April 1, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

In early March, President Joe Biden sharply criticized Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves for allowing businesses to reopen 100 percent and for lifting their mask mandates. Biden accused them of “Neanderthal thinking” and said they were making a “big mistake.” The hand-wringing new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, publicly fretted that “I am really worried about more states rolling back the exact public health measures we have recommended to protect people from Covid-19.”

In late March, despite Biden and Walensky’s dire predictions, Covid-19 cases had continued to decline in Texas and Mississippi. What also continued was Biden’s criticism and Walensky’s fretting. Posing in two masks, Biden called on “every governor, mayor, and local leader to maintain and reinstate the mask mandate” and bizarrely said it was “a patriotic duty” to “mask up.” Walensky spoke of the “recurring feeling I have of impending doom” and told everyone “right now I’m scared.”

There are two possibilities at play here. One is that Biden and Walensky are truly concerned about a resurgence and sincerely believe that mask mandates, all evidence to the contrary, are the “critical, critical, critical” way to prevent it. The other is, speaking of masks, that Biden and Walensky perceive that the mask of the All-Wise Central Planner who can dictate even the progress of a virus is being ripped off publicly.

It’s been over a year. It’s well past time for that mask to be torn off.

It’s not that Texas and Mississippi’s results sans masks are unusual. Other states with mask mandates are also seeing case declines. It’s consistent with natural seasonality as well as expanding natural immunity along with vaccine-induced immunity. What it’s showing is that case declines are consistent with those things, the natural progress of the virus, not with mask mandates.

For Biden and the long list of U.S. governors with their own house blends of distinctions among activities the virus supposedly does and doesn’t allow, what they need (among other things) is an understanding of just how limited their plans and powers really are in the face of a natural force. Arbitrary and capricious Covid orders infest from California and Michigan to New York and Connecticut. My own governor, Roy Cooper in North Carolina, has even distinguished between party buses (safe) and tour buses (banned) and private bars (unsafe) and bars in restaurants, taverns, and breweries (A-OK).

They need the humility of Canute. 

According to legend, Canute the Great, an 11th century warrior and king, wearied of the obsequious flatteries of his courtiers and decided to teach them a lesson in the limitations of a sovereign’s power. His choice was a natural phenomenon: the rising tide. 

Philosopher David Hume introduced the legend well in his History of England: “Canute, the greatest and most powerful monarch of his time, sovereign of Denmark and Norway, as well as of England, could not fail of meeting with adulation from his courtiers; a tribute which is literally paid even to the meanest and weakest princes.” Some asides are evergreen.

Hume goes on to tell that some of Canute’s flatterers one day even “exclaimed that every thing was possible for him.” That prompted Canute’s lesson (emphasis added): 

[T]he monarch, it is said, ordered his chair to be set on the sea-shore, while the tide was rising, and as the waters approached, he commanded them to retire, and to obey the voice who was lord of the ocean. He feigned to sit some time in expectation of their submission; but when the sea still advanced towards him, and began to wash him with its billows, he turned to his courtiers, and remarked to them, that every creature in the universe was feeble and impotent, and that power resided with one Being alone, in whose hands were all the elements of nature; who could say to ocean, ‘Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther’; and who could level with his nod the most towering piles of human pride and ambition.

In the earliest account of Canute’s demonstration, Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon wrote in Historia Anglorum the following:

[W]hen he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.” 

The lesson of Canute is this: the forces of nature obey their Creator, not a man who is elevated to rule over other men, but who is still a man. The governed who believe otherwise are simpletons, while the ruler who acts on that belief is destined to be a frustrated tyrant exposed as a fraud.

To be sure, then, Biden and the other leaders aren’t the only ones who need the lesson of Canute. We all do. Especially since we forgot our own lessons under SARS, H1N1, and the flu of 2018-19.

If we forsake self-reliance and our own wisdom and experiences, but choose instead to look to government out of fear to save us from a natural force, few leaders will have the humility to admit that such a thing is beyond the reach of the state. They will, as they have, issue ill-conceived edicts in the hopes of placating the public, possibly bringing some mitigation, and (in the words of early Covid research urging masks despite finding their effects “uncertain”) providing “feelings of empowerment and self-efficacy.”

Keeping the mask of the All-Wise Central Planner “saving” us by forcing certain actions on us for our own good is only possible if every leader does it. When some stop while others never started, and it becomes evident that there’s no link between state mask mandates and natural outcomes, the phoniness is revealed. The tide turns. No wonder the Central Planners are angry and scared.

Benjamin Franklin warned, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Heaven help us if we prove him right, accepting government mask mandates and personal restrictions ironically for “feelings of empowerment.”

Jon Sanders

Jon Sanders

Jon Sanders is an economist and the senior fellow of regulatory studies and research editor at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Jon researches a broad range of areas, including energy and electricity policy, occupational licensing, red tape and overregulation, alcohol policy, executive orders and overreach, poverty and opportunity, cronyism and other public-choice problems, emerging ideas and economic growth, and other issues as they arise.

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