I learned the following ten lessons about democratic society from the pandemic. Some of these things I already knew in an abstract way from historical study and reflection on experience, but their truth has been vividly demonstrated by the events of the pandemic year—or what now looks like becoming the pandemic years, plural.
1) Science is the default god of a civilization without religion or shared standards of right and wrong. The pseudo-religion of diversity and multiculturalism, which undermines shared moral standards, in effect enthrones Science as god, since Science is the only authority widely believed to be value-neutral. The great god Scientia (to be distinguished from the actual sciences) is not in fact value-neutral, but in public she plays the part of a lady who loves the truth but is flexible when it comes to other moral principles. Hence public science cannot give us “values,” that is, the practical wisdom to make morally sound decisions. “Follow the Science” is morally vacuous advice. It’s like asking a computer program whether you should get married (though no doubt some genius has created an app for that, too).
2) Whoever controls what Scientia says controls the country—just as in theocratic times, control of doctrine and religious law meant control of the state. Hence a power-hungry state will try to control what Scientia says.
3) Most scientists—and the universities that employ them—are more than willing to be controlled by the state in return for money, power, and influence.
4) Governments that claim their rule is based on Scientia’s pronouncements will always prefer the quantitative to the qualitative. Bureaucrats and politicians find it easier to aim for goals like “reduce the number of cases/hospitalizations/deaths (to zero!)” rather than qualitative goals such as “educate our children in humane ways” or “allow dying parents to see their children in person” or “prevent the atrophy of human relationships” or “promote freedom of religion.” Exclusive preference for the quantitative over the qualitative leads to borderline sociopathic “recommendations,” like those of the current U.S. surgeon general, who thinks vaccinated parents should wear masks at home and outdoors with their children.
5) Governments will use any excuse to seize emergency power, and they will always try to hold on to it even when the justification for seizing it has passed. Governments that are constitutionally limited often consist of frustrated tyrants; such governments are even more eager to seize dictatorial power when the opportunity presents itself than are authoritarian governments, which are more likely to be aware of their own limitations. The only way to pry power from the hands of democratic authorities intoxicated with sudden dictatorial power is with vigorous political action.
6) Such action will usually fail, because citizens in a democracy are not necessarily deeply attached to their personal freedom, and can easily be frightened into giving it up. Most citizens are unable to distinguish living well from staying alive. The latter is the condition of the former, but the former is the reason for the latter. Yet people are ready to sacrifice the former for the latter. I conclude that our society is not doing a good job of explaining what living well is, why we should want to live well, and why living well is preferable to mere life. Socrates explained all that, but we have forgotten it.
7) The hardest thing in a democracy is for a government to do nothing, though nothing is often the best thing to do. Citizens who demand something be done are always louder than those who wish to be left alone. In dangerous times the volume levels of the activists rise and the voices of everyone else are put on mute.
8) Democracy is a luxury good that depends on prosperity. The minute that prosperity is threatened, democracy collapses into dictatorship.
9) The more credentialed people are, the more they cling to their membership in the tribe of the soi-disant educated. Educated people don’t trust their own intelligence; they trust what they have been taught by authorities approved of by educators. This is because their knowledge of what the right authorities say defines who they are and gives them status in the community. As Chesterton pointed out, most of what we think we know is taken on trust (or faith).
10) Hence the “smartest people in the room” are lacking in the basic requisite for practical wisdom: They are unwilling to listen to or consider alternative explanations or any policies that the herd of the credentialed does not accept. When it takes notice of these alternatives at all, it will not debate them but will simply treat them with derision. For the smart people, they are obviously untrue and/or dangerous since they come from outside the herd.
James Hankins is professor of history at Harvard University.
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