By John Tamny
What better way to begin a review of what is an excellent book than to say that the book’s author always knew. It’s as simple as that. Jeffrey Tucker knew in March of 2020 that tragic times were ahead.
I remember it vividly. In February of 2020 witless headline writers were trying in vain to tie a falling stock market to a coronavirus that investors had been pricing for many weeks. They revealed their misunderstanding of big market lurches. They’re a consequence of surprise. In February the surprise wasn’t a virus that had been in the news since early January; rather it was the presidential primary success of a since forgotten socialist by the name of Bernie Sanders. Of course, by month’s end Sanders was falling as quickly as he had risen. Stocks soared as a risk-factor to future growth was vanquished. Sanders, as I argue in my upcoming book When Politicians Panicked, was the original “coronavirus.”
So what did the great Tucker know? He knew when the virus had become a problem for the U.S., and by extension the world. Crucial here is that Tucker was far too wise to presume that a virus could fell a nation populated by individuals long on common sense. To Tucker, the second “coronavirus,” or the “second wave” to paraphrase the alarmists of the moment, was the political reaction to a virus that had been traveling around the world for months. The politicians easily gulled by the experts would take over. In the 20th century this was called central planning. Tucker correctly referred to it as central planning in the 21st century.
Tucker wrote with horror in March about Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s shocking decision to cancel South by Southwest, thus robbing Austin’s businesses of a “Black Friday” in the spring. Tucker knew that Austin was just the beginning whereby the expert standard would replace the freedom standard, only for this most essential thinker to sound the alarm. The always prolific Tucker started writing feverishly. He hasn’t stopped, and we’re very lucky for that.
Indeed, it’s pretty scary to contemplate how weak the editorial response to lockdowns and other virus hysteria would be without Jeffrey Tucker. It’s not just that he writes so much. He’s also provided a forum at the American Institute for Economic Research (where he’s editorial director) for an impressive team of economic thinkers to make a case for freedom, and against forced economic desperation as a way to combat what causes illness in some, and in the rarest of circumstances, death.
Tucker’s tireless work proved crucial for it providing people around the world with information that put them in the position to comfortably and confidently push back against acceptance of unemployment, starvation, and death as punishment for the spread of a virus that over half infected don’t even know they’re infected with. Without Tucker, the response to tyranny would be much less informed, and quite a bit less confident. We also wouldn’t have the Great Barrington Declaration, which Tucker organized, and that millions around the world have signed. When histories are written about the tragedy foisted on the world by inept politicians, Tucker’s name will loom large as someone who led the shell-shocked back.
Thankfully for those who want a better understanding of just how appallingly the global political class has comported itself, Tucker has recently released Liberty or Lockdown. It’s an essential and very excellent read that will deeply inform its lucky buyers.
Tucker doesn’t pull punches. Instead, his book grabs the reader from the very first sentence: “For most Americans, the Covid-19 lockdown was our first experience in a full denial of freedom.” So true, and so well put. As he goes on to write in sentence two, “Businesses forced closed. Schools, padlocked. Churches, same. Theaters, dead.” From his first two sentences Tucker might agree that a potential silver lining to what is a global tragedy is that what happened, and what’s happening will hopefully wake the world up to how quickly politicians can foist sickening damage on the people whose freedoms they swore to protect. About what’s hoped for, time will tell. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that much of the world is still in shock. With good reason.
Indeed, it’s no reach to say what’s taken place over the last nine months is easily the worst human rights tragedy of the still young 21st century. The numbers back this up. As the New York Times reported last summer, 285 million of the world’s inhabitants are rushing toward starvation. Hundreds of millions more are being reacquainted with the poverty they had worked so diligently to escape. Poverty is easily history’s greatest killer, at which point we have to contemplate the “unseen” deaths related to so much focus on the coronavirus; as in how many will be brought to an early grave by tuberculosis, malaria, diarrhea, and other killers thanks to global health officials paying less attention to some of the worst health challenges in the world after poverty and starvation. What about cancer, heart and other killers like it not caught during an ongoing separation from reason? What about suicides in response to economic devastation, along with simple loneliness? The unseen with the virus promises to be endless, and possibly gruesome.
In Tucker’s words, we’ve been “subjected to a sadistic social experiment in the name of virus mitigation.” So true. And Tucker was merely talking about the U.S. Except that he knows the only closed economy is the world economy. When Americans take a decadent break from reality, or more realistically have their ability to live in reasonable fashion taken from them, the world suffers in ways Americans can’t begin to understand. Sadism foisted on suddenly unemployed and bankrupted Americans amounts to murder around the world. See above.
Basically the U.S. failed the world. When we panic, the world convulses. When our leaders lose any contact with reason and resort to lockdowns in their stupor, they provide cover to despots around the world not remotely constrained by anything resembling the Constitution, and who are only too glad to relieve their people of freedom. At this point it’s probably wise for readers to sit back and contemplate a counterfactual; as in imagine if President Trump had kept his wits only to go on national television (meaning global television) to tell those watching that it would be tragically mindless to fight a virus with economic contraction, and while each U.S. state is an autonomous one, that he as president would hopscotch around the country on Air Force One with a focus on embarrassing governors and mayors so foolish as to fight disease with poverty-inducing lockdowns. Trump’s actions wouldn’t have just saved countless Americans from destitution, they probably would have forced politicians and dictators around the world to rethink what they were about to do.
Furthermore, Trump acting as Republican voters expect Republican politicians to act would have revealed simple common sense. Tucker reminds us why this is so true. Lost in all the hysteria about a virus that traveled around China (and rather reasonably, the world) for months with no discernible death count amid what George Gilder has described as “dithering” (Gilder writes the foreword to Tucker’s book) by Chinese officials, is that there are few ways to fight a virus. Tucker already knew them care of his wise mother, but to be sure he purchased “Molecular and Cell Biology for Dummies just to check if I was crazy.” The book confirmed what Tucker already knew; “that there are only two ways to defeat a virus: natural immunity and vaccines.” Translated, viruses eventually die out because enough people get them only for those infected to develop immunity to them. As Tucker makes plain, as has the essential Holman Jenkins at the Wall Street Journal, no vaccines were ever developed for viruses that spread in 1918, 1957, and 1968. They’re still with us, but society has grown naturally immune by staying together as opposed to pursuing the life-and-nature wrecking path of living apart.
Notable here for those a bit slow on the uptake is that Molecular and Cell Biology for Dummies per Tucker “completely left out the option that almost the entire world embraced in March: destroy businesses, force everyone to hide in their homes, and make sure that no one gets close to anyone else.” As this column has asserted too many times to count, historians will marvel. Politicians can’t disappoint simply because the half-awake know that force always comes up well short against freedom when it comes to quality of outcome. Politicians only know force. Still, in 2020 they actually disappointed. Economic destruction despite the tautology that growth is the greatest foe of sickness and death, combined with a rejection of the pursuit of population immunity (not separating people from one another) that has historically brought viruses to their proverbial knees.
Tucker has a way with words, and the latter very much reveals itself in Liberty or Lockdown. As the world contracted amid broad takings of personal and economic freedom, politicians piled on. It wasn’t just a shutdown of global travel, it was also limits on travel within countries, including the U.S. About this, Tucker reminds us that just as globalization has improved the living standards of every living human, so has it elongated our healthful lives. When we “bump” into each other, we don’t just share ideas; rather we help new avenues of immunity to travel the world. In 2020, politicians tried to arrest this happy development. In vain. As Tucker puts it, a virus “cares nothing about borders, executive orders, and titles.” Naturally tyrannical politicians in countries like Australia and New Zealand tried the approach of forced isolation from the world and reality, but in Tucker’s words, all they did was at best “delay the inevitable.” And, assuming forced isolation proved successful, the near-term win would logically be pyrrhic. Think about it. To isolate is to “make the whole population of your tribe fatally vulnerable to the next bug that comes along.” Immunity and longer life are achieved through exposure. Always.
Of course, common sense means nothing to politicians, and those who enable them. We’re talking about a class of people that believes cheap rent can be decreed, that healthcare cost curves can be “bent downward,” and that expensive credit can be made “easy” via central banks.
And so they proceeded to try and fight the virus with “borders, executive orders, and titles.” It mocked them. Arguably to our betterment. As Tucker explains it, “A virus is a thing to battle one immune system at a time, and our bodies have evolved to be suited to do just that.” Historically this was what families that couldn’t afford to be ridiculous did: when one family member got sick, others were required to not separate from the ill. “Family immunity” is arguably what revealed itself before the better known “population immunity” or “herd immunity.” It turns out there was even such thing as troop immunity. In Tucker’s words, “George Washington’s troops scraped off the scabs of the smallpox dead to inoculate themselves.” It’s all a long way of saying that while politicians panicked around the world in March of 2020, a virus that doesn’t abide the nail-biting schedules of the elected had been spreading in a globalized world for months before March. Who knows, but some speculate that politicians and experts who are expert at fighting the last war perhaps got to the coronavirus long after its global spread had brought on a fair amount of immunity. Thank goodness always late politicians were late yet again. Imagine how desperate the world would be if the lockdowns had begun in October of 2019 instead of March of 2020.
The shame yet again is that politicians eventually did discover the virus, only to lose their minds in the cruelest of ways. Their hysteria will exist as a forever reminder that emotion in front of the camera combined with force doesn’t correlate with positive outcomes. Tucker knows this intuitively simply because he knows intuitively that central planning logically fails precisely because it suffocates the immense knowledge that is a consequence of a decentralized, free society. Translated yet again for those a bit slow on the uptake, Tucker didn’t need the central-planning tragedies of the 20th century to open his eyes to the certain failure of centralized force. In short, the author who always knew was certain well ahead of time that troubled times were on the way as politicians panicked in the only way they know how to: the taking of freedom.
The above rates mention, or realistically repeat, simply because Tucker is clear about there having been no relationship between lockdowns, transmission of the virus, and death. Or, in Tucker’s words, whether a country locked down or not had “as much predictive power over deaths per million as whether it rains today is related to the color of my socks.” The numbers support this truth. New York locked down early in the U.S., while Florida locked down late and opened early. Yet the death count in New York well exceeds that in Florida. France locked down stringently, but Japan didn’t. Yet deaths in Japan related to the virus were very, very small. Even in crowded Tokyo. Correlation? Who knows? Think back to AIDS. So much that was assumed in the 1980s didn’t age well. The wager here is that the same will reveal itself about the coronavirus.
Which is why Tucker is for freedom first and foremost. Just as free people produce abundance that has always enabled a much more than fair right against death and disease, so does freedom produce abundant health advances precisely because decentralized experimenting and decision-making always trumps one-size-fits-all. Free people produce information. Some in response to a virus will never leave their house. Others will leave while covered by gloves, masks, and other presumed barriers to what’s spreading. Others will continue to go about as they used to while abiding minor precautions, while still others will throw caution fully to the wind; hitting every crowded restaurant and bar they can find, football stadiums too, plus they’ll kiss every person willing to kiss them back. We need them all when fighting an unknown. Through their varied actions we can learn how to live with a virus rather than it telling us how to live.
Same with businesses. The biggest and best known, potentially fearful in the early days of a killer virus (despite clear information from its epicenter – China – that it wasn’t) spreading to its customers, would have likely shut down in total. Small, lesser known businesses, perhaps facing a more a challenging credit environment, might have remained open in total. Some would have limited customers served as a way to bring in customers, some customers of businesses would have altered times of patronage to limit human contact somewhat, and still others would have yet again thrown caution to the wind. You once again need them all. Freedom doesn’t just produce information about virus spread, it also produces crucial information for businesses about how to re-open in a world changed (or maybe not changed at all) by a virus scare. These questions were never adequately answered about how virus spreads and how businesses should respond to spread precisely because politicians indirectly banned information.
And then there’s the question of Why? Politicians can’t act without at least some buy-in from the citizenry? Did Americans buy in, and do they, or did the lockdowns happen so fast that Americans never had a chance to protest? Tucker concludes that we “must reject the wickedness and compulsion of this current moment in American life. It needs to counter the brutalism of the lockdowns.” There’s total agreement here, but do Americans agree? One hopes, but there’s an admitted fear that Americans have somehow changed; that they’re more accepting of having their freedoms taken, particularly if a virus appears threatening. Time will tell. So will elections tell. The next few should be interesting.
For now, it’s useful to conclude about this excellent book that it’s filled to the brim with information about the meek nature of the virus, how ineffective the lockdowns were, how typically feckless government officials were. It’s all well and good, but the much more compelling arguments made by the brilliant Jeffrey Tucker were about freedom itself. That’s ultimately the only answer. It has to be. Much as the numbers about the virus work in our favor, we risk winning the argument while losing the battle. That’s the case because as Tucker acknowledges, this won’t be the last virus to reveal itself. Numerical and lethality arguments are fascinating, but they set the stage for future lockdowns of the “this time is different” variety.
Which is why the author who always knew is most right and most compelling when he calls for the countering of “the brutalism of the lockdowns.” That’s the only answer. No more lockdowns. Never again. Any other argument fails.
John Tamny, research fellow of AIER, is editor of RealClearMarkets.
His book on current ideological trends is: They Are Both Wrong (AIER, 2019)