– April 26, 2020

We might think of this as the twenty-first century’s greatest experiment in groupthink, and it is about to erupt in a public scandal—at least it should. 

The past several weeks have been a test of our preparedness, not our preparedness for a viral pandemic, but for a massive power grab, for a dangerous, creeping authoritarianism. We have shown ourselves to be woefully unprepared, confounded by a dizzying array of sensationalized horror stories in the news. 

Already we have witnessed the excesses and abuses associated with such authoritarianism, police officers emboldened to harass and even attack innocent people under the pretext of enforcing the lockdown orders. We’ve seen heightened surveillance, warrantless searches of private homes and gatherings, threats to churchgoers and the clergy, property owners deprived of the use and enjoyment of their own homes, and brutal arrests absent any cause, all premised on the idea that the American people are hapless children to be restrained by those who know better. 

We want desperately to believe that the experts in fact know better than we do, that they are acting altruistically, without attention to their own interests, and that their remedies will effect the desired outcomes, with no unintended consequences. 

Committed to the means—putting the cart before the horse, as it were—lockdown advocates are guilty of an especially lazy appeal to ideal institutional theory: that is, they are pretending that we can, from the armchair, wish or pretend away the observed reality of police behavior, that enforcement of this policy will be different, an assumption for which they give no reason.

Police misconduct is the product of a system of incentives, which is itself the product of power relations and baneful imbalances thereof. The lockdowns have aggravated those power imbalances, giving police officers even more opportunities to harass and brutalize peaceful Americans. If it wasn’t one before (and of course it was), the United States of America is now beyond any doubt an authoritarian police state, founded upon the fear-mongering and faulty information of bullies in government. 

A new study out of Stanford University further undermines the case for the far-reaching and excessive lockdown policies thrust upon the American people. As “the first large-scale community-based prevalence study in a major US county completed during [the coronavirus] pandemic,” the study’s estimate “represent[s] the best available current evidence.” And its results suggest “that the infection rate is much more widespread than indicated by the number of confirmed cases,” 50 to 85 times more widespread in fact.

An estimate of the infection fatality rate (IFR) using the results of the study puts it at 0.12-0.2%, approximately the same IFR as the flu. “The most important implication of these findings,” the authors note, “is that the number of infections is much greater than the reported number of cases.” While this should have been glaringly obvious to any interested observer, the despotic policy reactions to the pandemic were based on the worst, most hyperbolic interpretations of available information. 

The study admittedly isn’t perfect; participants self-selected into it after seeing a Facebook ad, which, the authors admit, could bias the data. It could be that people who expressed symptoms known to be associated with coronavirus would want to participate, skewing the prevalence numbers in one direction. On the other hand, the study also potentially selected for “individuals in good health capable of attending [the] testing sites,” which could bias the results in the other direction. The results of another serological survey in Los Angeles County have yielded results similar to those in the Stanford research, also suggesting an IFR close to that of the seasonal flu. 

It is unconscionable—indeed, criminally irresponsible—to predicate policies as extreme and draconian as these lockdowns on such poor models and incomplete data—particularly when the very first serious seroprevalence survey we have in the country explodes the foundation of these policies. 

Whether it’s violently dragging an innocent citizen from a city bus, or storming children’s birthday parties, or arresting a paddleboarder (or one of countless similar more or less egregious stories from around the country), Americans have been confronted with a new reality like something out of a dystopian novel. 

It is important, particularly during times of crisis (and perceived crisis) not to confuse society with the state, not to suppose that the latter is in some way the expression of the former’s will. As Benjamin Tucker wrote, distinguishing the two from one another, “Aggression, invasion, government, are interconvertible terms.”

If there ever was a true consensus on the era-defining questions posed by this pandemic, it seems to be poised to fall apart under the weight of disgraceful motivated readings of the available information. Technical questions of constitutional law aside, Americans ought to be asking the more important and fundamental philosophical question of how many rights they are willing to cede and what kinds of evidence it should take to ever allow politicians and bureaucrats to do something like this again. 

David S. D’Amato

David S. D’Amato is an attorney, a regular opinion contributor at The Hill, and an expert policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, The American Spectator, the Washington Examiner, Investor’s Business Daily, The Daily Caller, RealClearPolicy, Townhall, CounterPunch, and many others, as well as at nonpartisan, nonpartisan policy organizations such as the American Institute for Economic Research, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, among others. He earned a JD from New England School of Law and an LLM in Global Law and Technology from Suffolk University Law School. He lives and writes in Chicago.

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