May 12, 2021 Reading Time: 6 minutes

Thanks to the CDC, many children will be robbed again of a formative summer camp experience. According to 2021 CDC irrational Covid summer camp guidelines, “Everyone at the camp—including staff and every kid over the age of two—must wear masks at all times, unless they are eating or swimming.” 

The guidelines include continued social distancing, limited interaction, and bans on some sports. Reactions from health experts have been harsh. One called the guidance “cruel to our children.” Another added, “Irrational recommendations will do no good, could in this case do harm, and really discredit federal agencies.” 

Will the summer camp directors follow the CDC guidelines? We can empathize with camp directors; they are walking a tightrope. State health authorities may demand compliance with CDC guidelines. Their insurance carrier may demand compliance. Campers’ parents may have conflicting views. We can understand why camp directors are likely to avoid potential liability and follow CDC guidance. 

“Nobody gets fired for buying IBM” is an old adage in business. Play it safe and make the choice others are making. Or, rock the boat and suffer potential repercussions because you didn’t follow the herd. Will camp directors “buy IBM,” follow the CDC’s Big Brother guidance, and become little brothers? Big Brother has no power without many little brothers willing to follow. 

Subtraction is Needed

In April, Dr. Nicole Spahier wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Public-health officials and politicians risk a public rebellion if they don’t start taking common sense into account and instead persist in labeling anyone who questions their decrees ‘antiscience.’ After more than a year of restrictions, they should prioritize getting back to normal.”  

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini observe that “bureaucracy saps initiative, inhibits risk taking, and crushes creativity.” They call bureaucracy “a tax on human achievement.” In his book Bureaucracy, Ludwig von Mises explains why decision makers can never make good decisions when they operate without the market signals of profit and loss. Mises writes, “A socialist management would be like a man forced to spend his life blindfolded.”

An April 2021 article in Nature further illuminates why CDC bureaucrats continue to issue nonsensical guidance and ignore voices like Spahier’s. The human mind is biased in favor of adding “solutions” to achieve outcomes. Authors of the Nature study found that in decision-making, “people systematically overlook subtractive changes.” The authors of the study report experimental evidence showing it is uncommon for decision makers to solve problems by subtracting existing regulations, practices, or programs.  

Tom Meyvis and Heeyoung Yoon analyzed findings reported in the Nature article. They explain the reason why participants in the experiments “offered so few subtractive solutions is not because they didn’t recognize the value of those solutions, but because they failed to consider them… frequent previous exposure to additive solutions has made them more cognitively accessible, and thus more likely to be considered.”  

In short, “people are prone to apply a ‘what can we add here?’ heuristic (a default strategy to simplify and speed up decision-making). This heuristic can be overcome by exerting extra cognitive effort to consider other, less-intuitive solutions.”  

Meyvis and Yoon offer additional reasons explaining the bias to favor additive solutions and not consider subtracting what interferes with improved outcomes. Bureaucrats looking to advance their career might believe “subtractive solutions are also less likely to be appreciated” and thus “expect to receive less credit for subtractive solutions than for additive ones.” 

Meyvis and Yoon suggest “policymakers and organizational leaders could explicitly solicit and value proposals that reduce rather than add.” For organizations needing to meet the market test of serving consumers, this is actionable advice. This same advice is unlikely to be considered in government bureaucracies, where once a program is established, it rarely dies. 

The CDC will not be disappearing anytime soon. Do not expect the CDC to look for “subtractive solutions.” Instead, they will continue to exploit the bias favoring additive solutions. Even worse, the media and Big Tech have essentially banned dialogue about subtractive solutions to Covid problems. If normalcy is to return, it will happen as more individuals refuse to be little brothers obeying CDC’s Big Brother edicts and start engaging in open conversations untainted by the bias favoring additive solutions.  

How Not to be a Little Brother  

Dr. Joost Meerloo was a Dutch-American psychiatrist who escaped from a Nazi prison in occupied Holland. His book, The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing, explores how totalitarian societies brainwash their citizens. Although written in 1956, Meerloo provides timeless lessons for resisting authoritarian pressures in contemporary Covid times. 

Meerloo explained how Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and other totalitarian societies used primitive Pavlovian strategies to control the population: “He who dictates and formulates the words and phrases we use, he who is master of the press and radio, is master of the mind.” 

Meerloo writes, “Freedom of discussion and free intellectual exchange hinder conditioning. Feelings of terror, feelings of fear and hopelessness, of being alone, of standing with one’s back to the wall, must be instilled.” For many today, “fear and hopelessness,” are frequent companions. In our cancel culture, free intellectual exchange is difficult. 

Why is Big Tech scrubbing even the most innocuous of alternative views? Meerloo explained why: “The mind that is open for questions is open for dissent. In the totalitarian regime the doubting, inquisitive, and imaginative mind has to be suppressed. The totalitarian slave is only allowed to memorize, to salivate when the bell rings.” Meerloo adds:

“To the degree that the individual is made an object of constant mental manipulation, to the degree that cultural institutions may tend to weaken intellectual and spiritual strength, to the degree that knowledge of the mind is used to tame and condition people instead of educating them, to that degree does the culture itself produce men and women who are predisposed to accept an authoritarian way of life. The man who has no mind of his own can easily become the pawn of a would-be dictator.”

The Pavlovian strategy encourages herding behavior as people are “conditioned more and more to ask themselves, ‘What do other people think?’” Meerloo continues, “As a result, a common delusion is created: people are incited to think what other people think, and thus public opinion may mushroom out into a mass prejudice. Expressed in psychoanalytic terms, through daily propagandistic noise backed up by forceful verbal cues, people can more and more be forced to identify with the powerful noisemaker.”

Chillingly, Meerloo writes, “Big Brother’s voice resounds in all the little brothers.” Today, “little brothers” are all too ready to repeat bromides they have heard from Dr. Fauci and media-favored “experts.” Meerloo writes, “The specialists in the art of persuasion… may water down the spontaneity and creativity of thoughts and ideas into sterile and streamlined clichés that direct our thoughts even though we still have the illusion of being original and individual.”

The result of this, as Meerloo observes, is “In totalitarian countries… the self-thinking, subjective man has disappeared…Peaceful exchange of free thoughts in free conversation will disturb the conditioned reflexes and is therefore taboo. No longer are there any brains, only conditioned patterns and educated muscles… The mental automaton becomes the ideal of education.”

Meerloo has advice for those not living in totalitarian countries. We must avoid the personal mindset temptations that lead the way to totalitarianism: 

“Free men in a free society must learn not only to recognize this stealthy attack on mental integrity and fight it, but must learn also what there is inside man’s mind that makes him vulnerable to this attack, what it is that makes him, in many cases, actually long for a way out of the responsibilities that republican democracy and maturity place on him.”

Escaping from responsibility seduces many. Meerloo writes:

“The pressures of daily life impel more and more people to seek an easy escape from responsibility and maturity. Indeed, it is difficult to withstand these pressures; to many the offer of a political panacea is very tempting, to others the offer of escape through alcohol, drugs, or other artificial pleasures is irresistible.” 

Meerloo warns, “Unknowingly, we may become opinionated robots:” 

“We search for situations that create superficial fear to cover up inner anxieties. We like to escape into the irrational because we dislike the challenge of self-study and self-thinking. Our leisure time is occupied increasingly by automatized activities in which we take no part: listening to piped-in words and viewing television screens. We hurry along with cars and go to bed with a sleeping pill.”

Meerloo warned that “many ‘free’ minds have given up the struggle for decency and individuality. They surrender to the ‘Zeitgeist,’ often without being aware of it. Public opinion molds our critical thoughts every day. “

As an antidote, Meerloo counsels “spiritual bravery, a mental courage that goes beyond the self. It serves an idea… It asks for a hyperconsciousness of the self as a thinking spiritual being.” He writes:

“Spiritual bravery is not found among the conformists or among those who preach uniformity or among those who plead for smooth social adjustment. It requires continual mental alertness and spiritual strength to resist the dragging current of conformist thought. Man has to be stronger than the mere will for self-protection and self-assertion; he has to be able to go beyond himself in the service of an idea and has to be able to acknowledge loyally that he has been wrong when higher values are found. Indeed, there is a spiritual courage that goes beyond all automatic reflex action.”

Financial, social, or other pressures might make you feel that you can’t resist Big Brother. Resistance starts gently by recognizing our own mental processes that make us vulnerable to the current of conformist thought. With mental alertness we attune ourselves to spiritual strength. With self-study, we prepare for peaceful exchange of ideas with those currently choosing to be little brothers. There is still enough freedom in America that without the support of little brothers, Big Brother will find it has no power of its own.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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