May 22, 2020 Reading Time: 6 minutes

Stay safe is the mantra of the year. Politicians tell us they are imposing lockdowns to keep us safe. Businesses assure us they are placing the safety of customers and employees first. Pundits tell us baseball cannot begin again until the safety of the players can be guaranteed. 

Safety, the dictionary tells us, is the condition of being protected from harm. In my lifetime, I have never felt less safe, and not because I fear COVID-19. I am terrified that a government claiming to make us safe is destroying the economy on which we depend. I fear for those whose careers will be shattered and those who will be left impoverished. 

In “Cosmos and Taxis,” contained in Law, Legislation and Liberty, Volume 1, F.A. Hayek famously distinguished between two kinds of order—made order that comes from “the design of some thinking mind” and spontaneous order that is the result of human action “but not the result of human design.”

Hayek doesn’t use the word safety, but as you read “Cosmos and Taxis” it is clear why we are less safe when we shelter behind closed doors. Hayek explains we live “as members of society and [are] dependent for the satisfaction of most of our needs on various forms of cooperation with others.” Hayek continues, “We depend for the effective pursuit of our aims clearly on the correspondence of the expectations concerning the actions of others on which our plans are based with what they will really do.” 

Normal expectations are no longer being met. My yard tractor developed an oil leak just as the grass cutting season started. I found the usual 2-3 days wait for service by the Sears technician had been extended to 6 weeks. Servicing a tractor occurs outdoors; social distancing is easily maintained. Not all examples of unmet expectations are as trivial as this one. 

Safety can grow from decisions of a free people. Yet those who “can’t conceive of an order which is not deliberately made” “pour uncomprehending ridicule” on the idea of spontaneous order. 

There are significant differences between order that is made and order that emerges spontaneously. Safety measures that emerge from a spontaneous order are infinitely adaptable as they rely on the creative power of free people. An emerging array of safety measures would have a “degree of complexity not limited to what a human mind can master.” In a planned order, safety measures imposed by politicians are authoritarian, depend on the limited knowledge of people, and may be motivated by a lust for power. Imposed orders are not adaptable and so can be infinitely cruel. 

Several governors, including Andrew Cuomo, imposed orders sending elderly COVID-19 patients to nursing homes. This authoritarian attempt to provide safety resulted in wholly avoidable deaths of thousands of nursing home residents.  


In their book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt define safetyism as “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

Lukianoff and Haidt explore how parents practicing safetyism turn children, who by nature are antifragile, into non-resilient fragile adults. Social expectations for parenting have changed. Lukianoff and Haidt explain, “When you combine peer pressure, shaming, and the threat of arrest, it’s no wonder that so many American parents simply don’t let their kids out of their sight anymore, even though many of those same parents report that their fondest memories of childhood were unsupervised outdoor adventures with friends.”

Lukianoff and Haidt explain cognitive distortions are sources of safetyism. Cognitive distortions are lies we tell ourselves. Here are three untruths that lead to safetyism:

“The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people—a worldview that makes [us] fear and suspect strangers.” Today, this untruth leads us to be terrorized when exposed to the breath emitted by a stranger.

“The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.” This untruth leads us to believe that feeling “unsafe” is a “reliable sign” and others must adjust their behavior to make us feel safer. 

“The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.” This untruth leads to black and white thinking: “If something isn’t 100% safe, it’s dangerous.” This cognitive distortion has led to impossible standards to “guarantee safety” before reopening churches, playgrounds, businesses, you name it.

Safetyism in the developed world is a cognitive disease that is imposing untold hardship on the planet’s most vulnerable populations. Dramatic progress that has reduced food insufficiency and lifted billions out of dire poverty is in danger of being reversed. If you live in the developing world and you are watching your children go hungry, you don’t feel safe. 

Those on the edge of starvation don’t spend time on social media. Still, if they did, imagine their bewilderment at reading self-congratulatory posts from those with stable incomes marveling at how well they have adjusted to the lockdown. 

Becoming more aware of the cognitive distortions rattling through our minds, we see just how ridiculous and cruel we are to honor the dirge-like question—Am I feeling safe? Becoming more aware of our cognitive distortions, we can ease up on our fear that safety can only come from authoritarian measures. Becoming more aware of our cognitive distortions, we can imagine fresh possibilities and solutions.

The Nazis on Safety 

There is a risk in drawing lessons from the Nazi era, but Milton Mayer provides one that is too instructive to ignore. Americans and their elected government officials are not Nazis, but you don’t have to be a Nazi to share elements of the Nazi mindset. 

Mayer was an American of German descent. A few years after World War 2, he, along with his wife and children, moved to a small town in Germany to understand if Nazism was a “mass movement” or a “tyranny of a diabolical few over helpless millions.”

In his book They Thought They Were Free, Mayer tells the story of how ordinary Germans—“we little people” as they referred to themselves—became Nazis. Mayer befriended these former Nazis and also examined the historical record to verify their stories. 

Consider policemen Willy Hofmeister. Mayer relates the story of how in 1938, Hofmeister was assigned the job of rounding up Jewish males “for their own protection.” Hofmeister was no Nazi thug; he was polite and respectful as he carried out his officious but deadly deeds.

As Hofmeister was taking into custody one Jewish man, he recalled being asked why the town synagogue was blown up that day. He answered, “They blew it up as a safety measure.”

Mayer scoured old copies of the local German newspaper from 1938. The newspaper routinely reported authorities assuring “In the interest of their own security a number of male Jews were taken into custody yesterday. This morning they were sent away from the city.” No one Mayer interviewed recalled seeing these reports.

Mayer explains why the Nazis felt a need to justify their murderous acts. Mayer writes, “It is actual resistance which worries tyrants, not lack of the few hands required to do the dark work of tyranny.” Mayer continues, “What the Nazis had to gauge was the point at which atrocity would awaken the community to the consciousness of its moral habits.”

Nazism was a mass movement. When a mass movement goes too far asunder of moral sensibilities, it provokes resistance. After years of venomous propaganda, few objected to the removal of Jews and the burning of synagogues done in the name of safety. Eventually, Nazi lies led to the annihilation of much of the Jewish population and the destruction of much of the country.

Mayer’s book has an additional lesson for our time. He writes, “The German community—the rest of the 70 million Germans, apart from the million or so who operated the whole machinery of Nazism–had nothing to do except not to interfere.” Mayer continues, “Absolutely nothing was expected of them except to go on as they had, paying their taxes, reading their local newspaper and listening to the radio.”

Safetyism is a mass movement of today. Those in the safetyism movement expect nothing of us other than to obey their authoritarian edicts.

Where Safety Lies

In Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address of 1801, he revered the Constitution in which we “shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties.” It is “principles,” Jefferson instructed, that “form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation.” 

Few of today’s policymakers and politicians are aware of Jefferson’s admonition: “Should we wander from [principles] in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.”

Jefferson’s insights prompt us to ask which principles are violated by our current safety actions. Correct the errors and smoother pathways will emerge.

Rather than retracing their steps, those locking us down are doubling down. First, they told us safety would be achieved by flattening the curve. Now, some maintain, normalcy won’t be allowed until every person in the world is injected with a vaccine; a vaccine that will be rushed to market and indemnified from liability. 

The Germans under Hitler “thought they were free.” Some Americans, despite a wrecked economy, think they are safe. In reality, safety lies in the strength of our belief in strict limits on government power, the rule of law, and stable property rights. Honor these principles and safety will emerge from the actions of a free people, not the edicts of authoritarians. 

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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