by a small number of lockdowners in cooperation with risk-averse politicians and bureaucrats. A closer look reveals that actual published experts on Covid are far more supportive of the Great Barrington Declaration than we had been led to believe.
Karma is already turning on the lockdowners, from reporters to politicians around the country. People like Cuomo, de Blasio, and Newsom are falling from grace for stated reasons other than lockdowns but the abusers of all sorts eventually pay a price for their egregious behavior, one way or another. The list of people who will experience career disruption for what they have done to our communities and our country is very long.
The true beauty of the anti-lockdown movement is that it understands profoundly that the real enemy is not a shadowy foreign power plotting to take away our freedoms, as during the Cold War, but rather it is much closer to home. It is all around us. While the virus is invisible, the people who dreamed up and enforced lockdowns that wrecked the country are highly visible. They have names and careers, and they are right to be very worried about their futures.
Anti-lockdownism need not be partisan. The victims of these policies are all over the political map. They are united only in their general belief in human rights, constitutional restraints on government, and the need to keep society functioning in the midst of a health crisis. This opinion is not and should not be controversial. There is never a good excuse to turn on basic Enlightenment values in favor of feudal forms of political organization and coerced social management. Never.
A commitment to that principle, as a first principle, could dramatically realign American intellectual and political life.
Made available by the American Institute for Economic Research.