Dr. Michael Osterholm, a member of Joe Biden’s COVID-19 task force, calls for a nationwide 4-6 week lockdown. Another task force member, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, has long favored lockdowns. In some states, store shelves have already been emptied again in anticipation of lockdowns.
Yet, there are rays of hope. Dr. Vivek Murthy, a former U.S. surgeon general, is one of the co-chairs Joe Biden named for his Covid-19 task force. Murthy has shown he might understand the human costs of lockdowns.
Before Covid-19, Murthy wrote his book, “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World.” A theme running throughout Murthy’s book is the “universal need to connect with one another.” In a call to action, Murthy wrote, “We need to more deeply appreciate the relationship between loneliness, social connection, and physical and emotional health.”
Even before Covid-19, a lack of connections was an issue for many. One survey, published in January 2020, found that 61% “report that they sometimes or always feel lonely.”
Murthy correctly points to the unique advantage of human species: “Humans have survived as a species, not because we have physical advantages like size, strength, or speed, but because of our ability to connect in social groups. We exchange ideas. We coordinate goals. We share information and emotions.”
I wonder if Dr. Murthy understands the same mutual dependency he observes in the social world also drives the economic world?
In his book The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley points to interconnectedness to explain the miracles of modern life:
“The secret of the modern world is its gigantic interconnectedness. Ideas are having sex with other ideas from all over the planet with ever-increasing promiscuity. The telephone had sex with the computer and spawned the internet. The first motor cars looked as though they were ‘sired by the bicycle out of the horse carriage.’ The idea for plastics came from photographic chemistry. The camera pill is an idea that came from a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided-missile designer. Almost every technology is a hybrid.”
“Even the relatively simple lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer,” Ridley points out, “cannot exist without a large population exchanging ideas and skills.” Interconnectedness is vital: “The success of human beings depends crucially, but precariously, on numbers and connections. A few hundred people cannot sustain a sophisticated technology: trade is a vital part of the story.”
Almost everything we rely on depends upon mostly invisible webs of relationships around us. If not for the continuous effort of others, most of us would quickly perish.
The Man of the System
This Thanksgiving, there will be many politicians and bureaucrats acting with arrogance and sometimes brutality, giving out their petty orders; orders they themselves violate.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith calls such an authoritarian a “man of the system.”
Smith instructs us that the man of the system is full of “conceit” and is so “enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”
The man of the system “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess‐board.” Smith explains why this hubris leads to disorder, not order:
“He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess‐board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess‐board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”
The man of the system establishes a plan to make society orderly “without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.” In short, the moral agency of others means nothing to the man of the system.
There is a need for order, but there is no need for order imposed brutally by men of the system. In his “Cosmos and Taxis,” Hayek points out, to authoritarians, it seems absurd to imagine that order can arise in ways other than “the design of [their] thinking mind.”
Smith contrasted the man of the system with those “whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence.” These humanitarians, Smith explains, “will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided.” In other words, when humanitarians make an assessment of risk different from yours and their powers of “reason and persuasion” don’t lead you to change your assessment of risk, they “will not attempt to subdue [you] by force.”
Hayek reminds us, “There was a time when men believed that even language and morals had been ‘invented’ by some genius of the past.” Believing that politicians, by their orders, are capable of inventing a better and healthier way of living is a step backward.
Human well-being emerges through the decentralized choices of millions of households and not the plans of the authorities. As Hayek points out, “as members of society” we are “dependent for the satisfaction of most of our needs on various forms of co-operation with others.” It is natural to be concerned about the well-being of others.
Caring for Others
In the Rights of Man, Thomas Paine too pointed to order that is not due to government; order “has its origin in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished.” And like Murthy, Ridley, and Hayek, Paine points us to our “mutual dependence” and a “great chain of connection:”
“The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilized community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.”
Paine argues that “to understand the nature and quantity of government proper for man, it is necessary to attend to his character.” “In all cases,” Paine writes, “nature made his natural wants greater than his individual powers. No one man is capable, without the aid of society, of supplying his own wants, and those wants, acting upon every individual, impel the whole of them into society, as naturally as gravitation acts to a centre.”
And like Adam Smith, Paine understood that it is not just commercial transactions that our nature has affections towards:
“But [nature] has gone further. She has not only forced man into society by a diversity of wants which the reciprocal aid of each other can supply, but she has implanted in him a system of social affections, which, though not necessary to his existence, are essential to his happiness. There is no period in life when this love for society ceases to act. It begins and ends with our being.”
Paine implores us to see that “formal government makes but a small part of civilised life.” It is the “unceasing circulation of interest, which, passing through its million channels, [which] invigorates the whole mass of civilised man.” Thus, it is our affections for and dependence on others “infinitely more than to anything which even the best instituted government can perform, that the safety and prosperity of the individual and of the whole depends.”
Politicians are not the source of goodness in our lives. C. S. Lewis called out those “who torment us for our own good”:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
This Thanksgiving, politicians are instructing us in how to care for our family and friends. Yet, there is no one-size-fits-all answer for how much exposure an aging relative should have to family members. Families do look out for the welfare of their loved ones; they will assess risks. The assessment of risk is subjective. Allowing politicians to “define risk is thus an exercise in power.”
We need not surrender to authoritarian politicians our own moral agency to care for others. While some try to tear the ties that bind us, we can express gratitude for the great chain of human connection holding us together. We can celebrate the relationships that set us free and make the modern world possible.
When Dr. Murthy and others understand that the needs and motivations driving social man also drive economic man, the destructive force of lockdowns might be rejected for good.
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.
He is senior contributor at Intellectual Takeout and the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.