“A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient.”~Hannah Arendt ~ (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1966)
As a recipient of an E.C. Harwood Visiting Research Fellowship at the American Institute for Economic Research, I am inspired by tales of the principled battles that Colonel Harwood fought in support of the ideals behind the US Constitution. Taking his oath to support that great document as a lodestar, his support for the cause of human liberty and personal dignity led him to be a vocal opponent of the policies of FDR’s New Deal. As such, he continued doing so despite orders from his military commanders to cease his criticisms, eventually choosing to take early retirement from a promising military career as a graduate of West Point.
My lesson from his brave acts against the most powerful institutions in the US is that being a true patriot requires supporting an ideology of individual freedom rather than accepting partisan interests that violate foundational precepts. As such, Americans wishing for a united and prosperous country should follow Edward Harwood’s example to challenge the authority of government officials and question assertions of “experts” they use for support.
This contrarian behavior is even more urgent given the drift of public policy in recent years that would expand political powers beyond FDR’s wildest dreams, at the expense of private property rights and human liberty. As it is, public policies have become increasingly pointed towards responses to claims that irresponsible actions by humans are causing environmental degradation and climate change.
While the emergence of a novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and the disease that it might cause, Covid-19, are now at center stage, they share equal billing with the former only slightly in the background. In all events, this pair of menaces offers a convenient pretense for government officials to seek expansions in their powers that give them greater control over human actions and private resources. Initially, the specter of climate change was not enough to induce most citizens to accept enhanced political power that would diminish their liberty and curtail their personal rights.
However, fear ginned up during the recent pandemic based on pronouncements reflecting “expert” authority caused individuals to stop thinking of health as a personal issue and to embrace “public health.” The notion that “public health” reflects an objective reality must be challenged, especially since so much focus is on only one among many viruses and on only one disease among many ailments that afflict mankind. It is troubling that these political feats of legerdemain have induced many citizens to accept an artificial collective construct, with solidarity dominating individual autonomy and security elevated over human liberty.
While human health and protecting or rehabilitating the natural environment are indisputably worthy goals, a holistic approach to these matters requires considering their impact on the individual lives of humans.
Curbs on individual behavior and resource use to serve “public health” or the natural environment involve an unhealthy confusion of politics and “science.” In the end, the nonpharmaceutical interventions related to the Covid-19 pandemic might turn out to have been a dress rehearsal that serves as a roadmap for “climate action” to offset global warming.
Even if there is agreement on problems arising from human activity, the debate should be about the efficacy of the range of remedial actions that are available. As such, the quest for solutions should begin with an understanding that government interventions can often cause problems rather than be an appropriate remedy.
For example, governments failed to serve as guardians of the natural environment as seen in the ecological destruction in the name of authoritarian socialism practiced by the Soviet bloc or Mainland (Red) China. In those cases, the expansion of the scope of private actions and a (partial) retreat from State control over resources brought improvements.
While such obvious failures of authoritarianism associated with communism led to them being widely rejected, there is a risk that ecologically-based or pseudo-scientific authoritarianism could replace it.
In his book, The Counter-Revolution of Science, F. A. Hayek identified such a possibility under the rubric of “scientism” that involved a shift in the scientific method from strict empiricism, critical thought, and objectivity toward nonempirical, purely subjective, elitist and a collectivist approach to doing science.
As such, consensus replaces strict empiricism and independent open criticism normally associated with the scientific method. Since scientism, as “scientific consensus” trumps everything else, including reason, there is a danger that falsehoods, even those previously proven false, could be elevated by a majority of “scientists” accepting them.
An emerging form of scientism follows along the lines of communist-era bureaucrats who engaged in social engineering and compelled individuals to act on behalf of the wider community. Pursuit of social goals, whether “public health” or environmentalism, that ignore individual rights and human liberty have often led to disastrous outcomes. Indeed, the worst failures of socialism in the pursuit of social goals were brought about by unintended and unforeseen consequences.
Besides material depredation associated with historical experiments with socialism, there was a loss of social capital from interfering with mutual trust that tends to emerge from voluntary exchanges. Should citizens resist limits on their individual liberty and rights to achieve collective goals, authoritarian repression becomes an inevitable instrument to “pacify” the masses.
Such excesses and abuse of State power occurred over a vast range of collectivist regimes. For example, National Socialists under Adolf Hitler implemented policies that might appeal to some of the most extreme ecologists of today. One element of the philosophy of the Nazi Party (gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz) promoted the good of the whole over the good of the individual. On the one hand, there was an explicit opposition to alcohol and tobacco consumption.
More ominously, compulsory sterilization was required of the mentally ill, ending with 350,000 persons being sterilized against their will by 1939. Medical technicians, central to the operations of the Nazi State, perpetuated scientific nostrums of evolution and genetic hygiene based on eugenics to advance racial purity.
Many Nazi supporters in the early days of the regime may never have imagined the terrible outcomes of following this foul ideology. As such, caution should be applied to assess the “scientific” wisdom that informs anxieties over deterioration of the natural environment or the health of members of a community. Just as many of the accepted truths of the Green movement are based upon selective application of science, so are the “truths” guiding health policies in the time of Covid-19.
While Hitler used false generalities about Jews and gypsies, environmentalists rely on exaggerated claims that are often unsupported by logic or science or data. Consider the unfulfilled prophecies of a report by the Club of Rome (“Limits to Growth”) that foresaw an inevitable global armed conflict arising from resource depletion before the end of the 20th century.
An example of “scientism” addressing the natural environment might be identified as “ecologism,” i.e., state-imposed interventions, regulations, and coercion to protect the natural environment. However, these actions must minimize interference with the peaceful exercise of the freedom of choice and the pursuit of personal dignity, or the harm to the human environment could exceed the benefits.
An effect of ecologism is to encourage intolerance toward individual choice and to oppose private ownership of property and resources. Evidence of this is found in acts of ecoterrorism, and the fact that confiscation of private property to promote environmental goals has attracted support.
In the extreme, environmentalists tend to claim that nature is inherently and objectively valuable. But this complaint is incoherent since human actions are an inescapable part of the reality of the natural world. Therefore, attempts to conjure up ethical reasons for injunctions against human alteration or use of some parts of the natural world are arbitrary and inappropriate.
Similarly, edicts in support of “public health” that disregard human agency have caused a rupture in the social fabric by inducing people to view others as a dangerous vector of disease. Mask mandates for an entire population, community-wide lockdowns and vaccine passports contradict a foundational notion of justice that innocence is presumed until guilt is proven. Meanwhile, governments encourage citizens to inform on or to shame anyone refusing to accept the lines drawn by their arbitrary “public health” goals.
One of the worst elements of pandemic policies is the impact on children of “public health” mandates. Kids have been terrorized by being told that violations of these rules might cause the death of a loved one. In turn, such fears not only destabilize their mental health, but they might also drive a wedge between them and their parents.
It is notable that within less than one year, nearly all the State imposed nonpharmaceutical interventions that contradicted decades of established medical and scientific knowledge. It is almost as if “science” was following policy, rather than the reverse.
For example, border closures had been considered inappropriate, mask wearing as a general strategy ineffective, quarantining the entire population misguided, and the human immune system was seen as the first line of defense against pathogens. All were cancelled in the same way as were statues of Confederate war veterans.
Shifting attention from “public health” policies to those addressing the natural environment, those that disregard the human environment can be counterproductive towards achieving their goals. Restraining individuals on the grounds of protecting the natural environment might make communities worse off if entrepreneurs are unable to serve as the engines of economic growth and innovation.
As it is, suppressing access to market-based rewards (profits) tends to slow the pace of technological advance and dampen gains in income. While fewer advances in technology can hinder rising incomes, doing so will also inhibit both the means and motivation for environmental protection.
In all events, government intervention and regulating human behavior are not the only ways to resolve problems of the natural environment or the health of members of a community. Greater intellectual energy should be put into ways to harness the beneficial effects of voluntary choice in markets as a substitute for the compulsion of government mandates.
For their part, economists have exerted considerable effort to examine ways in which the pricing system can bring about desired reductions in pollution and similar problems. Similarly, an alignment of private capacities with public interests led to remarkably rapid advances in vaccine research (even if long-term effects remain unknown).
In the case of environmental problems, market-based mechanisms like marketing pollution rights or privatizing wilderness areas and wildlife have been proposed. There are also innovative techniques like electronic “tagging” that allow identifying ownership of dispersed resources or tracing sources of pollution and setting a price on behavior.
Each of these proposals relies upon providing incentives that encourage improved monitoring and better use of resources and the environment. In particular, private ownership provides a strong incentive for careful use of natural resources by allowing owners to benefit directly from conservation and preservation that can bring enhanced values in the present and the future.
As this millennium unfolds, the world community faces mixed omens of hope and despair for the future. While the global demise of authoritarian regimes merits three cheers, the outcomes from the heightened awareness of environmental issues might warrant only two cheers, depending on where they take us. Unfortunately, the advancement of “public health” over individual health invites two jeers.
If the logic of ecologism leads to the erosion of property rights and human liberty from coercively-imposed environmental rights, it will almost certainly weaken support for preserving the natural environment. Similarly, “scientific authoritarianism” governments and international bodies to control human behavior in response to the pandemic have become increasingly contentious as citizens lose patience and begin to resist “public health” directives.
Attempts to impose unquestioned acceptance of specific scientific claims by publicly denigrating opponents or withholding support for research and projects that do not support the “consensus” narrative does not promote science, per se. Especially if it silences independent thought.
There is a risk of creating a dichotomy of “good” and “bad” science, leading to a toxic situation where positions are guided and hardened by partisan politics. True science should not be seen to be monolithic.
Just as with philosophy, doing science requires an open and skeptical mind. Scientists that seek to present a unified and authoritative voice or are guided by partisan interests should not be trusted when they opine on “public health” or the natural environment.
Christopher Lingle is a Visiting Senior Fellow at AIER, Visiting Professor of Economics in the Escuela de Negocios at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala, Adjunct Scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies (Sydney), Research Scholar at the Centre for Civil Society (New Delhi), International Political Economic Advisor for the Asian Institute for Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDIA – Kathmandu), Member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Globalization Institute (Brussels) & Senior Visiting Fellow, Advocata (Colombo, Sri Lanka).
His research interests are in the areas of Political Economy and International Economics with a focus on emerging market economies and public policy reform in East and Central Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and Southern Africa.