The year is 1535 and Saint Thomas More is on trial for high treason for refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of King Henry VIII in an ongoing feud with the Catholic Church. More posed a now-famous question to the jury that roughly goes as follows:
“Some men say the earth is flat. Some men say the earth is round. But if it is flat. Could Parliament make it round? And if it is round. Could the king’s command flatten it?”
This question was both common sense and profound. Of course, the government could not change the shape of the Earth. However, by accepting this premise the jury also must accept that there were natural and just limits on the power of government, including King Henry. Such a realization is in line with the concept of the natural law which sets forth the basic tenets of a free society such as the value of individual freedom and private property. The idea of the natural law sets forth a universal system of natural right and wrong such as don’t hurt others and don’t take their stuff. This system of what is right and what is wrong exists with or without the blessings of the government. Aristotle articulated a general foundation for such a way of thinking by roughly stating,
“What was “just by nature” was not always the same as what was “just by law,” that there was a natural justice valid everywhere with the same force and “not existing by people’s thinking this or that.”
This essentially states that just because something is a law does not make it right or wrong. Just because the government legalizes murder does not make murder conducive to the conduct of a good society. Just because the government says that it will solve poverty by spending trillions of dollars does not mean that it will achieve that goal. There are natural and just limits on what the government can do morally, what it can do well, and what it can do at all. The natural law can be justified by both religion and secular reasoning. A religious justification holds that we are all made in the image of God and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. A secular justification holds that there are universally reasonable things that all rational people can agree upon such as the fact that we own our bodies and therefore have rights to ourselves as well as our labor.
The Existence of a Productive Natural Order
The basis of the natural law, whether one fully accepts that such a law exists or not, gives way to the idea of a natural order that exists without the direction of government. This is why in a system of limited government such as the United States, governments are constituted to preserve the rights and freedom of the people. In such a system the government simply enforces rights such as free speech and private property while society is left to grow as it pleases which leads to the creation of desirable goods and services.
Although most famously articulated by the 20th century Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, the notion of spontaneous order has been one that has been thought about for centuries. Ultimately it recognizes that individuals acting in their own self-interest and making use of the resources immediately accessible to them come together and act in mutually beneficial ways with one another. This is why without government mandates, freely associating individuals can do everything from schedule a meetup at a coffee shop to running an international banking system.
The success of such a natural order is tied to human nature. Those who recognize the necessity of limited government to prevent excessive overreach and the use of markets to efficiently allocate resources subscribe to a constrained view of human nature. This is that,
“Man is by nature flawed, selfish, and limited. Under the constrained vision, man seeks to deal with his flaws and excesses by establishing institutions of restraint: the separation of powers, constitutions, etc.”
A constrained view of human nature holds that it is constant and not moldable to the will of whoever wishes to do so. A system that enables a natural order is the most optimal system because it fits with human nature. We need individual rights because we own our own bodies and people are not capable of micromanaging the lives of others without abusing such power or making ill-informed decisions. We need private property and economic freedom because humans are self-interested, so the best way to have people cooperate to collectively provide services to society is a market system. I explained the disastrous record of countries like China and Vietnam who attempted to impose a government-mandated order on society via Communism in an article here.
The Constructal Law of Physics and the Natural Order
Some recent work on the importance of respecting the natural order developed by a free society has been greatly articulated by a physicist by the name of Dr. Adrian Bejan who is credited with discovering the Constructal Law. Duke University explains,
The constructal law is the law of physics that accounts for the phenomenon of evolution (configuration, form, design) throughout nature, inanimate flow systems and animate systems together.
Essentially the law states that all matter in the universe evolves to become a more efficient system. It is why water tends to condense when its density is increased and why living things evolve to become more adapted to their environments. In his book Freedom and Evolution Bejan notes that the constructal law very much applies to human civilization because free societies outperform those that are not. The reason is that because systems are always self-optimizing and improving. Societies that are free to follow this natural tendency will continue evolving forward while societies that do not value freedom will be prevented from going through this natural evolution process.
Lockdowns and the Natural Order
Much if not all of the privately created institutions in our society are products of the natural order enabled by systems of freely interacting individuals. Consequently, these institutions whether physical or cultural serve an important purpose that often has something to do with human nature. Bars and restaurants are important not just because they generate revenue and keep us fed but because human nature demands socialization. In-person schooling is extremely important because it fulfills not only educational roles but developmental functions for children as well as adolescents. We don’t constantly wear masks all the time because observing oral movements is part of our linguistic development. Young adults need to go to parties and large events like concerts not just because they’re fun but because of neurological demands for sensation seeking and socialization created by their evolving brain chemistry.
The point of the matter is that institutions in society, especially when created voluntarily through private action, not a government mandate, exist because they benefit people and because people depend on it. Believing that shutting down society and relegating everyone to house arrest for months disrupts all these purposely constructed societal institutions. In one of my latest articles, I explained some of the biological reasons why young people need all the normal functions of society ranging from being able to go to parties to physically being able to attend school.
The result of shutting down these essential institutions and enacting flawed policies that force people to fight their own biological nature has resulted in an abundance of new health problems as if Covid-19 wasn’t enough. One of the most concerning is an outbreak of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety which has ultimately culminated in a large increase in youth suicides to the point that more young people have been killed by themselves than by Covid. According to one study, youth depression is also linked to increased vulnerability to 66 diseases and premature death. White-collar professionals in otherwise stable jobs are having mental breakdowns because of remote work. Finally, economic devastation brought by lockdowns will expose the world’s poor to a whole new set of health and developmental challenges because of the consequences of lockdowns such as food insecurity.
There are few things that are arbitrary in a natural and evolving natural order unlike the crushing hand of the state that disrupted the delicate balance of society. This is why famous medical professionals such as the late Donald Henderson staunchly advocated that during pandemics we should seek to preserve to the best extent possible the normal functioning of society.
It is a fatal conceit to believe that the state is the embodiment of God on Earth and impervious to the boundaries of reason and logic. There are things that the government can do well, things that it can do poorly, and things that are impossible. This is because of the natural limits on human capability and the importance of respecting the design of the natural order that we all share. The use of lockdown policies has shown us once again the dangers of overestimating the capabilities of state power and disregarding the importance of naturally occurring institutions in society. To attempt to bend these institutions with the force of lockdowns is to attempt to bend human nature itself. A task that has been failed by all who have tried before.