While GMU economist Tyler Cowen may have dismissed the idea of more pandemic lockdowns as being “a straw man” and saying that the extreme measures that started in March of this year “are now behind us,” it seems that governors and other politicians around the country have failed to get the message. More and more states have begun to once again impose ruinous lockdowns. The media and Twitter are filled with self-righteous scolds shrieking about the impending doom of families gathering together for Thanksgiving. CNN host Jake Tapper suggested that “Christmas is probably not gonna be possible.”
If such people had their way, everyone would remain under veritable house arrest and not see anyone else for months or even years, as the duration of such onerous impositions has gone from “fifteen days to slow the spread” to months or even years into the future. That such ideas are even being considered demonstrates just how out of touch with human reality much of our “expert” class and their hordes of lemming-like followers are.
Things have not changed much from when I addressed some of the disastrous unintended material consequences of lockdowns in April of this year. However, as 2020 has dragged on, it has made clear that at least some of the lockdown logic is rooted in a fundamentally flawed and relatively recent conception of human nature.
Nearly every culture and religion throughout human history has held that humans are both material and spiritual beings. However, living in the secular age as we do, the material aspect of our existence has supplanted the spiritual to such an extent that it is barely recognized to exist.
Russell Kirk goes so far as to claim that the dividing line in contemporary politics hinges on this difference in understanding, stating that “on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.”
A purely material outlook on human existence will of course lead to certain policy prescriptions, especially in the face of a pandemic. To deny the spiritual existence of man is to deny the possibility of life after death—only the void of annihilation awaits. From this perspective, it makes sense that one might conclude that earthly life must continue on at any cost—that no tradeoff is too high to put off the coming oblivion.
In contrast, those who retain a more traditional conception of human nature, no matter the specific religion or creed to which they belong, can easily see an entire world of costs to lockdowns that those with a purely materialist perspective are not even capable of understanding.
Humans are social beings. Our very existence and development as human persons rests upon this social nature. Social contract thinkers like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau may fantasize about a solitary human existence, but all evidence from feral or isolated children indicates that without other humans a solitary individual would swiftly perish, not to mention fail to develop self-awareness or the ability to think and speak with language.
Some personalist scholars, such as political theorist David Walsh, argue that our entire conception of self can only be formed in relation to other persons. In contrast to Descartes’s famous line that “I think, therefore I am” a personalist would argue that we are not even capable of understanding the existence of “I” until we have first understood the existence of an “I” in others. Much like we can never truly see our own face, but only the faces of others, which in turn allows us to understand our own unseen face, we cannot become aware of ourselves until we find ourselves in the context of others, and through them recognize the mutual nature of our interior lives that makes us persons.
Many religions, in some form or another, speak of the interconnectedness of the world and of people and of the illusion of separation. While most often associated with Eastern religions such as Buddhism, this spiritual unity is not foreign to Christianity and the West. Indeed, the Christian Trinity is understood to be one God in three persons. Jesus Christ references this unity in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of John when he prays “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
Leaving the specific religious implications aside, humans have recognized for millennia that when persons gather together we enter into one another on a spiritual level through the recognition of our mutual personhood. However, this spiritual unity that is so essential to our very existence as human persons does not occur in a vacuum, but rather in the context in which we gather in the material world.
Humans could acquire all the nutrients we need by imbibing Soylent Green in solitude, but instead, we often turn our meals into ritualistic social occasions. Shared meals not only provide material nourishment but spiritual sustenance as well. Dancing alone in your kitchen is all well and good, but it pales in comparison to experiencing a crowd of thousands moshing at an electronic dance music festival or the pounding feet of a Sufi sect dancing the dhikr. We are fortunate to be able to access great art at the click of a mouse, but watching Swan Lake home alone on YouTube is no substitute for the experience of seeing it live in a crowded hall as every person is moved to tears.
There are few events more brimming with the spiritual unity of the attendees than a wedding, a celebration of the literal unity of two persons as one in the presence of their friends and loved ones with feasting, singing, and dancing.
Yet how many weddings have been canceled or celebrated in private this year thanks to lockdowns? How many shared meals have not been eaten? Dances left undanced, songs left unsung, conversations not had? How many parents and grandparents in nursing homes did not get to see their loved ones before they departed this earth? How many children have suffered in front of a screen alone all day? These are not mere frivolous luxuries that we humans can do without. The dual material and spiritual contexts of our personhood cannot be separated. These contexts of our families and communities are not nice additions to life, they are human life itself.
There is no denying that during a pandemic there will be a need to alter one’s behavior, but just as no state bureaucrat can successfully plan the economy, no public health official is capable of centrally planning a response for hundreds of millions of people who are all in different conditions of life, with different material and spiritual needs.
Every person must decide for himself what the proper course of action is in light of his unique life circumstances. Ripping these decisions from every person and placing them in the hands of public health bureaucrats has yielded disaster.
Suicide rates are up all around the country, in some places as much as 70 percent compared to the same time last year. Military suicides are up 20 percent. Drug overdose deaths are on track to reach an all-time high. The RAND Corporation has found an upswing in heavy drinking this year. The Associated Press reports on the horrific conditions in nursing homes around the country that may have led to the deaths of tens of thousands of residents in excruciating and horrific circumstances, as their families have been forbidden from caring for them. What’s more, it seems many patients simply withered away, their spirits broken from being locked in veritable solitary confinement with no contact with friends or family for months.
Medical central planning that doesn’t even recognize the spiritual and social aspect of human existence has caused the deaths of untold numbers of people around the country, perhaps more than the virus itself in the long run.
Our vaunted leaders may act like pure materialists when it comes to their dictatorial decrees obliterating society and our very humanity, but on some level they obviously understand the importance of their own spiritual health. Why else would the leaders of California be breaking their own rules to dine at luxurious restaurants or flying to Hawaii for meetings and not be content with takeout and Zoom like the rest of us peasants? But what else can be expected from a system of top-down control?
Humans are both material and spiritual beings. Just as we have material needs that central planners cannot anticipate, so too do we have spiritual needs that can only be filled in a myriad of ways that central planners cannot plan for, especially when they don’t even recognize they are needs at all. When they are not fulfilled, our physical health suffers just as assuredly as if we had a virus. The social and communal aspects of human life, whether a holiday dinner with family, going to church, having a wedding, or even the mundane relations of everyday life are not mere luxuries that can be dispensed with, they are human life itself. People must be free to navigate these difficult times armed with the knowledge of their circumstances that only they possess.
Reprinted with permission from Mises.org.