Was it all just an illusion? An illusion that lasted forty years?
Surely not but something went very wrong, perhaps midway through the long stretch of seemingly growing freedom. When the time came to take it all away – and take it away they did! – the social, intellectual, and cultural bulwarks to hold freedom in place gave way. And we lost what we loved. For a time, the world went dark.
Everyone has their own historiographic timeline but my own traces the course of my life and career. I recall the great malaise of the 1970s, the shattered sense of national pride following the Vietnam War disaster, the gas lines, loss of trust, the inflation, the austerity. But what followed from 1980 onward – again, maybe more in the legend of my own mind more than in reality – was a morning in America and gradual emancipation of the world.
It seemed like nothing could finally harm the upward trajectory. It was best symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the strange melting away of the Evil Empire in the course of what seemed like a matter of months. In the great struggle between freedom and totalitarianism – at least that was the incantation of the civic culture at the time – the good guys won.
Yes, the opportunity for an ever more peaceful and free world was squandered with two successive Iraq wars, and other regional conflicts than the US had no business entering, but still, those seems like policy errors, not fundamental departures from the drive to freedom. The momentum toward a better world was still in place.
The rise and democratization of Internet technology after 1995 seemed to reinforce that trend. Government was getting out of the way and private entrepreneurs were building a new world all around us, one that could not be controlled by the old-world ruling class. Not even US presidents could mess it up: witness the presidencies of the Bushes, Clinton, and Obama. Looking back, they seem relatively uneventful. Reagan had left his mark – the ideals in any case – and nothing could change that.
I recall a lunch I had with an economist probably 15 years ago. He was likely the world’s leading expert on global development. I asked him what could happen to dislodge the course of history from its upward march, with ever more food and health and long lives for the world. His short answer: nothing. At least nothing that is likely to happen. The networks supporting trade and human rights are too strong to be broken at this late stage.
And in that same vein I wrote books about our Jetsons World, the Beautiful Anarchy all around us, the tweaks and fixes that could improve things even more, but I mostly spent those years urging all of us to better appreciate the blessings of liberty everywhere in evidence. I believed that this is all that was required to keep progress on track. Though I noted and warned of grave threats on the horizon, and there were plenty of dark days after the turn of the millennial, there was no way to know just how real and how close they were. The path to the light still seemed achievable.
Then came 2020. In a matter of weeks, the progress of decades was crushed underfoot. Hardly anyone could have predicted the trigger: fear of a virus plus an intellectually preposterous response, followed by an appalling three years of lies and coverups that continue to this day.
Perhaps on reflection that does make some sense. If you are the owner and operator of the Leviathan state in the second decade of the 21st century, and the loss of control of the people was palpable, and you were really clever about tightening the grip over the social order, what excuse might you drum up?
In the Middle Ages, it might have been easy to inspire mass compliance through religious tropes such as the mortal fear of heresy and devils and witches on the loose. In the 20th century, the mortal fear of enemies abroad with weapons of mass destruction and crazed anti-freedom ideologies worked wonders.
But in the 21st century, when the old excuses wore thin, and when our faith was in infinite progress, the best tactic might be to posit the appearance of an invisible pathogen that if we do not stop in its tracks, threatens to destroy us all. And looking back, it is obvious now that this narrative was in the works for years.
Thus did the modern state unleash mass fear of the most primitive of forces, one about which the knowledge of past generations had failed to port over to a new generation. Had people truly understood infectious disease, they would have known that this type of problem is not nearly as much of a pressing matter today as it had been in the past. And they would have dismissed the manufactured mania out of hand, especially once the data became available. Even then, we should have known enough to see through the ruse.
Over the previous two centuries, thanks to better hygiene, better sanitation, pervasive natural immunity acquired through ever more global integration, plus better and cleaner food and water, not to mention antibiotics, the great plagues of the past were largely gone. Adding to that, and all Hollywood fantasies aside, there is a dynamic inherent in any new virus that is self-limiting: that which is more prevalent is less severe and vice versa. As for a vaccine, it was once given that a fast-mutating respiratory virus eludes eradication or even control via shots, no matter what technology is deployed.
And so with a bit of knowledge, there would have been no panic at all, much less compliance with the sudden imposition of egregious demands that all venues where people gather must be closed. Also with just a bit of understanding of the importance of basic freedoms and rights for social and market functioning – and the public health consequences of trampling on them – the public would have resisted business, church, and school closures with every breath.
Somehow, this didn’t happen. To this day, we continue to wonder why this occurred. We find ourselves intrigued by every clue we can find. We’ve recently been enlightened, for example, by discovering the extent to which the tech venues that we believed were granting us more freedom had actually been taken over by deep-state actors who had every ambition to control what we said and to whom we said it.
We also had not fully understood the sheer political power of the big-box stores, the dominance of the major players in the social media industry, the chasm of interest that had opened up between hands-on work and laptop work, the endemic collusion of Big Tech and Big Media with government, and the ambitions of the administrative state to remind the whole population about who and what is in charge.
Still, something else had gone wrong that we had not noticed. The population as a whole had begun to take freedom itself for granted, and even began to believe it was an optional condition of life. What would happen if we just got rid of it for a couple of weeks? What’s the downside? Even something called “the economy” could be turned off and on again like a light switch and there would be no real consequences except a bit of lost stock-market returns, and who cares? Anything to control the bad bug on the loose.
And here we are almost three years later still living amidst the rubble, with shattered public health, a traumatized generation of children, a demoralized and terrorized population with crushed civic associations and friend networks, familial losses, the international conflicts, the loss of moral center, and a devastating loss of faith and trust in the elites of all institutions in society.
We cannot escape the suspicion that going into the pandemic period, something fundamental about culture and society had eroded to make this possible. What went wrong and how can it be restored? These are the burning questions of the day.
HIstorians say that past generations asked similar questions when surrounded by unexpected disasters. The Great War comes to mind. It took place following another 40 years of increasing progress. Every year from 1870 through 1910 seemed to unveil unthinkable improvements in the human condition: the end of slavery, the advent of mass printing, domestic electricity, the commercialization of steel and the building of great cities, lighting, indoor plumbing and heating, telephony, recording technology, and so much more.
The World Fairs, one after another, had highlighted it all and the masses stood in awe. So too did the Victorian-era intellectuals believed that humankind had discovered the path of progress and infinite enlightenment. With the right schooling and mass education, the institutions that had created so much progress for decades they believed to be sufficiently fortified and essentially impregnable.
Then through a series of discrete screwups among the diplomatic corp, and a foolish belief that a few armies marching here could shore up the practice of democratic government, up to 15 million died and another 23 million were injured. During the aftermath, the map of Europe botched so dreadfully that it paved the way for another round of killing only decades later.
One would suppose that by now we would have learned that there is no end of history. At least we should hope that there is not simply because there must be no end to the struggle for liberty: to win it and keep it. That means that the battle for the public mind in one’s own time is the most important one, if we believe that building and protecting civilization is worth the price.
Our generation has learned a valuable lesson. Never take freedom for granted. Never entrust that freedom to a handful of experts with power. Never believe that humankind is above and beyond the deployment of brutal methods of command and control. Should we ever again let down our guard, should we ever believe that there are truths so well understood that we need not teach them to the next generation, we can lose all that we have gained.
Nothing in this world operates as if by autopilot. There is no meta-narrative, no wind of change that operates independently from the choices we make. Ideas are the authors of history, and those are an extension of human minds. There is no sector of life that is not in need of moral courage and the determination to defend human rights against all invasion.
The coming year will undoubtedly be filled with more revelations, more scandals, more unearthing of the horrible missteps, more interest-group manipulations of the public mind, and growing cries for justice in light of all we have lost.
Brownstone will be part of that – as we have been since our founding – and we do hope you continue to support our work. This institution is really about the community that has been attracted by its ideals and also the community it serves. We do not need to sell its work to you; you see it cited everywhere, and increasingly criticized by those who want the world locked down again. That tells you all you need to know about how effective Brownstone is.
Behind the scenes, there is much more going on, including the formation of a serious scholarly and journalistic community that understands the stakes – a parallel social and intellectual network dedicated to a different path.
But even more than supporting Brownstone, all of us need to recommit ourselves to recovering and rebuilding the path of progress, a job which can never again be entrusted to an entitled elite but which must be taken on in each of our lives.
We dare not relent lest the despotism we experienced only very recently be repeated and entrenched. We know now that it can happen, and that there is nothing inevitable about genuine progress. Our job now is to regroup and recommit to living free lives, never again believing that there are magical forces at work in the world that make our role as thinkers and doers unnecessary.
If you would like to make a gift to Brownstone before year’s end, now is the time. Thank you for your readership, dedication, and support.