By Ethan Yang
Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Over the course of six months, the United States as well as the entire world has succeeded in bringing itself to its knees, economically, socially, and politically.
It may seem like a lifetime ago but we entered the year 2020 not just as a country but as a global civilization: the richest, freest, and healthiest we have collectively been in history. Yet at the turn of the decade, we turned our back on the ideas and institutions that have served us so well.
We have forgotten the value of liberty as governments worldwide impose lockdown orders without a moment’s hesitation. Gone are the notions of limited government, as officials elected and unelected arbitrarily exercise power they were never granted.
We turned our backs on the idea of individual dignity. Government officials, intellectuals, and even everyday citizens perpetuate shameful rhetoric about the necessity for greater disruption to normal life, with little regard for the consequences these policies have brought upon us.
The great tragedy is that these ideas, not our scientific instruments, our wealth, or any other material resource are what allowed us to build a civilization where its inhabitants can live healthier, wealthier, and more comfortably than any human has remotely experienced. How we can respond quickly to problems such as Covid-19 with precise solutions, not incompetent and disastrous policies. We have seen firsthand and in rapid fashion the damage to society that comes with abusing our principles and how futile our vast resources are without them.
The Power of Ideas and Values
We are fortunate to be living in a time known as the Great Enrichment, a time period in human history brought about by the growing popularity of ideas beginning sometime around the 16-17th century but fully coming to implementation in the 19th century. The Claremont Review of Books notes
“For most of history, humans have survived on roughly $3 a day—enough for subsistence living. In good times that amount might double or triple, but one bad harvest or natural disaster could plunge a community back into abject poverty. Around 200 years ago things began rapidly to change; today the average American lives on about $130 a day. Europe, Canada, Australia, and parts of South America and Asia have experienced similar increases. What explains this truly staggering development? After all, earlier societies engaged in commerce-friendly practices like establishing markets, pursuing international trade, and securing property rights, too. Yet this extraordinary growth—this Great Enrichment—only occurred after 1800.”
“What came under question in the world 1517 to 1848 and beyond, slowly, on account of the religious radicals of the sixteenth century and then the political radicals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and then the abolitionist and black and feminist and gay and untouchable radicals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, was illiberty and indignity, the one political, the other social.”
By restraining government and gradually clearing aside social barriers, more and more people were able to contribute to society in voluntary as well as mutually beneficial ways. It turned out that free people meant more ideas, more competition, more inventions, more business, more workers, more everything. This is what makes a free society something worth fighting for and something worth defending.
When those who rule are restrained and placed on the same standing of those they rule, society is capable of tremendous accomplishments. That is because it is free of the arbitrary hand that picks winners and losers. Solutions come from the marketplace of ideas and are decided upon by the effectiveness of persuasion as well as reason. Great titles and resumes do not grant special authority. The allocation of wealth, merit, and resources are decided not by a central authority but by countless voluntary interactions that occur in a market that respects private property and mutual exchange.
“Thank the English Levellers and then Locke in the seventeenth century, and Voltaire and Smith and Franklin and Paine and Wollstonecraft among other of the advanced thinkers in the eighteenth century – the ordinary people, the commoners, both workers and bosses, began to be released from the ancient notion of hierarchy, the naturalization of the noble gentleman’s rule over hoi polloi.”
For much of human history, the common man survived on mere scraps, seeing little improvement in living standards for centuries. Society was divided along rigid lines of nobility and peasantry, the rulers and the ruled. What changed all of this for the better was the proliferation of ideas and values concerning individual worth. This accomplishment was not sudden, nor was the workload necessarily attributed to one group of people. It is the struggle of humanity since inception.
Tom Palmer delivered a comprehensive lecture where he noted that whispers of freedom and justice can be seen taking root in literature as far back as the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.
McCloskey reminds us
“The revaluation was derived not from some ancient superiority of the Europeans but from egalitarian accidents in their politics between Luther’s Reformation in 1517 and the American Constitution and the French Revolution in 1789. The Leveller Richard Rumbold, facing his execution in 1685, declared, “I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him.”
The wealth, institutions, and accomplishments of society mean nothing without good principles. Turning our backs on the ideas of liberty, entrepreneurship, individual dignity, and limited government has and will doom even the most powerful society to ruin. Embracing these ideas has led rural nations such as South Korea and Taiwan to become economic powerhouses in a single lifetime, but eschewing them will relegate nations such as North Korea to starvation.
Omnipotent Government is Nothing New
Although many would like to think that the draconian practices implemented in response to Covid-19 are the inventions of an enlightened and modern society, these ideas are actually quite antiquated. Shutting down businesses, the tyranny of “experts,” invasive surveillance, public spending run wild, regulatory onslaught, and crushing social controls are all practices that have plagued human existence. They are the ugly byproduct of the human lust for power and domination. Restraining these urges gave way to a society that values individuality, dignity, and permissionless innovation.
The Claremont Review of Books notes
“China was technologically advanced far beyond Europe in the early 15th century, yet Europe surpassed it in the blink of an eye and, for a while, became its master. Europe could do so only after undergoing a cultural shift, reflected in a change in rhetoric and a corresponding re-evaluation of values. For almost all human history almost all societies have harbored a prejudice against commerce and commercial success. Where tolerated, commerce was circumscribed. But something began to change in the 17th century: first in the Dutch Republic, and later in Great Britain, a new attitude emerged towards “betterment.” From being despised, betterment came to be honored—and then became the rage.”
As the saying goes, liberty is always unfinished business. Even prior to Covid-19, those in impoverished countries around the world such as Peru, India, Cuba, and Senegal were held back by crushing government bureaucracy. Entrepreneurship, liberty, and prosperity are overshadowed by paternalism, security, and collectivism. Free societies like the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and so on prosper, but even in these countries, there is much work to be done to achieve a truly free society.
Now, such proud giants of enterprise such as the United States and Britain have imposed some of the harshest lockdown measures in the world. The economic consequences, such as double-digit unemployment rates and GDP reductions will take years to remedy. The social unraveling of communities and the damage to the framework of limited government may never be remedied.
Human history is a great epic of the individual against the state. The marginalized against the majority. The invention of the printing press and the freedom of speech that it encouraged is but one example of the power of ideas as well as the draconian tendencies of the state.
A story in the Washington Post explains,
“Thanks to the printing press, copies of the (95) theses and news of its posting circulated widely in Europe, eventually forcing a rift in the church and ending its long religious supremacy. Europe’s monarchs, fearing for their own prerogative, kept a sharp eye on printers, requiring them to obtain official license. In England, the notorious Star Chamber, an often secret, non-jury tribunal, enforced the royal line with a heavy hand, ordering, for example, the execution of William Carter in 1584 for publishing pro-Catholic pamphlets.”
These ideas of controlling the narrative, be it religion or Covid-19, and the supremacy of experts, be it the church or certain public health officials, is nothing new. Unfortunately, we also know where such behavior leads. Human progress is facilitated by liberty and inclusion, not domination and exclusion. Such behavior today, whether it be the silencing of dissent against the preferred opinions favoring lockdowns or cheering on the state as it exercises more arbitrary power than ever has led society down a path to misery as it has throughout history.
The late Dr. Donald Henderson, who led the eradication of smallpox, may have implicitly endorsed the ideals of the Great Enrichment in combating pandemics when he wrote
“Experience has shown that communities faced with epidemics or other adverse events respond best and with the least anxiety when the normal social functioning of the community is least disrupted. Strong political and public health leadership to provide reassurance and to ensure that needed medical care services are provided are critical elements. If either is seen to be less than optimal, a manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe.”
Although likely not a scholar who studied the works of those such as Deirdre McCloskey or any other economist, his words very much affirm these ideals. By doing as he says and ensuring “the normal functioning of the community is least disrupted,” we affirm the power of free people and condemn the incompetent hand of unilateral intervention. Freedom and prosperity are what allow a society to eradicate disease as well as protect the vulnerable. His words accentuate the values of individual dignity and voluntary association, ideas that lead to outcomes that maximize social as well as economic benefit.
A healthy and prosperous society is not guaranteed by the size of its wealth, the capabilities of its technology, or the perceived intelligence of its experts. Rather it is upheld by the promulgation of ideas. Ideas rooted in free enterprise, limited government, individual dignity, and the rule of law. America, the most powerful polity in human history, brought itself to its knees by turning on these proven principles in the midst of a pandemic that freer countries handled far better.
Ethan joined AIER in 2020 as an Editorial Assistant and is a graduate of Trinity College. He received a BA in Political Science alongside a minor in Legal Studies and Formal Organizations. He currently serves as Local Coordinator at Students for Liberty and the Director of the Mark Twain Center for the Study of Human Freedom at Trinity College. Prior to joining AIER, he interned at organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Connecticut State Senate, and the Cause of Action Institute. Ethan is currently based in Washington D.C.