Central planning, science, and the pretense of omniscience.
2020 will be remembered for many things: COVID-19, nationwide riots, a divisive election. But the rise of pandemic lockdowns will go down as the most momentous. Never before have the day-to-day lives of so much of humanity been so radically upended. And, outside of wartime, never before has there been such a widespread and extreme rollback of human freedom.
How did it all happen so fast? Why did people give in so quickly to such a sweeping assault on liberty, even in America, “the land of the free”?
In a word, they let their guard down. They stopped being vigilant.
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” Thomas Jefferson never wrote those words exactly, but they are true nonetheless. Free people, to stay free, must forever be on their guard against would-be tyrants.
The Tyrant’s Plea
But tyrants long ago learned a method of making free people drop their guard. The trick is to use an emergency as an excuse for power grabs, telling the people that the sacrifice of their liberty is necessary for their safety.
“‘Emergencies,’” wrote F.A. Hayek in 1973, “have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded...”
Hayek was not the first to notice this.
“Necessity,” William Pitt the Younger warned in 1783, “is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.”
And in Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton wrote:
And with necessity,
The tyrant's plea,
excus'd his devilish deeds
The greater the emergency, the more persuasive is this “tyrant’s plea.” Thus, the COVID mega-emergency was an especially convincing excuse for suspending liberty: an exceptional situation that called for exceptional measures.
For many, it was self-evident that liberty simply wouldn’t work in the midst of a pandemic. Compulsory social distancing would be necessary. Humans, after all, are social animals, as Aristotle said. Left to their own devices, they tend to get together. They congregate to collaborate and celebrate, to work and worship, to trade goods and exchange gifts, to share life and show love.
But when every set of lungs is considered a clear and present danger and every crowd a “super-spreader event,” it’s easy for politicians to argue that freedom of assembly just won’t fly. All comings and goings and gatherings must be tightly regulated. The government must decide whether it is safe to open shop, visit family, or even leave the house.
The nature and scope of this emergency seemed to necessitate virtually unlimited governmental discretion to restrict physical freedom. It’s a big imposition, but hey, it’s a big emergency, and “needs must,” as they say.
And so, the people let down their guard and trusted their guardians.
Trust the Science
The tyrant’s plea for COVID lockdowns also seemed to be “supported by science,” which lent it even more credibility.
Scientists naturally fit the role of “sage and savior” in times of emergency. “Science,” after all, is derived from the Latin word for knowledge. And “those who know” are the heroes we need in an emergency, which is the rise (emergence) of the unknown.
“Emergency—emergence(y). This,” wrote Jordan Peterson, “is the sudden manifestation from somewhere unknown of some previously unknown phenomenon... This is the reappearance of the eternal dragon, from its eternal cavern, from its now-disrupted slumber.”
A viral pandemic can be especially obscure and terrifying to us non-experts. The “novel” (new, emergent) coronavirus is an invisible killer that works in mysterious ways. Only epidemiologists understand it, we reason. Thus, to survive the menace, we ignorant lay folk should defer to their expert knowledge and advice.
And who are the top epidemiologists? Presumably, the ones working in the highest levels of government: like Anthony Fauci, Neil Ferguson, and the experts at the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.
If these good doctors give humanity a diagnosis of “too much liberty to get through COVID” and a prescription of “more lockdowns,” who are we to question their expert opinion?
And so, the people let down their guard and trusted their sages.
The Knowledge Problem
But not everybody. Some voices did object to the lockdowns. And a few spoke out against them from the get-go. In spite of the emergency and the compelling, authoritative pleas of necessity, they did not let their guard down against tyranny. They remained vigilant.
One of these voices, I’m proud to say, was the organization I work for: the Foundation for Economic Education. Especially heroic has been the widely-read articles on this subject by our prolific managing editor, Jon Miltimore.
Why did we reject the lockdowns? Out of denial of the emergency? Out of disrespect for knowledge? Quite the opposite.
Socrates was proclaimed to be wise, not for the extent of his knowledge, but for knowing how little he knew in the grand scheme of things.
Economics can impart similar wisdom.
“The curious task of economics,” Hayek wrote, “is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”
Hayek explained the limits of human knowledge in “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” This seminal scholarly article profoundly influenced many economists and even inspired Jimmy Wales to create Wikipedia. Leonard Read, FEE’s founder, popularized some of its ideas in his classic essay, “I, Pencil.” Thus, Hayek’s insights about knowledge are deeply embedded in FEE’s DNA.
Following up on the work of his mentor, Ludwig von Mises, Hayek set out to explain the fundamental flaw of socialism and central planning in general. Central planning, he argued, unavoidably fails the test of “the knowledge problem.”
The knowledge relevant for planning an economy and society, Hayek explained, is “dispersed” among the individual minds of the people. This “distributed knowledge” is far too vast for any single planner or government to grasp.
This is no less true for planners who “listen to the science,” no matter how knowledgeable their scientific advisors are. For one, even the greatest scientific minds have extremely limited access to what economists call “local knowledge.” As Hayek explained (emphasis added):
“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is beyond question a body of very important but unorganized knowledge which cannot possibly be called scientific in the sense of knowledge of general rules: the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place."
This knowledge can only be fully exploited by the individuals themselves. As Hayek continued:
"It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”
Anyone who has ever had a job can relate to the concept of “local knowledge,” as Hayek pointed out:
"We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.”
And even more fundamentally, scientists have even less access to the goals and preferences of individuals, or as Hayek put it, “ends whose relative importance only these individuals know.”
The Pretense of Omniscience
How does this relate to pandemics and lockdowns?
Short of full socialism, lockdowns are the epitome of central planning. And like all central plans, they run afoul of the knowledge problem, even when they are co-designed by scientists.
It should be noted that, despite insistence in the media of a “scientific consensus,” dissenting epidemiologists and other experts have argued against the “court scientists” in government and opposed the lockdowns on public health grounds. Moreover, reputable research has indicated that lockdowns have failed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
But even leaving that question aside, it should be blindingly obvious that the spread of the disease is not the only relevant consideration for any given public policy, especially for such a widely and deeply impactful one as lockdowns. There are innumerable relevant considerations that even the most encyclopedic mind couldn’t begin to know.
There are “local knowledge” considerations, like how much a local economy might be devastated by closing all restaurants, and how many depressed people in a community might be pushed over the edge to suicide by unemployment and isolation.
And there are “individual preference” considerations, like whether an elderly person in a nursing home would prefer the risk of contracting COVID-19 over the risk of dying alone in anguish, forcibly isolated from his family.
Even the most knowledgeable and best-intentioned lockdowner cannot begin to know or weigh these myriad considerations. As a result, the lockdowns have unleashed an epidemic of unintended consequences that have ruined countless lives.
The incoming Biden-Harris administration boasts that it will “listen to the science” and “dial” up and down the lockdowns according to local circumstances. But that is nothing but delusions of epistemic grandeur. No government can know enough to fine-tune physical proximity in society. The more it tries, the more lives it will trample in its blind blundering.
To reject the lockdowns is not to reject science. It is to recognize that science is not omniscience, and that central planning amounts to an arrogant pretense to godlike knowledge.
The Freedom Alternative
What, then, is the alternative? Should we just give up and let the virus have its way with us? Such a response betrays a common false assumption: that government is humanity’s only source of agency and that the only form of planning is central planning. As Mises clarified:
“The alternative is not plan or no plan. The question is: whose planning? Should each member of society plan for himself or should the paternal government alone plan for all? The issue is not automatism versus conscious action; it is spontaneous action of each individual versus the exclusive action of the government. It is freedom versus government omnipotence.”
But (runs another common objection), won’t everyone’s individual plans be uncoordinated and chaotic? Doesn’t a big challenge like COVID-19 require us all pulling together? This falls prey to another common false assumption: that government is humanity’s only source of coordination.
In reality, humanity engages in mass cooperation to solve incredibly complex problems without central planning every single day. This is a phenomenon known as “spontaneous order.”
As Leonard Read explained in “I, Pencil,” even something so seemingly simple as a pencil is the end-product of massive operation involving millions of producers, from the lumberjack who chopped down a tree for the pencil’s wood to the factory worker who ran the machine that shaped the axel for the truck that delivered the ax to the hardware store that the lumberjack bought it from.
This mass cooperation is mostly spontaneous. Most of these producers are complete strangers to each other, don’t work for the same company, and live in different countries. There is no “World Pencil Czar” orchestrating it all. Most don’t even know their work is contributing to pencil production.
And yet, thanks to being connected to each other through the market economy, they have all cooperated smoothly toward the production of a single pencil.
Not only that, but in doing so, they have passed the test of Hayek’s “knowledge problem.” The complete process of producing a pencil is so complex that it requires a vast amount of distributed knowledge, including local knowledge (“Where in this forest can we find the best rubber trees for making erasers?”) and individual preferences (“What is a more urgent use of this lumber right now: pencils or toilet paper?”)
Yet they pull it off, because each participant specializes in their own manageable morsel of local knowledge and has chief responsibility for satisfying their own preferences.
And, as Mises and Hayek explained, their acts of buying and selling goods and services create a market in which their knowledge and preferences are meaningfully aggregated and transmitted to each other in the form of prices.
Spontaneous order is how free people use distributed knowledge to do big things. And it is the only way to do things as complex as efficiently mass-producing pencils.
Even more complex is the challenge of responding to a global public health emergency without making things even worse.
This makes such emergencies “exceptional”: not in that they necessitate less liberty, but in that they call for more. The more complex the problem, the more knowledge we need to bring to bear on it. Scientific knowledge, yes, definitely. But also the vast distributed knowledge that only a free society can muster.
As Hayek wrote:
“To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.”
Economic Knowledge and Faith in Free People
We who favor liberty over lockdowns don’t pretend to have all the answers. We don’t pretend to know exactly how a more free society would deal with COVID-19. If we did, we would be just as epistemically arrogant as the central planners we criticize.
But one thing we definitely know better than even the most scientifically knowledgable lockdowner is how little any one of us knows about such a complex challenge.
Thus, we also know that the response of free people to complex emergencies like COVID-19, whatever it may be, will be better informed and better for us all than anything scientific central planners can come up with.
This is what Leonard Read, in “I, Pencil,” meant by a “faith in free people,” which he regarded as “an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom.” To be faithful to freedom, one must have faith in free people. That is why some remain vigilant in defense of liberty, while others waver.
But this is no blind or dogmatic faith. It is a confidence informed by knowledge of human nature and the science of economics.
It is this economic knowledge and the resulting informed trust in free people that make us immune to the “tyrant’s plea,” even when it is seconded by scientists. We know that any emergency, however dire and baffling, calls for, not less, but more liberty.
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. And vigilance against tyranny requires a faith in free people informed by economic understanding.
To help create a more vigilant, economically-literate, and free society, please consider supporting the work of the Foundation for Economic Education today.
Dan Sanchez is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in chief of FEE.org.