From July 1997 until August 2001 I was president of the Foundation for Economic Education (“FEE”). Founded in 1946 by Leonard Read (1898-1983), FEE joined with AIER (founded in 1933) in pioneering, during post-war America, the nourishment and spread of the ideas and ideals of classical liberalism.
My admiration for Read began twenty years before I became FEE’s president. In 1977, as a college sophomore, I was introduced to his 1958 essay “I, Pencil.” The message was a thunderclap. To this day, Read’s classic essay remains one of my favorites of all things ever written.
But taking over FEE’s reins from the retiring Hans Sennholz inspired me to dive more deeply into Read’s other, voluminous writings. One theme that runs through these works is humility. Read never tired of reminding his readers that the only person anyone really has any control over is himself or herself. Leonard Read could share his knowledge and wisdom with Sam and Sarah, but ultimately Sam and Sarah are each their own stewards. Sam and Sarah can each choose to be taught by Read, but the learning that each of these persons ultimately takes from Read is determined by each of them.
Read’s deep understanding of individualism, and his equally deep respect for individuals, prevented him from being judgmental. It was not Read’s place to judge what other individuals do with whatever learning they might take from him or from anyone else. As long as each of us respects the rights and space of each of the rest of us, we should be free to do – to use the title of what is perhaps Read’s most famous book – anything that’s peaceful.
Read’s wisdom and humility were brought to my mind over the past few days by my own fear of the Covidocracy.
Hysteria over Covid-19 and governments’ correspondingly disproportionate reaction to this disease are the greatest threats to liberalism in my lifetime. By far. The quickness with which so many people came to believe that avoiding Covid is worth any price was stunning. The apparent failure – still – of most of my fellow human beings to look for themselves at the actual data on Covid is distressing. Ordinary people’s gullibility for mainstream “experts” peddling tyranny is appalling. The widespread embrace of the superstition that “the science” supplies an objective blueprint for how human choices should be made is terrifying.
If one year ago I was accurately informed of all that governments were to do from March 2020 through today – if one year ago I was shown in a truthful crystal ball the manner in which the media were to portray the disease and the many Covid restrictions – I would have predicted that nearly every classical liberal and libertarian would have raised his and her voice loudly, firmly, and unrelentingly against this tyranny and madness. And if asked in March 2020 how confident I was in my prediction, I would have answered, with the exclamation point, “One-hundred percent!”
My prediction would have been proven wrong. Very wrong.
Of course, some notable liberals have been outspoken from the start against Covid Derangement Syndrome and the Covidocracy. In the United States, surely the most outspoken are the stable of writers at AIER. I’m proud to be in their ranks.
But I’m shocked by how relatively quiet have been most prominent classical-liberal and libertarian voices.
This shock prompted me last week to write at my blog, Café Hayek, a post titled “Lockdown Tyranny.” In that post, without naming names, I harshly decried the many classical liberals and libertarians whose silence over the past year so surprised and disappointed me.
In that post, I criticized people who did not do as I do. That criticism, alas, is inappropriate.
Also inappropriate was the smug sense of self-satisfaction that I felt by issuing the post. A notion much like the following ran through my mind: “I hope that I shame those who should know better about this tyranny but who, for unknown reasons, are not publicly raising their voices against it.”
But the one shamed was to be me.
Not long after the post went live, I received a telephone call from one of my dearest and most trusted friends (who I will identify here simply as “Friend” and with the admittedly ugly pronoun “s/he”). Friend is the person in the world whose economics, ethics, politics, and general understanding of humanity most closely match my own. S/he and I agree on almost everything – including, fully, on the vastly overhyped dangers of Covid and on the underappreciated menace of lockdowns.
So when Friend said to me, in no uncertain terms, “You’re not going to like my saying this, but your blog post is inappropriate,” I took notice.
My initial impulse was to resist – to tell Friend that s/he doesn’t understand what I’ve written. But Friend and I are too close for me to have clung to that impulse for more than a nanosecond. If Friend is critical, I’d better listen up.
Friend explained: “Don, you don’t know why any particular individuals choose not to publicly speak out against the Covid panic and the lockdowns. Those individuals might have good reasons. In fact, you should assume that they do have good reasons. Maybe their employers would punish them. Maybe the backlash from their families would be too much to bear. Maybe many of them simply wish to keep in their specialized lanes and not write or talk about a matter on which they believe themselves to lack sufficient knowledge.”
“And finally,” Friend concluded, “maybe the persons you have in mind assess the risks of Covid and of lockdowns differently than you do. Don, you can challenge their understanding of the facts, but you’re wrong to pass ethical judgment on these people for their failure to speak out.”
I sat, phone in hand, quietly thinking for a few seconds. That’s when Leonard Read came to mind. “You’re right,” I replied sincerely to Friend. I then wrote this follow-up blog post.
Liberalism has many facets. Especially important among these is humility and the resulting tolerance. No matter how confident you are in your knowledge about some matter, there’s always at least a slim chance that you’re mistaken about that matter. There’s a slim chance that those with dissenting views are correct.
To recognize this human reality is not to swear off pressing, even vigorously so, a case for or against some policy if you have good reason to be confident in the knowledge that leads you to press that case. But you should resist leaping to the conclusion that those who disagree, or who fail to express agreement, are failing either ethically or intellectually. Giving others a capacious benefit of the doubt is liberal, civilized, scientific.
This tolerance should not be unlimited. Some policies are so clearly unethical as to justify confident, even harsh, criticism of those who endorse these policies. To pick an obvious example, someone who calls for a reinstitution of chattel slavery is so far beyond the pale as to warrant harsh criticism and ridicule. (But always peacefully. Even such a person retains the right to speak and write freely.) And the closer the question comes to being one of objective ‘facts’ rather than one of subjective values, the more justified is confident criticism of the case made by someone who you believe to have his or her facts wrong. Also more justified, therefore, is confident criticism of whatever normative conclusions someone draws from his or her factually mistaken case.
But over a very wide range everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt – both of that person’s interpretation of the facts, and of the normative conclusions that he or she draws from that interpretation.
Again, I’m as confident as I can be that liberal civilization is now in grave peril. Whether it’s called “safetyism” or “bioprotective statism” or (as David Hart has named it) “hygiene socialism,” the dangers are high and real of the sudden acceptance of the dual idea that the worst fate that can befall a person is to come into contact with a pathogen, and that the state must protect us from this fate by imposing on us lockdowns, mask mandates, and other draconian restrictions.
Civilization as we know it – liberal, free, dynamic, prosperous civilization – cannot survive what I fear will be repeated rounds of pathogen panic and the resulting Covidocracy-like tyranny.
And so I will continue with every sinew to publicly protest this madness – to play whatever role I can to persuade people to temper their excessive fear of Covid – to warn whenever I can of the many dangers of hygiene socialism – to urge in private my quiet friends to break their public silence.
I cannot deny that I’ll feel much disappointment whenever I encounter Mr. __’s or Ms. __’s refusal to add his or her voice to the protests against lockdowns. Never will I understand how a classical liberal or libertarian can behold what’s going on today in the name of fighting Covid and not see misinformation and tyranny on such a scale as to demand, from all of liberty’s friends, forthright public opposition.
But my failure to understand isn’t a sufficient warrant for me to criticize those who remain silent. I will respect their choices. Showing such respect is what Leonard Read would have done. It’s what my ever-wise Friend does and will always do. The liberalism destroyed by hygiene socialism need not have added to it the liberalism destroyed by liberals’ own intolerance.
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