– August 2, 2020

Murray Rothbard’s wonderful History of Economic Thought opens with a blast against what he called the Whig theory of intellectual history. It’s a variant of the Victorian-era idea that life is always getting better and better, no matter what. Apply it to the world of ideas, and the impression is that our current ideas are always better than ideas of the past. It rules out the possibility that there is lost knowledge in history, peculiar incidences when humanity knew something for sure and then that knowledge mysteriously went away and we had to discover it again. 

I’m writing this under a five-month near-global lockdown for fear of a new virus. And just today, a major epidemiologist in the UK, Raj S. Bhopal, dared say precisely what my mother said at the outset of this disease: the way we must manage it is to develop natural immunities to it. Yes, he said the taboo thing: people who face no fatal threat need to get it. This is precisely what my mother told me back in February. 

It’s a bit late but at least the subject is finally on the table. The idea of (badly named) herd immunity is consistent with how all societies have come to manage diseases. Protect the vulnerable while groups at no or low risk acquire the immunities. It is especially important to understand this if you want to preserve freedom rather than pointlessly impose a police state out of fear and ignorance. 

It’s extremely odd that we woke up one day in the 21st century when such knowledge seemed almost to evaporate. When famed statistician and immunologist Knut Wittkowski went public with the basics of viruses, he created shock and scandal. YouTube even deleted his videos! 

How did my mother know about immunities? Because her mother taught this to her, and hers before her. It was a major public-health priority after World War II in the United States to school each generation in this counterintuitive truth. It was taught in the schools: do not fear what we have evolved to fight but rather strengthen what nature has given you to deal with disease. Professor Bhopal dared say what few others have been willing to say but which seems obviously the case when you look at areas of the world where the virus is fully under control (New York and Sweden, for example). 

My next question: why is herd immunity a taboo topic in the 21st century? Perhaps this is a case of Rothbardian-style lost knowledge, similar to how humanity once understood scurvy and then didn’t and then had to come to understand it again. Somehow in the 21st century, we find ourselves in the awkward position of having to relearn the basics of immunology that everyone from 1920 to 2000 or so seemed to understand before that knowledge somehow came to be marginalized and buried. 

Yes, this is hugely embarrassing. The science never left the textbooks. It’s right there for anyone to discover. What seems to have gone missing is popular understanding, replaced with a premodern run-and-hide theory of disease avoidance. It’s so bad that even the imposition of police states around the country, including brutal shutdowns and house arrest, have not inspired anywhere near the level of public resistance that I would have expected. It’s like everyone gradually became ignorant on the whole topic and so they were caught off guard when politicians announced we had to get rid of human rights to fight a novel virus. 

Here is Rothbard on this problem of lost knowledge and the Whig theory that such things do not happen:

The Whig theory, subscribed to by almost all historians of science, including economics, is that scientific thought progresses patiently, one year after another developing, sifting, and testing theories, so that science marches onward and upward, each year, decade or generation learning more and possessing ever more correct scientific theories. 

On analogy with the Whig theory of history, coined in mid-nineteenth century England, which maintained that things are always getting (and therefore must get) better and better, the Whig historian of science, seemingly on firmer grounds than the regular Whig historian, implicitly or explicitly asserts that ‘later is always better’ in any particular scientific discipline. 

The Whig historian (whether of science or of history proper) really maintains that, for any point of historical time, ‘whatever was, was right’, or at least better than ‘whatever was earlier’. The inevitable result is a complacent and infuriating Panglossian optimism. In the historiography of economic thought, the consequence is the firm if implicit position that every individual economist, or at least every school of economists, contributed their important mite to the inexorable upward march. There can, then, be no such thing as gross systemic error that deeply flawed, or even invalidated, an entire school of economic thought, much less sent the world of economics permanently astray.”

Rothbard’s entire book is an exercise in discovering lost knowledge. He was fascinated with how A.R.J. Turgot could have written with such clarity about value theory but the later writings of Adam Smith were murky on the topic. He was intrigued that the classical economists were lucid on the status of economic theory but later economists in the 20th century became so confused about it. You could observe the same about free trade doctrine: once it was understood almost universally such that everyone seemed to agree it had to be a priority to build peace and prosperity, and then, poof, that knowledge seems to have vanished in recent years. 

On a personal note, I recall how passionate Murray felt about the issue of lost knowledge. He was also urging his students to find cases, document them, and explain how it happens. He always suspected that there were more cases that needed to be discovered and investigated. His writings on the history of ideas are a major effort to document as many cases as he could find. 

Another intriguing feature: one might suppose that knowledge would be less likely to be lost in the information age in which we all carry in our pockets access to nearly all the world’s information. We can access it with just a few clicks. How did this not protect us against falling prey to a medieval-style theory of disease management? How did our fears and reliance of computer modeling so easily displace inherited wisdom of the past? Why did this new virus trigger brutal attacks on rights whereas nothing like this has happened in the previous century of new viruses? 

George Washington’s troops scrapped off the scabs of the smallpox dead to inoculate themselves, but we cower in our homes in fear and obedience for a virus that is 99.6% non-fatal and is fatal mostly for people who lived four years longer than the average life span. Friends of mine who caught the virus and developed immunities are still treated like lepers even though there is not one single verified case of reinfection from C-19 in the world. 

I can only say this. Murray Rothbard right now would be astonished at how medical ignorance, fake science, and the lust for power all combined so suddenly to create the greatest global crisis in modern history for the cause of liberty to which he devoted his life. If anything has demonstrated that Rothbard was correct about the fallacy of the Whig theory, and the capacity of humanity suddenly to act and total ignorance of what was once widely known, it is these last five months of folly. 

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and nine books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. Jeffrey is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn

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