March 30, 2021 Reading Time: 13 minutes

In the first press conference of his presidency on March 25, 2021, Joe Biden announced that he had set a target of administering 200 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine before the end of his first 100 days in office. In an earlier statement before the press, Biden said that it might be safe enough for the government to permit gatherings at people’s homes to celebrate the 4th of July. Listening to the man who occupies the White House, it seems that our lives and how we live all depend on Joe Biden. 

Some in the media have focused on the president’s recent stumbling up the stairway ramp while getting on to Air Force One, and wondered if at the age of 78 Biden can successfully put one foot in front of the other. Others have suggested that without the written scripts prepared by his White House staff and projected onto a teleprompter or the notes in front of him at a podium, the president seems unable to always articulately say a handful of words without a gaffe or getting lost and confused in his own thoughts.

If anything goes wrong in the Biden administration’s policies for directing and planning our lives, no doubt a fallback position for some of our enlightened political paternalists likely will be that it is not the principle or practice of government-designed social engineering that is fundamentally flawed. No, it’s just that, unfortunately, a man too old with some cognitive disabilities wasn’t quite up to overseeing the national tasks to be done, and which are capable of repair and improvement when the “right hands” are at the helm of government. 

The EU Comedy of Confusions and Contradictions

Across the Atlantic, the European Union (EU) is mired in contradictions, confusions, and member-nation conflicts about lockdowns, vaccine safety, and national distributions of existing and projected supplies of the vaccine. At first, the EU member governments declared that the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and effective. Then, some of them announced that its use might cause serious side effects and halted inoculations. This was followed by new statements that any such side effects were less of a risk than not having the injection.

EU governments have been bickering among themselves over the allocations of the vaccine supplies among the member nations, along with disagreements of how much of the vaccine should be shared with poorer and less developed countries in other parts of the world, and also whether AstraZeneca manufacturers have shortchanged the European Union compared to doses available to and taken by the British across the English Channel in the United Kingdom. 

Whipsawed by their governments about whether or not to trust taking the AstraZeneca vaccine, those same governments are “shocked” that a good number of their own citizens, particularly in places like France, for instance, have chosen not to have the vaccination. At the same time, large stores of the vaccine are “discovered” in warehouses as the very moment that various EU spokesmen appear before the press in near hysteria over the claimed short supplies of AstraZeneca being provided by the manufacturing facilities. 

Fearful of supposed “third waves” of Covid-19 cases, countries like France and Poland have imposed new partial lockdowns. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, declared that Germany would have to again tightly shut things down over the Easter weekend to prevent a new outbreak of the coronavirus. When German state governments and large crowds of demonstrators around the country adamantly opposed such renewed drastic steps, Merkel had to go on German television and reverse the severity of the announced lockdown, while at the same time publicly apologizing to the German people for so arrogantly presuming to tell them how to celebrate such a widely recognized and shared holiday. 

Classical Liberalism was an Inoculation Against Collectivism

For more than a year, now, we have been in the grip of a massive “new wave” of a dangerous and deadly ideological virus that has the names political paternalism and social engineering. It is often pointed out that the current coronavirus crisis is the first of this magnitude and global dimension since the infamous Spanish Flu from 1918 to 1920, during which estimates say that tens of millions of people, worldwide, may have died from that earlier virus. 

But it is less often highlighted that a political virus of government control, regulation, restriction and planning enveloped all the major countries of the world at about the same time, a little over 100 years ago during the First World War. After the 25-year European-wide war between, first, revolutionary and then Napoleonic France against Great Britain, Imperial Russia, Prussia, Spain, and some other minor countries that ended in 1815, a number of leading nations, of which Britain was preeminent, “inoculated” themselves against the all-dominating state through classical liberal reforms that recognized individual rights, personal and civil liberty, the sanctity of private property, the freedom of enterprise and mostly unrestricted international trade and investment, which were all bolstered by formal and informal institutional restrictions on government spending, taxing, borrowing, and the printing of paper money through introduction of constitutional limits and national gold standards.  

Several leading European countries along with the United States and Canada in North America seemed to be successfully “immune” from the virus of collectivism in its various permutations into the second half of the 19th century. But under the external appearance of political and economic “health” with widening liberty and growing prosperity, new variations of this dangerous ideological virus were infecting even the social bodies of the freest countries in the forms of increasingly aggressive nationalist and socialist ideas.  

Symptoms were noticed and warned about by a few, by such “social diagnosticians,” for instance, as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) in Great Britain and William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) in America, and Paul Leroy-Beaulieu (1843-1916) in France, and some others who are less well-known but who were no less clear in their stated fears. (See my articles, “Herbert Spencer on Equal Liberty and the Free Society” and “Paul Leroy-Beaulieu: A Warning Voice About the Socialist Tragedy to Come”.) 

World War I Replaced Liberty with War and Welfare Planning

If government planning only had been a wistful socialist dream before 1914, with the coming of the First World War every one of the major belligerent powers in Europe soon imposed price and wage controls, production restrictions and planning targets, regulations or prohibitions on almost all goods imported or exported, and ended the gold standard to turn the handles of the monetary printing presses to fund the huge costs of what became a long and destructive four years of war. Personal freedoms and civil liberties were restricted or denied in the name of winning the war. See my article, “The Lasting Legacies of World War I: Big Government, Paper Money, and Inflation”.)

Looking back at the consequences of the First World War, the German liberal economist, Gustav Stolper (1888-1947), observed in 1931 in the pages of Foreign Affairs magazine:

“Just as the war for the first time in history established the principle of universal military service, so for the first time in history it brought national economic life in all its branches and activities to the support and service of state politics – made it subordinate to the state . . . Not supply and demand, but the dictatorial fiat of the state determined economic relationships – production, consumption, wages, cost of living . . . At the same time, and for the first time, the state made itself responsible for the physical welfare of its citizens; it guaranteed food and clothing not only to the army in the field but to the civilian population as well . . .

“Here is a fact pregnant with meaning; the state became for a time the absolute ruler of our economic life, and while subordinating the entire economic organization to its military purposes, also made itself responsible for the welfare of the humblest of its citizens, guaranteeing him a minimum of food, clothing, heating, and housing.” 

War is a Deadly Virus for Spreading Bigger Government

The countries that were before 1914 still fairly and widely free in terms of economic liberty and personal freedom saw after World War I the collectivist virus’s residue remaining in the social and policy system of ideas, ready to reemerge with its virulent effects at any time. In his insightful, but seemingly neglected study of The British Political Tradition (1983), historian William H. Greenleaf (1927-2008) explained in volume one of this work, on, “The Rise of Collectivism,” that once infected with the bigger government virus, it is never fully expunged from the affected society: 

“It was the Great War which marked a sea-change . . . and which saw an alternation in respect of government control of a degree that beforehand would have seemed quite impossible and would have met with invincible opposition if suggested . . . The enduring impact of war on collectivist development is clearly indicated because the reversion is never to the status quo ante bellum .  . . Although there is at the end of hostilities a decline from the extreme heights of government expenditures reached during the war itself, this fall stops at a level higher than that prevailing during the pre-war period. A substantial residue of the increased wartime activity remains . . . 

“This appears to result from the operation of three factors. First, there is an obvious and continuing impact in respect of debt commitments, payment of war pensions, and the like. Secondly, there are important fiscal effects of war concerning the level of taxation which is acceptable . . . New types of taxes are introduced and everyone gets used to the higher level of payment than was previously thought possible or desirable . . . 

“And thirdly, there is a general loosening of restrictions hitherto imposed on government activity . . . The state had come to control directly or indirectly a great part of the economic process; the enormous wealth and taxable capacity of modern industrial society now stood revealed. Why should these possibilities not be exploited to abolish poverty? . . . If tanks and bombers can be produced in many respects regardless of expense, why should not this later be the case for schools, hospitals, and houses?” 

“Following the Science” Leading to More Government Control

And if the current incantation of “follow the science” and the experts who claim to know what science requires and dictates in terms of the social conduct of the entire population seems a new twist on the required role of the state, Greenleaf referenced the growing presumption and insistence in the 19th century that only government and its specialized bureaucrats could manage various matters concerning health. Here, too, was the assertion that the individual’s freedom of choice concerning a vaccination could be legitimately abrogated in the name of a “common good” defined by those in political authority. Explained Greenleaf:

“Once a scientific advance was made there was a growing pressure for government to act on this knowledge and use it as a basis for legislative regulation . . . A good example in the public health field is provided by the activity of the state in respect of smallpox vaccination as a major form of preventative medicine . . . The first formal state action was taken in 1808 when Parliament was induced to set up a National Vaccination Establishment to provide free vaccination at its London stations . . . 

“The moral and constitutional issues involved were revealed in the Parliamentary debate of 1872 about the legal enforcement of vaccination and the continual imposition of penalties for refusal to comply. Lyon Playfair, at the time perhaps the most influential MP with scientific knowledge, demolished an attempt to amend the Bill before the House [of Commons] saying that ‘individual disbelief in a remedy which science and experience had confirmed beyond all reasonable doubt was no justification for relieving the conscience of that individual at the expense of society’ . . .

“There is indeed a kind of general pattern in this particular example. First there exists a social problem, in this case the major scourge of smallpox. A prophylactic treatment is discovered by scientific research. Then government intervened to make the treatment in turn available, compulsory, and more effective. Clearly more and more intervention and powers of coercion are involved . . . In sum, therefore, scientific knowledge could aid or even produce pressure for government action by seeming to give this pressure intellectual justification and provide practical means of implementation.” 

The Rise of Scientism as a Tool for Political Paternalism

Part of the problem in all this, Greenleaf pointed out, drawing upon the frustrations and concerns of those inside and outside of the British government, already in the late 19th century, was to know what was really fact from fiction, what was a serious social matter or one that was only a minor social concern. Once the precedent was established that such things required governmental intrusion and imposition, it developed a momentum of its own in terms of more and more instances in which the claim was made for greater bureaucratic personnel and more authority to act. But how and who was to determine if these demands were reasonable and really necessary? Greenleaf explained the frustrations of one member of the British government at that time: 

“Sir John Simon was one of those administrators who . . . was preoccupied with the need for the national government to legislate according to the precepts of science . . . R. R. W. Lingen (who was a very economy-minded Permanent Secretary to the Treasury during the third quarter of the [19th] century) was once faced with a demand from Sir John Simon [in 1871] for another vaccination inspector and minuted, ‘I do not know who is to check the assertions of experts when the government has once undertaken a class of duties which none but such persons understand’.”

Greenleaf went on to say that what this all reflected was the rise of “scientism,” the belief that the discoveries and methods of the natural sciences were not merely useful parts of human knowledge to assist individuals and associative groups to find better ways of achieving their respective goals and ends. No, it was the presumption that “science” should direct and dictate social action, and since some might not understand or not want to follow “the science,” government had to increasingly impose what that science said was good for them, whether or not such people wished to follow where science was leading in terms of asserted social and economic policy. Such a mindset about science easily and almost naturally manifested itself in an increasingly coercive political paternalism. 

New Waves of the Collectivist Virus in the 20th and 21st Centuries

All of the 20th century was a battle against the viral assaults of collectivism by the waning spirit of 19th century liberalism, with insufficient intellectual and ideological “anti-bodies” of liberty to ward off the infections. Even when the collectivist “pandemics” of World War I, the interwar rise of communism, fascism, and Nazism, the Second World War, and the postwar growth in the interventionist-welfare state seemed to subside and degrees of freedom were restored or preserved, each time the assault has left less freedom in some corners of society, especially of economic liberty. 

But since the beginning of the 21st century, the threats to freedom and the free society have intensified. Following 9/11, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the intrusive, spying, surveillance state has reduced the private aspects of our lives, with things we say, write or do being recorded, watched and classified as being either loyal or subversive – with those in elected or appointed political power determining what counts as being in one category or another. 

The newest attacks on the remnants of liberty now take two dangerous forms, one being the identity politics/cancel culture warriors who want to abolish the meaning of a free, autonomous, individual human being by demanding that each person’s personal and social sense of identity, “rights,” and deservedness be decided and dictated by the racial and gender group to which they are assigned by the “politically correct” new elite of “progressive” political paternalists. (See my articles, “Welcome to Word Tyranny and Cultural Balkanization” and “Save America from Cancel Culture” and “‘Systemic Racism’ Theory is the New Political Tribalism” and “The New Totalitarians”.)

A Tyranny of Science Leading to More Political Paternalism

But this past year has added to this an equally serious threat: a tyranny of science. By saying this, it is not implied that science, rightly understood, is at fault or a threat to liberty. Science is composed of sets of systematic methods of determining the objective nature of the world around us. In the physical, or “natural,” sciences it is an attempt at (with admittedly the sometimes-controversial phrase of Karl Popper’s) “conjectures and refutations.” The “scientific method” has built bridges that do not fall down, enabled men to travel to the moon and back, and provided the capacity to disentangle the DNA of life. It has provided the ability to walk around with the smartphones that most of us have in our pockets, to design and use 3-D printers that carry unimaginable production possibilities and cost savings, and improved upon methods of farming and genetically engineered crops that have enabled hundreds of millions of people to have food to eat who otherwise might have starved. 

No, by a tyranny of science, I mean the dominant political mindset that was seen already in the 19th century, as William Greenleaf explained, with Sir John Simon who believed that government should legislate and regulate and command all that people do and what is to be done to them according to the presumed “evidence” of science. Listen to those declarations of Joe Biden referred to at the beginning of these words. He knows how many doses of a vaccine should be manufactured over what period of time, to inoculate which and how many people by a designated date. Clearly, he and his “scientific” advisors know how to direct and dictate that these goals and targets are reached. All relevant actors in the society, clearly, must conform to and fulfill “the plan.” 

Joe Biden and his scientific experts know when and for what purposes people should be allowed to meet and socialize for holiday occasions. If Biden and his science advisors decide it’s safe, well, they will allow us to gather with friends and relatives for a 4th of July celebration. While there have been noticeable and cogent criticisms of and demonstrations against the political and scientific presumptions behind all of these declarations and dictates of the government, tens of millions of others have been sufficiently infected with the collectivist virus that they take it for granted that if the scientific “experts” say such and such, then, “of course,” government has to initiate the mandatory or pressuring policies that confine people’s actions and choices to what “the science” says. 

The Corruptions and Crimes of Politicized Science

But what is the reality of politicized science? Rather than allowing the free and competitive market to peacefully and creatively find ways for people to meet and manage the challenge of what has been and is a serious health crisis due to the coronavirus, the entire social and economic makeup of the society has been turned upside down with catastrophic effects on the lives of hundreds of millions of people due to lockdowns, shutdowns, production prohibitions and restrictions and commands, along with governmental dictates about who and what might be permitted as solutions to the epidemic. The government has decided – not you or me – who is to be vaccinated according to their imposed planned rationing and allocation. (See my articles, “To Kill Markets is the Worst Possible Plan” and “Leaving People Alone is the Best Possible Way to Beat the Coronavirus” and “Lockdowns as a Political Tragedy of the Commons” and “Government Policies Have Worsened the Coronavirus Crisis”.)  

In New York, “the science” led the governor of the state to follow a nursing home policy that has caused the deaths of thousands who might otherwise have lived. And the same “science” convinced him, obviously, to hide from view what really was happening, while boasting about his leadership qualities as a politician who “follows the science.”  

The same “scientific” leadership is before our eyes, as was summarized earlier, in the European Union. Are entire populations to be once again locked up or are they to be let free from the restricting hands of government? Is a particular vaccine safe or significantly hazardous, and who is to decide? Do your own nation’s citizens get the prescribed vaccine or is a political decision made to “share it” with others inside or outside of the EU? Do you stand firm that since the science dictates . . .? Or do you go on television and apologize for your lockdown arrogance, even as you mutter at the same time, “But the science says . . .”?

The United States and many other parts of the world are at a political crossroads. Do we succumb to the collectivist virus and liberty continues to perish? Or do the fallacies and follies of those in not just one country’s government, but of virtually all governments, everywhere, finally make a growing number of people doubt and discount the necessity and rightness of those in political power determining the course of human events?

History has the habit of playing tricks on us and very often turning out in ways that many if not most of us could not even imagine. That is why, in spite of how things may look, it is never too late. But if history is to tell a story of liberty rather than collectivism for the remainder of this century, then it behooves as many of us as possible to point out to our fellow citizens that the political emperors who say they are “just following the science,” are really not wearing any clothes.

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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