April 27, 2020 Reading Time: 14 minutes

So, “Who’s in Charge?” That is the question that David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, recently (April 25, 2020) asked in terms of dealing with the coronavirus crisis. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also recently insisted that “We Need Great Leadership” (April 21, 2020), and he was sure what it looks like. While the efforts of individuals, great and small, are acknowledged in facing the coronavirus, the primary presumption is that the country needs strong, confident, and convincing political leadership and direction. How very wrong this really is!

Whether it be governments in Europe and other parts of the world, or here in the United States at either the federal or state levels, the default position among political leaders, the scientific “experts,” and the mass media pundits and talking heads has been that people and communities cannot and must not be left alone to find ways of dealing with the tragic and for some a very deadly virus that seems easily transmitted from one person to another. 

In almost every instance around the globe, the policy template has been to stay at home, don’t go to work (unless its declared “essential” by the political authority), don’t socialize or shop (unless admitted to be “necessary” by the government and its “experts”), and do not question or doubt that the draconian methods imposed by political decree are the absolutely right and correct ones. 

What we are witnessing in all of this is the conquest of the world by China. I do not just mean by this China’s continuing prominent place in the global economy or its bid for greater diplomatic and military presence and power around the world. I mean China’s success in leading and helping to reinforce the presumption that government central planning with comprehensive command and control is the only means by which to defeat the coronavirus. 

Coronavirus and China’s Draconian Controls to Fight It

Many media outlets in the United States and Europe have detailed China’s attempt to downplay and deny the emergence of the virus in the last months of 2019, and its use of political repression to prevent medical doctors and others from going public about the existence and the possible danger from it. The press has also highlighted that for all of China’s blowing its own horn about sending medical equipment and protective gear to Europe, India and other places, how much of it has turned out to be faulty and unusable; a Chinese propaganda con game that has backfired in the eyes of many. 

But what has hardly been questioned or challenged is the political means by which and through which the Chinese government attempted to prevent the spreading of the virus. Beijing commanded that Wuhan, where the virus is understood to have originated, and surrounding cities and provinces be placed under immediate and total lockdown. 

People who violated the quarantine and the dictates to stay at home and move about only when and how the government demanded were quickly found out and punished in various ways, from being forcibly placed back in their apartment buildings, to being physically assaulted and arrested by the police. Above cities, drones patrolled the skies, serving as a Big Brother watching, warning and reporting on everything done by anyone. Like a voice from the heavens, these drones blared out orders and commands to those below not following the government’s instructions. 

China’s Dictatorship and Its Criticisms of a Failed America

For all the reality and fiction of China moving toward a more flexible and open society, it has been clear that any such “liberties” allowed to people are, in fact, “privileges” permitted by the Chinese Communist Party to advance its own political and economic purposes, with any and all of them liable to being rescinded and revoked whenever it serves the Party leadership’s plans.  

China remains a totalitarian state that wears an easily removed human mask of freedom and private enterprise. Like ancient absolute monarchs long past, Chinese President Xi Jinping commands, and all 1.4 billion people must obey. Never in history have the orders of one human being controlled the lives of so many people all at one time. 

The Chinese government and its propaganda outlets have been sending out a message around the world. As one of China’s state media outlets insisted: “American democracy is dying” and the United States is a “primitive society.” “To put it bluntly, the U.S. is no match for China in terms of anti-epidemic organization and mobilization,” it is declared. If only the United States had a comparable political system of central command and control, America would not be experiencing the magnitude of infected people and the number of unfortunate deaths. 

The planned society has shown its superiority over Western “freedom,” or so say the Chinese authorities in Beijing. But this view is implicitly shared by governments in Rome, Madrid, Paris, London, and most other countries around the world, including the United States. 

American Exceptionalism Meant Liberty and Limited Government

Mockingly, a journalist for the Associated Press declares that the, “Coronavirus shakes the conceit of ‘American Exceptionalism’.” In his eyes, while there have been a few imperfections in the operation of the federal government agencies in the U.S. in dealing with the spread of the virus, what he shows contempt for is the idea that America is somehow different, better, and unique, compared to the rest of the world. That such a plague would not fall on this special land and, if it did, it would be handled better than other countries around the world. He seems to take great pleasure, from the tone of the article, in castigating America and the American people. You are no better than anyone else.  

Alas, this AP journalist is mostly right, but not in the way he presumes. There once was an American Exceptionalism. The country was born on the foundational idea and ideal of individual liberty, freedom of association and trade, an equality of rights before the law to life, liberty and honestly acquired property. And the attempt to design a system of government with a written constitution that would assign those in political power the duty and responsibility to secure and protect each person’s rights, but with institutional constraints meant to prevent that government from becoming a master rather than a servant. 

It would be easy to enumerate all the instances and forms in which that idea and ideal was not made real for all at first and over a long period of time. There has been hypocrisy, inconsistency, a plundering lust to use the powers of government to gain what does not ethically belong to you at the expense of others’ rights, and wrong-headed beliefs among too many about the morality of a truly free society. 

But, nonetheless, looking over the ages before the establishment of the United States, and most places since then over the last more than two centuries, for a good part of its history America offered the practice of those ideals for tens upon tens of millions, and prodded the country to move more in the direction of its promise precisely because practice so often fell short of its underlying principles. Imperfect people are obstinate creatures who sometimes only grudgingly and slowly practice more fully what they preach.

Free Association Instead of Government Paternalism

One form of this American Exceptionalism that was rather firmly believed in and widely practiced was the idea that social concerns were best left to and handled by private individuals at their own discretion or in voluntary association among interested and concerned citizens. They would jointly bring to bear their interest, enthusiasm, knowledge and skills to solve the common issues and problems that groups in the society were concerned about and needed to be taken care of. 

There was little or no thought, on many such matters, that they required or could be better dealt with by government at almost any level. To fully appreciate this, it is sometimes better to hear a voice from the past who explains how they thought and acted in those earlier times. 

Adam Gurowski (1805-1866) was a Polish nobleman who came to the United States in 1849, having left the Russian Empire because of political disagreement with that government’s policies. After eight years living in and traveling around the United States, he published America and Europe (1857), an account of all that he had come to understand and appreciate about his new home compared to the Europe he had earlier known. Here is how he explained the spirit and practice of American voluntarism, rather than relying upon government paternalism: 

“Everything great, beneficial, useful in America, is accomplished without the action of the so-called government, notwithstanding even its popular, self-governing character. Individual impulses, private enterprise, association, free activity, the initiative pouring everlastingly from within the people, are mostly substituted here for what in European societies and nations forms the task of governments . . .

“But by far the larger number of monuments, works and useful establishments, for industry, trade, for facilitating and spreading tuition and mental culture, universities, schools and scientific establishments, are created and endowed by private enterprise, by private association, and by individual munificence . . .

“Neither individuals separately, nor the aggregated people look to the government for such creations; private association and enterprise, those corollaries of self-government – untrammeled by governmental action – have covered the land with railways and canals . . . 

“All this could not have been miraculously carried out, if the American people had been accustomed to look to a government for the initiative, instead of taking it themselves. Without the self-governing impulse, America would be materially and socially a wilderness.”

As one other example, Fredrika Bremer (1801-1865) was a Swedish author, feminist, and classical liberal reformer who spent two years traveling around the United States in the early 1850s, and after returning to Sweden published The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America (1853). She, too, was impressed with the American spirit of free association and voluntarism to deal with the common problems of society:   

 “Whenever any subject or question of interest arises in society, which demand public sympathy or cooperation, a ‘Convention’ is immediately called to take it into consideration, and immediately, from all ends of the city or the state, or from every state of the Union, all who feel an interest in the subject or question fly upon wings of steam to the appointed place of meeting and the appointed hour . . . It is always admirable with what readiness, with what savoir faire this people advance onward in self-government, and how determinedly and rapidly it proceeds from ‘proposed’ to ‘resolved’.”

How different America is today from that unique “exceptionalism” of self-reliance, free association, and voluntary solutions to common problems. Of course, there is still an amazing amount of private charity, philanthropy, and mutual association, certainly in comparison to virtually any other part of the developed world. But, notwithstanding this continuing legacy of the institutions of civil society, including in the current coronavirus crisis, the default position for most Americans across the modern day political spectrum is to turn to government for guidance, direction, and planning to handle many if not most of these common areas of concern and interest, especially during a health panic such as now. 

China’s “Victory” Hides the Losses from No Freedom

The Chinese government may boastfully declare that command and control have (seemingly) vanquished the viral foe, but the insistence on and the dictatorial character of “top down” planning really demonstrates the failures of the Chinese authorities. What if those Chinese doctors and researchers in the last months of 2019 had been able to publicly share their information and judgments about the dangers and severity of the coronavirus without being censored or “disappearing?” 

What if people in the affected areas in central China were not kept in the dark and had had the latitude and liberty to evaluate and respond as they found and considered to be the best possible methods to adapt and adjust their various types of social interactions, without waiting to be told what the situation was and how they were to respond to it under coercive penalty from Beijing for any disobedience? 

This was never considered, never discussed, never given credence in Europe or in the United States in judging what was going on in China or what might be a different and better way to respond more consistent with the principles of a free society. No, instead, most of the European governments and then the federal and state governments in the U.S. all decided to follow variations on the Chinese theme. (See my articles, “To Kill Markets is the Worst Possible Plan” and “Leaving People Alone is the Best Way to Beat the Coronavirus”.)

Utilizing the Special and Local Knowledge of Time and Place

American Exceptionalism in that 19th century sense of the voluntary associations of civil society as the avenues to rely upon and participate through were considered to be either irrelevant or minor secondary stopgaps or small complements to government oversight and leadership. We have been suffering from cultural amnesia about those earlier generations of Americans, and we seem to have lost and forgotten an awareness of those past times and what they could still teach us. 

Those earlier Americans practiced the kinds of actions and mutual associations that, for instance, Austrian economist Friedrich A. Hayek theorized about in the 20th century. It was the individual members of American society, in their own corners of that growing United States who possessed the unique and special knowledge of the time and local circumstances in which they lived. They saw better the nature and qualities of the community and social problems they faced, and with common sense took it for granted that those more immediately impacted or concerned about them would have the greatest and informed interest to come together and devise ways of dealing with them.

As both Adam Gurowski and Fredrika Bremer highlighted, even with the far more limited means of communication and transportation of that earlier time, when viewed as needed and useful, shared problems and concerns brought together people from across communities, states and the nation as a whole. Also, in ways no longer sufficiently appreciated, but which Hayek also emphasized in his later theorizing about the use of knowledge in society, one of the central means for communication, coordination and cooperation that people back then more clearly took for granted were the institutions of competitive markets and the price system. 

Principles of Economic Liberty and Personal Freedom to Choose

Where did the American people of the 19th century learn such things, besides common sense and everyday experience? It is what was explained to them in the teachings of that, then, new and exciting subject and science of political economy. One of the most widely read books in American college courses on political economy in the first half of the 19th century was by Thomas Cooper (1759-1839), Lectures on the Elements of Political Economy (1826, 2nd ed., 1830). Here is what he said about personal and economic freedom to young Americans pursuing their education:

“The true principles of Political Economy . . . teach us also, that men should be permitted, without interference of government, to produce whatever they find it in their interest to produce; that they not be prevented from producing some articles or bribed to produce others. That they should be left unmolested to judge of and pursue their own interest; to exchange what they have produced when, where, and with whom and in what manner they find most profitable and convenient; and not be compelled by theoretical statesmen to buy dear and sell cheap; or to give more, or get less, than they might do if left to themselves, without government interference or control. 

“That no favored or privileged class should be fattened by monopolies or protections to which the rest of the community are forced to contribute. Such are the leading maxims by means of which Political Economy teaches to obtain the greatest sum of useful commodities at the least expense of labor. These are indeed maxims directly opposed to the common practice of governments, who think they can never govern too much; and who are willing dupes of artful and interested men, who seek to prey upon the vitals of the community.”

Thomas Cooper also warned those young American minds not to fall into the linguistic trap of thinking that there is a “common good” or a “general welfare” or “national interest” separate and independent from the particular interests of specific individual human beings. It is a grammatical sleight-of-hand to impose the interests and commands of some on all. Said Cooper:

“Much difficulty and deplorable mistake, has arisen on the subject of Political Economy, from the propensity that has prevailed, of considering a nation as some existing intelligent being, distinct from the individuals who compose it; and possessing properties belonging to no individual who is a member of it. We seem to think that national morality is a different thing from individual morality, and dependent on principles quite dissimilar . . .

“The grammatical being called a ‘nation,’ has been clothed in attributes that have no real existence except in the imagination of those who metamorphose a word into a thing; and convert a mere grammatical contrivance, into an existing and intelligent being . . . The more effectually we can discard mystery, from this and every other subject, the more intelligible will it become; and the less easy will it be for designing men of any description to prey upon the credulity of mankind.” 

Practicing Chinese Control and Command in America

These were the economic and social conceptions and principles underlying the idea of American Exceptionalism. Are these the ideas and policies that have guided the responses to the challenges facing the American people during this coronavirus crisis? No, in far too many ways, it has been the exact opposite. 

Governors assert their political authority to bring most of their states’ social and economic activities to a grinding halt. People are ordered to remain at home and in place under penalty of fine and arrest. Bureaucratic experts and enforcers dictate what are or are not “essential” goods and services, and which stores and enterprises may remain open and which must be totally or partially closed. They command what prices may be charged for various goods and services and threaten various punishments for those who fail to obey orders. And they welcome neighborhood spies to inform on those around them.

Sunday church attendees are fined and dispersed, even when families are in their cars and “social distancing” from their fellow parishioners. Couples are ticketed for watching the sunset while sitting in their vehicles along an isolated beach. Demonstrators opposing the lockdowns are told that constitutional expressions of freedom of speech and assembly are “nonessential” activities during the coronavirus crisis and must cease their hazardous behavior. 

The federal government hamstrung in significant ways private sector and local grappling with the virus in its early stages in the United States by rigidly determining what and how essential types of medical equipment and safety materials might be manufactured and by whom. The president of the United States, while saying that the private sector was doing a “great job,” then activated a Korean War executive act still on the books to command various American industries to start producing certain “essential” items and in what quantities to be supplied to whom. 

The same president of the United States declared that as chief executive, all the power is in his hands to halt all activities in the country or to order their reopening; followed by a statement that while he still thinks he has such supreme authority, he is “allowing” state governors to decide when to loosen or end the shutdowns. But when a governor from his own party does just that, the same president gives him a tongue lashing for not doing it how the federal government says is the safe and timely manner. 

Indeed, this is the flip side of the federal or state governments enforcing social and economic shutdowns. Now they will have their central plans to determine and dictate who can go back to work, doing what, and when people can go back to shopping for whatever they want, wherever it may be convenient. 

Again, the idea that people should make their own informed judgments and personal trade-offs about health concerns versus income-earning activities and having the means and opportunity to buy the things that work is ultimately all about, is lost on the minds of those enforcing the restrictions and among a large segment of the population who presume that government knows best. 

Funny Money in the Trillions of Dollars

At the same time, the Congress passes multi-trillion dollar aid packages for American taxpayers, and for small, medium and large business enterprises, with money created out of thin air and distributed according to how politicians and bureaucrats considered it to be fair, just and necessary in “impartial and unbiased” negotiation with the very business and other groups that will benefit from each of the billions-of-dollars giveaways.

Former Senator Everett Dirksen (1896-1969) is attributed with once saying about government spending: “A billion here, a billion there; pretty soon you’re talking about ‘real’ money.” Now it’s a trillion here and a trillion there, and the members of Congress still haven’t yet reached what those in charge of bankrupting the citizenry seem to consider “real money.” In the 1830s, the admittedly controversial president, Andrew Jackson, took great pride in reducing the U.S. government debt down to virtually zero. Today, presidents and congressmen only recognize multiple zeros following large dollar numbers in government deficit spending. 

Coronavirus Has Made Us All Chinese Communists Now

In implementing these types of dictates and commands, with the implied attitude that government officials have no restraints on their controls and decrees other than the ones they decide to impose on themselves, American politicians are no different than their implicit mentors in Beijing, China. 

Richard Nixon was notorious during his presidency for having declared that, “We are all Keynesians now.” In their economic policies, there would be no misstatement if a “bipartisan” committee of Democrats and Republicans were to draft a document announcing that, “We are all Chinese communists now.” 

Not in the sense that the United States has one formal political party – though in crisis moments like these it is certainly clear that it is hard to find any meaningful “dime’s worth of difference” between them in terms of the presumption that the federal and state governments have to “do something” in a big and dictating way to which everyone in the society must conform. 

But it is most certainly the case that we are all Chinese communists now, with almost no, de facto, real and meaningful autonomy and discretion over our own lives and our ways of earning a living. We are pawns on a society-wide chess board, who are told what to do and where to stand and if anything goes wrong, we are the first to be considered expendable in the great political chess game of politicians asserting to know what is in the “national interest” and why we must be made to obey it. 

In the realm of economic policy and social dictates, China is once more the “middle kingdom” and America is among the ideological vassel states paying tribute to it by emulating its vision of the organization and mobilization techniques of a world model for the centrally controlled and planned society. 

The great idea of an American Exceptionalism based on the ideal of human liberty, personal choice, free association inside and outside of open markets, and equal rights under impartial rule of law was a magnificent chapter in human history that is very possibly coming to a close. We will not fully know and appreciate what has been lost until it has become extremely difficult to successfully get it back. 

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Ebeling lived on AIER’s campus from 2008 to 2009.

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