Why We Succumb To Micro Control Over Our Lives
If you reside in Sydney, your limit of movement is some two miles from home. For outdoor exercise, your limit is one hour a day. Live in the state of Victoria? There are five approved reasons for going beyond your property. The one visitor you’re allowed is an “intimate partner or a nominated person.” Weddings are forbidden, unless for “end of life or other exceptional circumstances.” Have a pet in the State of Queensland? Indoors you may keep it mentally stimulated by playing fetch games in a room, teaching it a new obedience trick, or using a “treat dispenser toy.” Perhaps you were a locked-down Englishman who liked to walk the dog. Members of the household could take it for multiple walks but pity the dog and you alone at home: no more than one walk a day. Or perhaps you attended a synagogue in South Africa. You were warned not to sing into your mask; none but the cantor had permission to do that.
It took a pandemic to learn that human frailties are infinite. North and south, east and west, people of every hue and culture found liberty to be a burden and safety an abiding obsession. It opened the door for authorities to step in with regulations that make material for stand-up comedy.
In effect, we barter liberty in return for some safety. In this give-and-take, a plumber and a professor act with one instinct, as do a rap artist and a rabbi. People may barter the two at different rates, yet all consent to exchange liberty for safety.
I call it the “Alexander Hamilton principle.” A founding father of America, Hamilton put a finger on a human condition wider than America and deeper than its lakes: “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of conduct” and the quest for safety will finally compel people “to destroy their civil and political rights.”
Enter politicians and their technocrats, salivating over power that dropped in their laps like too ripe fruit. By overselling a peril, they can manipulate the barter price of freedom for safety. To be saved from dreaded Covid, we, the fear-ridden, are prepared to surrender a lot of freedom for what in reality is not a big external danger. If manipulators can make the virus into a threat as big as war, all the better. War is to a tyrant as milk is to a suckling goat.
So, we half beg to be less free to make us feel “more safe.” Covid-19 came as a God-send to the power-hungry and the money-mad. Gollum in Lord of the Rings went into paroxysms of rage at the idea of letting go of a ring that could tame mankind.
It’s how lords of the lockdown behave. They are loath to let go of emergency powers. Pressed for intervention orders to be lifted the textbook excuse is that another wave coming. And we, the scared, are mollified, and we go back into lockdown, and the commissars laugh in their mansions for which the scared pay.
‘You will kill grandma if you don’t follow our science.’ Moral blackmail goes far further than the monetary sort, and it reinforces scary protocols. If you want liberty back too soon, you’re a killer. “Republicans literally want to work Americans to Death,” a headline screamed. Serfdom is the new god; back to freedom the new heresy. Covid councils, unelected, have the right to tell you to jump in the lake, and you must forget that they’re on dry land making sure you do.
So, we sit by while the lords of lockdown engineer poverty. We behave with the cruelty we’re told is righteous. No visiting hospital and care homes, where staff lend phones to dying patients to say farewell to loved ones. Our mores and prohibitions could be borrowed from Gomorrah in Genesis.
Will the mania fade with the pandemic? Not if it lasts long enough to get rulers and ruled hooked on it. Here we may identify two sorts of tyranny. One is well-meant, the other is not. C. S. Lewis. the classics scholar, author, and theologian, wrote in “God in the dock” about the tyranny of the well-meant sort.
A tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. Those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
Long-ago clerics were the “moral busybodies.” Protestants bore the brunt, to teach by example, to spare Catholics the torments of purgatory. Evil means were deployed to prevent evil.
C. S. Lewis was a theologian, not a social scientist. He had nothing to say about the other tyranny—evil for evil's sake. The masses do not suffer for their own good or for the approval of the persecutor’s conscience. They suffer in the cause of some cruel and callous scheme. The murderous maniacs of the 1900s fell in this bracket. Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot offered neither penance nor reward, earthly or eternal. Their subjects lived through hell and died, often willingly, for some crackpot utopia.
Today’s incubating despots are kith and kin of those terrible twins. Some order lockdowns for our own good, to save us from Covid. Others order it to exercise power, for the sheer hang of control. Different motives, same outcome. Liberty gets trampled, lives and livelihoods crushed, and far more die from collateral damage than from Covid.
To spit on lockdowns, curves refuse to stay flat, infection rates head where they like, and 0 a fraction keep dying with Covid. None of it stops the scolding for more vigilance, even as lockdown tallies spike taller than Covid tallies. How we hug faulty lifejackets while sinking! The Price of Panic presents graphs of infection rates from which it cannot be seen when lockdowns began and when they ended. The infection rate, we never learn, is no more dependent on regulating movement than crime is dependent on jail time.
In the rear mirror of hindsight, we see where the new feudal system is taking us. The notion of the expert as savior is taking us down the road leading to despotism and ruin.
Steve Apfel is an economist and costing specialist, but most of all a prolific author of fiction and non-fiction. His blog, ‘Balaam’s curse,’ is followed in more than 15 countries.
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