In his memoirs, written in the 1940s but not published until after his death, the great economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “I set out to be a reformer, but only became the historian of decline.” Most people contemplating the political and economic climate of 2020 can probably relate.
Many of us, frustrated at the loss of liberty and overreach by governments in the single-minded battle to eradicate a virus they don’t understand, have reached for George Orwell or Aldous Huxley. In their novels, 1984 and Brave New World, they explored incredibly dystopian worlds. Real-world events that resemble anything in those books invite the fear that we’re destined for the same tyrannical lives.
While literature captures something deeply real about what it means to be human ‒ particularly during the first half of the despicable 20th century in which these authors lived ‒ they ultimately depict something unreal. The superstate of 1984’s Oceania hasn’t quite emerged anywhere, except perhaps North Korea; the foolish quest for unstructured and uninhibited pleasure in the World State has so far restricted itself to communes and sections of woke university campuses.
Instead, I find Mises, or his contemporary, the novelist and poet Stefan Zweig, much more revealing. Both came of age in fin de siècle Vienna with its coffee houses, intellectual advancements, literary achievements, famed circles and aura of learning for learning’s sake that posteriority much envied. Both witnessed the prolonged and enduring collapse of their civilizations.
In contrast to Orwell and Huxley’s unreal worlds, the demise that Mises and Zweig discuss actually happened, and just a few generations ago. In our times, in our worlds, with roughly our civic institutions and social structures and values.
We are watching, in real time, the destruction of our own civilization. In the history books, events like these seem so quick and inevitable, following one upon the other until rescue from madness is too late. With the benefit of hindsight that plagues most history, this makes caricatures of the past: really, ask even precocious middle schoolers, couldn’t the secessionists or democrats or the nationalists or the Bolsheviks have anticipated what their inane beliefs and actions would lead to?
Yes, they could, but they discarded them as unrealistic, low-probability outcomes that we didn’t have to care about right now: look at all the beautiful things we are trying to achieve! When the disasters that these movements had unleashed upon civilization were more clearly visible, it was too late to roll them back.
Beginning in the 2010s, and rushing to the forefront in the god-awful year that is 2020, we have been chipping away at the base that made the West great: individualism, restrained state power, competing scientific advances under a shared commitment to truth ‒ objective, verifiable, provable truth.
In the 2010s, with the intellectual bastion of universities and mainstream media as the center of power, we demolished truth. Per critical theory, nothing is and anything goes; narratives dominate statistical facts, and cherry-picked events are enough to advance conspiratorial beliefs about structural harm. We have grievance studies and wishy-washy words of oppression; logic is white supremacy; competence hierarchies and meritocracy are nefariously designed to harm those left behind. All is power struggles.
With governments around the Covid world suspending everything that people value, we suddenly warped society. Truth-speakers are only listened to if they are politically expedient. Individualism has been effectively de-anonymized by the mandated use of masks. There is something overwhelmingly sinister by measures that inhibit person-to-person communication and aggregation, the very features which the state most fears. We impaired the workings of a free society, voluntarily, for a promise that someone, somewhere might not catch the flu. We directed attention, suspicion and later blame to those among us, friend or foe, who got infected instead of the governments from whence the power grab stemmed.
Somehow, we jumped from an Enlightenment and scientific method-based understanding of the world to suddenly blaming whoever tests positive for their flaws. If anyone gets infected, or the overall infection rates rise, being the docile sheep we are and having the hysterical media outlets we have, we conclude that people must have flaunted the rules. Take better precautions, you irresponsible virus spreader! Instead of asking whether the rules even work, we ask what moral flaws fuelled the guilty.
The Salem Witch Trials called and want their rationality back.
“As cases surged in the fall, elected officials blamed the trend on misbehavior at private social gatherings. Restaurants, stores, and other workplaces aren’t the problem, the talking point goes; people just need to behave better everywhere else—in parks, playgrounds, and their own homes.”
Instead, we must
“consider the possibility that when huge numbers of people indicate through their actions that seeing loved ones in person is nonnegotiable, they need practical ways to reduce risk that go beyond ‘Just say no.’”
Take the pandemic clown at the Department of Justice’s press briefing, viewed online by millions of people. First, he walks by staff without wearing a mask. Then he takes one out of his pocket, mishandles it and repeatedly touches his face, before he walks the few steps to the DoJ podium where he takes it off. Whatever the scientific assessment is on the effectiveness of masks in preventing the disease to spread, the hypocrisy and make-believe doesn’t get clearer than this.
That segment indicates to us what we already knew about our House of Cards-like governments. They play charades and make nonsensical rules for us, their subjects, before they themselves routinely flaunt them: Ferguson and Cummings in the U.K., Cuomo and Newsom in the U.S. In Memoirs, Mises wrote, “I recognized the corruption that is an inevitable concomitant of [government] interventionism.” Decades later, we can sympathize.
Forty years before Robert Higgs explored the Ratchet Effect ‒ governments grabbing power in the name of some emergency but never returning all of it when the threat of doom has passed ‒ Zweig wrote of the civilization that tyrannical governments and the great wars had destroyed. Apart from grand technical advances between the two total wars that plagued us from 1914 to 1945, Zweig wrote in The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European that “There is not a single nation in our small world of the West that has not lost immeasurably much of its joie de vivre and its carefree existence.”
Expect the same of today’s bloated government, filled with delusions of grandeur, always shoving down one-size-fits-all “solutions” to its underlings. Every step along the way they overthrow the fundamental liberty and live-and-let-live conviction that make civilized life bearable.
The only good news in all this madness is that large sways of the public are slowly starting to ignore their overlords. From this, the cynic assumes that it’s useless and the tyrants will win anyway; the optimists say that they will bravely fight till their dying breath ‒ and both find support in Memoirs. Reflecting on his time in Austrian policy making, Mises wrote
“I fought a battle in the [Austrian Chamber of Commerce] for sixteen years in which I achieved nothing more than the postponement of catastrophe. I made weighty personal sacrifices, even though I always foresaw that I would be denied success. But I do not regret having attempted the impossible. I could not act otherwise. I fought because there was nothing else I could do.”
You have a similar choice. Welcome to our brave new world.