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March 24, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents California’s Fourth District in Congress, gave a speech on the House floor last year in which he called for an end to lockdowns because their myriad costs far outweigh their paltry benefits. “It’s called common sense,” he said, but “fools abound in public office” and soon become tyrants wielding power rather than the public servants they swore to be.

In the clip, McClintock does not explicitly call out Thomas Paine but he certainly could have. AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine, edited by myself, of course contains Paine’s famous pamphlet Common Sense but much else besides, all of it pointing towards the crucial importance of fostering independence of mind and conscience from groupthink and arbitrary rule, be the tyrant born into his or her role or kinda sorta elected into it. (This is sometimes called the tyranny of the majority but let’s face it, no American president or President-elect has ever received votes from more than half of the electorate, much less half of the population. For example, Biden may have received 80 million votes in 2020 but there are 330 million Americans.)

McClintock noted that Covid-19, while serious, is not the “Bubonic Plague.” I have often mused about what the government’s response would have been if we had been faced by a super serious infectious disease, one that spreads as rapidly as Covid but with an infection fatality rate across the age spectrum more on the order of ten percent. Fearmongering and harmful edicts enabled a much less lethal and mostly anti-geriatric disease to cripple much of the world in 2020.

It is tempting to assume that the government’s response would have been ten times more repressive but, in fact, people might have reacted with such alarm that we might have seen reverse lockdowns instead, with governments forcing people to go to work to keep the lights on and potable water flowing. A much more deadly contagion might have induced us to jump right to the hazmat suit solution that, in hindsight, we should have adopted for Covid instead of destroying the economy and people’s lives along with it.

Covid-19 might, in other words, have been a Perfect Virus, a malady just deadly and just unique enough to provide just enough grist for the media mill to keep fears vivid even as it became increasingly clear that most of the early claims about it, including its miraculous ability to infect others via asymptomatic persons, was mostly, if not purely, bunk. But contra common sense many of the nebbishes in charge of making myriad decisions affecting our everyday lives are afraid of sounding the All Clear lest some irresponsible media outlets, which suddenly seem ubiquitous, claim that no longer quarantining books led to a spikey wavey superspready “outbreak.”

Although good sense appears to gradually return, many Americans remain too afraid to buck public opinion and start a #commonsense and #showmethescience hashtag in the real world by pushing back on all lockdowners, politicians and their sundry minions. You don’t have to berate the poor help staff or get yourself arrested for not wearing a mask but you could just point out the issue, whatever it is, and empathize. Not everyone can quit their jobs to protest inanity, like one U.K. constable did late last year.

Details will vary, of course, but try something like: “It must be difficult to make a living when only ten percent of restaurant capacity can be utilized. Does the owner of this once fine establishment know that certain politicians and media outlets are driving these lockdown policies and that many, many scientists believe that policies like this hurt, rather than help, public health? Ask her if it is common sense to simply go along with these unprecedented edicts and suggest that she ask the relevant officials to show the science, the actual scientific papers and not some twisted view of it published by a once great newspaper, behind their decisions. If they cannot show it, and trust me they cannot, not in an honest way anyway, suggest that they change the policy or, if they cannot understand the world well enough to set policies that work for everyone, to step down. I used to love this place and hope one day to eat here again but let’s be clear — the owner needs to fight for her own business and her rights now by insisting on rational public policies like those sketched in the Great Barrington Declaration. And you need to fight for your job and livelihood by speaking to the owner about #commonsense and #showmethescience. Try to have a nice night. I’ll be cooking for myself again tonight but wish you the best.”

A revolution in thought and quotidian activities, a groundswell in support of common sense, is what we need right now. It was no coincidence that annual Thomas Paine commemorations grew common in the 1820s and 1830s, another period of social tumult when pressing issues like slavery, Indian removal, alcohol, and prostitution forged alliances of private and public paternalists against those who sought to maximize human liberty. (For more on the Paine commemorations and Paine-inspired nonprofits, see Eric R. Schlereth, “Fits of Political Religion: Stalking Infidelity and the Politics of Moral Reform in Antebellum America,” Early American Studies 5, 2 (Fall 2007): 288-323.)

If we don’t get some common sense again right quick, the sort of revolution that Paine helped make possible with Common Sense might be next. Planned or not, American and global society has moved very far up the risk-reward tradeoff line, where Left, Right, and Classical Liberal think their respective goals are almost within grasp. But we might end up instead with no winners, just chaos, violence, and poverty. Now that’s serious because not only are the lives of mortals at stake, the existence of the most productive civilization in history is threatened. Nobody can “win” Covid at this point but we certainly can work at not losing yet more. #commonsense; #showmethescience

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

He 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.

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