December 21, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

If I possessed an ounce of musical ability, I would parody the old Christmas song “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)” with the lyrics “all I want for Christmas are my two frontal lobes.” Since March of this year, most Americans (and people worldwide) more closely resemble Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson’s character) at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest than independent beings.

While Deborah Birx most closely physically resembles the human antagonist of that film, the infamous Nurse Ratched, the role in 2020 has to go to Tony “Why Didn’t This Guy Retire a Decade Ago?” Fauci. But it is probably best that we abandon the cuckoo analogy because — spoiler alert in case you haven’t yet seen this 1975 classic — at the end of the film Chief Bromden (played brilliantly by Will Sampson) liberates the recently lobotomized McMurphy by smothering him with a pillow, then liberates himself by destroying infrastructure and running into the wilderness at sunrise, thus proving himself the sanest person in the entire ensemble, hospital administrators and staff included.

If the actual events of 2020 had formed the plot of a movie released in 2019, I would have panned it as hopelessly unrealistic. Yet it happened, or seemed to anyway. Misinformation was spread thicker than manure on a corn field and it seems that outright gaslighting occurred, so it is difficult to discern exactly what went down, besides the hopes and dreams of billions of people.

One of many apparent examples of gaslighting (or gross incompetence) is this Reuters “fact check” claiming that an 8 March interview clip of Fauci saying that masks are not very effective somehow became irrelevant after the CDC, without serious further study of the matter, updated its “guidance” on face coverings on 3 April. (Is “journalistsplaining” a word yet?) Why Americans were not up in arms over this flip-flop, which “Faucisplained” was an attempt to prioritize the lives of healthcare workers over those of other Americans — even while claiming that masks protect others, not the wearers (!!) — remains among the craziest plot holes of 2020.

Using Einstein’s admittedly cliched definition, public policymakers and their supporters have literally gone insane because they keep doing the same thing over and over, imposing various restrictions and mandates, that have not stopped the spread of the virus that causes Covid but that have spread economic and psychological misery far and wide every time. 

But as an admirer of Michel Foucault’s work on insanity, which shows that the concept of “madness” can and has been used to impose arbitrary restrictions on human liberty that culminate in institutions like the cuckoo’s nest, Oregon State Hospital, I will raise the definitional bar further by adding that actual insanity requires not just repetition of the same failed policies but repetition of failed policies that have no rational basis in the first place.

Social measures like distancing, masking, and the quarantining of healthy people historically have not, and theoretically cannot, stop the spread of a highly infectious respiratory virus. Multiple scientific studies have shown this (click here for a summary of a couple dozen regarding the novelty and ineffectiveness of lockdowns) yet relatively few people find the continuation of such policies outrageous enough to stand against them.

I do not think most people mad for not getting angry about insane public policies. Behavioral economists have shown that most people remain rationally ignorant and passive rather than try to solve complex problems, even on important matters like voting or investing for retirement. Moreover, a classic collective action problem exists: A’s efforts to change policy will go to waste unless joined by B, C, and some unknown number of other people. So A waits for others to act. And waits, and waits because B, C, et al face the same collective action problem.

The best way to resist bad policies constitutes another sticky wicket. Mass gatherings of “mostly peaceful” protestors over the summer affected change (e.g., empty statue pedestals and higher business insurance costs) but without making any deep structural reforms or anything resembling a Pareto improvement, where at least one person is helped without making anyone else worse off. It is too early to tell if “defunding” the police will produce a Kaldor-Hicks improvement, i.e., if the total benefits will exceed the total costs of the policy change. (I suspect it won’t unless my guidelines for returning to a pre-police state are followed but I still count myself among the rational so feel free to try to persuade me otherwise.)

Those who seek redress through legal channels have also found themselves stymied. The governors of Michigan and Wisconsin have skirted court orders directed against their lockdown decrees while those who want an impartial review of 2020 presidential election ballot procedures have run into numerous judicial roadblocks for reasons that remain unclear. In short, fighting systematic corruption is taxing work, with little hope of individual reward, so I understand why so few want to join in.

That said, economics teaches that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Bad policies may seem free in the short run but they have a way of building up resentments that eventually boil over into the streets, as in the case of rioting against the Vietnam War or police immunity/brutality and mass (mis)incarceration, or culminate in a “revolution” at the unstuffed ballot box, like in the elections of 1800, 1828, 1932, and 1980.

Note that none of the most brutal lockdown governors, from Cuomo through Whitmer, were up for reelection this year. Presumably, they feel free to play the tyrant and even break their own rules like autocrats of old because they know their political careers are over already. Joking! They are counting on continuing Covid misdirections long enough to emerge as heroes, instead of the zeroes they actually are. (Or, maybe, they know they will win reelection even if nobody votes for them?)

In short, asking Santa for full rationality this Christmas would be to request too much, like Eartha Kitt does in “Santa Baby” when she begs the jolly old elf for a sable, a platinum mine, checks, and a bunch of other luxuries. I would be thrilled with just some sanity in humanity’s stockings.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review. Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997. Robert E. Wright was formerly a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research.

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