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The Fall of Intellectual Heroism

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Professor Noam Chomsky has always been for me something of an intellectual hero, and not because I agreed with all his views. Rather, I appreciated his radicalism, by which I mean his desire to get to the root of every issue and reveal its underlying moral and intellectual meaning. 

In Cold War days, his analysis of American foreign policy shook several generations of intellectuals. Certainly I benefited enormously from his analytics and example. Notable too is how for a leader of the old Left, he was never tempted by irrationalism or nihilism that wasted so many other good minds from the late 60s onwards. He has generally resisted the overt statism of many of his contemporaries on the left. 

He is now 91, and still granting interviews. I’m among those who was stunned by his comments endorsing vaccine mandates and the forcible exclusion of refuseniks from society. He compared Covid-19 to smallpox with no apparent awareness of the 100-times difference in the case fatality rate. He made no reference to natural immunity, the dangers of police power, the role of big tech, the vast demographic disparities in vaccine acceptance, much less warned of the grave dangers of any state-based policy of exclusion based on health. 

Perhaps it’s not fair to go after him on these grounds. And yet, he still wields influence. His comments demoralized many of his followers and emboldened those who champion the rise of the medical/therapeutic state. His comments are tragic for his legacy on many levels. It means effective endorsement of police beatings of people who merely want to go shopping, as this video from Paris, France, illustrates. 

The lockdown upheaval has affected every aspect of life, including intellectual life. People we did not know have become some of the most passionate and informative voices against government measures. People who otherwise would never have entered public life on this topic felt a moral conviction to stand up and speak. Martin Kulldorff and Lord Sumption come to mind – serious men who could easily have sat this one out. Some prominent voices have shown themselves willing to rethink in real time. Matt Ridley, after an initial bout of alarmism, gradually came around. 

Other trusted voices such as Michael Lewis stumbled very badly. He and Chomsky are hardly alone. The topic of public health in the presence of a pathogen has disoriented many intellectuals I’ve followed for years. Some are silent either out of fear or confusion, and others have faltered. They have allowed panic to overcome rationality, been overly glued to the television screen, demonstrated overreliance on some “experts” while lacking curiosity to look further, and otherwise downplayed the carnage that has come from lockdowns and mandates.  

Some of these people have found themselves thoroughly confused about what government should and should not do in times of pandemic, while completely ignoring the dangers of granting so many new powers to a ruling class. 

It’s always been a confusing topic for some. Years ago, I was in a public debate with my friend Mark Skousen. He took the position that we need a strong but limited state while I argued for a model of pure freedom. His main point concerned pandemics. He said that the state must have the quarantine power, while I said this power would be used unwisely and ultimately abused. 

Dr. Skousen wrote me early on in this crisis with one message: “You were right and I was wrong.” Very kind! It’s impressive for anyone to admit something like that. It’s a rare thing among scholars. Too many are beset with an infallibility complex even on subjects about which they know very little. 

So, yes, the virus has exposed weak links in even brilliant minds. Yes, this can be disappointing, even devastating. I could list examples, and I’m sure you can too, but I will refrain from personalizing the point. Suffice it to say that there have been many disappointments these two years. 

Whether the failure to step up stems from a basic confusion over immunology, a naive trust in government, or just the way some people do not want to risk well-earned reputations by taking unpopular positions, it is still an unhappy situation when our heroes stumble and falter when we need them the most. 

The same could be said of organizations and venues. The ACLU, for example, seems utterly lost. On the street in D.C., several ACLU employees approached me to sign a petition for voting rights. I brought up the organization’s silence on lockdowns and its support for vaccine mandates and cruel exclusions. They pretended not to hear me and turned to the next passerby. 

Once people in charge of institutions adopt a confused or even evil position, their egos gain control and they have a hard time backing off much less admitting error. 

We expect too much from our intellectual allegiances and heroes. At the same time, one might suppose it would be easier to say without equivocation that a virus is no excuse for violating human rights, that travel restrictions and house arrest are immoral, that mandatory closures of bars and churches constitute an appalling imposition on property rights, that prohibiting contracts between consenting adults is wrong, and that it is both immoral and unscientific to divide the population by medical compliance and push for social exclusion of minority populations. A widespread and contagious virus cannot be suppressed by the police state; failing to understand that strikes me as the height of folly. 

That said, there is a long tradition of intellectuals being 100% great on some issues, and flipping to contradict themselves under conditions that test their own consistency. A good example might be, for example, Aristotle himself, who was a pillar of realism and rationality but seemed never to figure out basic economic concepts and then couldn’t find his way to figuring out that slavery was wrong. Or St. Thomas Aquinas, who said government should stick only to punishing theft and murder but then offhandedly defended the burning of heretics. His grounds made sense to him: why should society tolerate people whose views would condemn people to the eternal fires of hell? 

That Aristotle and Aquinas were brilliant on some issues and terrible on others does not mean we cannot learn from them. It just means that they are fallible humans. In intellectual life, the goal is not to find saints to worship or witches to burn but to seek and discover what is true from any source. Great minds can and do go astray. 

Among my own heroes I would list F.A. Hayek, whose insights on knowledge in society have shaped how I see the world and this crisis in particular. A Hayekian understands that the state has no access to an intelligence that is higher than that which is decentralized and embedded in economic institutions and social processes, which in turn emanates from the dispersed knowledge and experiences of people. It’s a general principle. And yet Hayek himself did not always apply his own teachings to his thinking, and thus did he variously stumble into a planning mindset himself. 

What are we to do when faced with such contradictions? We cannot merely mope around and kvetch about how some intellectuals have failed us. The point is to extract the truth from all writings and let that inform our thinking, not merely download someone else’s brain to our own and imitate. 

This is true even of our heroes. We can still appreciate a person’s work even when he or she fails to follow through. We somehow need to get to the place where we can separate ideas from the person, knowing that when an intellectual writes he or she is giving ideas away to the world. The person is not the product; the ideas are the real thing. 

The case against lockdowns and state medical mandates is the obverse of the case for freedom itself. It seems unconscionable for any liberal mind to be wrong on this point. That so many have gone silent or even shown sympathy for medical despotism reveals just how tremendously confusing these times have been. 

The idea that governments need total power in the event of a pandemic discombobulated many otherwise impressive thinkers and writers who seemed never to have considered the idea. At the same time, there is a new generation and these times have been a marvelous teacher about the ubiquity of policy failure. It is forging new intellectual minds by the day. The lessons will not be forgotten. 

Author

  • Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and ten books in 5 languages, most recently Liberty or Lockdown. He is also the editor of The Best of Mises. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. [email protected]

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