Last year presented the shock of our lives, the near-end of anything we call human liberty in the US (but for one lonely state of 50), all in the name of virus control. I was party to a strategy that successfully helped fight the lockdowns, and it taught me some valuable lessons about the role of ideas in realizing change.
I had hoped that the fires of liberty, burning within the hearts of the American public, would have been strong enough to stop this kind of tyranny from being visited upon us. I would have predicted massive pushback, but it did not happen for a good part of the year. People were mired in fear and confusion. It felt like wartime, with a population traumatized by shock and awe. Even so, the cause of liberty has generally prevailed over the lockdowns, even though tremendous confusions and impositions remain. That demonstrates that ideas do matter and can beat back the worst forms of malice, provided they are advanced with intelligence, strategic experience, and unrelenting moral courage.
All my reading in college convinced me that freedom is the most sloganized but least appreciated force for good in the history of humanity. It is how the human imagination is unleashed to create progress, a good life, peace, and general prosperity. We owe the best of civilization around us not to plans and controls but to the seemingly risky chaos of leaving people alone to solve their problems – something most intellectuals and states are loath to do.
Murray Rothbard, along with his predecessors in liberal thought for centuries, taught me that this struggle between liberty and power is the essential desideratum of the historical narrative, and not only in history but in the current moment. Continuing and winning this fight is the determinative factor in whether and to what extent we can create the conditions for continued progress or plunge further into the controlled morass in which the whole world found itself in 2020.
Our times truly are at a turning point.
Most of the world today still struggles with the remnants of lockdowns. Americans can only travel to seven countries in the world without restrictions, tracking, vaccination checks, and quarantines, none of which existed only 18 months ago. The emergency visited upon us in the middle of March 2020 is still with us today and we have a moral imperative to continue to fight and defeat this overreaching hand of tyrannical power. The above lessons will help us do this.
In my entire career, I’ve variously been associated with institutions and projects that have strived to make a dent in the intellectual and public sphere on behalf of the cause of liberty. These efforts have surely not been wasted. Still, the lockdowns did serve as a test of the vibrancy and effectiveness of both the ideas and the institutions. It is a sad truth that these voices fell almost entirely silent just when they were needed most. When the shock of lockdowns hit us, the world cried out for answers as to why this was happening but such answers were not forthcoming. Even more remarkable, some of the very people one might have supposed would be a reliable force for opposition worked to torture their own philosophical leanings in a way to land them on the side of restrictive virus-control measures.
In mid-January 2020, sensing what might be coming, I wrote against the quarantine power. I pointed out that such a power does exist on the books. It’s been there since 2006. It could be deployed under the right conditions, and Covid-19 might be that condition. I did not genuinely believe it would be used, and the thought of generalized lockdowns was inconceivable.
That article gained me some attention on podcasts and media shows but the hosts mostly dismissed the fear, and some even chided me for writing it. Another early article came on March 8 in which I blasted the city government of Austin, Texas, for using executive fiat to cancel South by Southwest, a huge international conference of people we now know were in almost no danger of catching or spreading disease.
When I released that piece, I thought I would be joined by a hundred other commentators who would say the same. It was not to be so. I was stunned that I was alone in this opinion. I briefly wondered if I was the crazy one. For weeks after, as the lockdowns unrolled and the fear grew, I considered deleting that piece for fear of how history would treat it. I’m glad I did not. It was the right opinion then and now.
I was fortunate to be part of an institution with writers and researchers who held the same view, and pushed that position hard when the rest of the world fell silent. This made a huge difference. The experience was the most exciting of my life because I had a front-row seat to watch the interaction of ideas and events, and a huge role in making it all happen. Maybe it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, never to be repeated.
Nonetheless, there are lessons to be drawn here that pertain to any intellectual or institution that sincerely wants to make a difference for good. What follows herein is a summary of the lessons I learned.
1. Liberty is far more fragile than we knew.
In 2020, liberty was taken away in what seemed like an instant. There is a good excuse, they said, one that had never been tried before in living memory. That reason came out of the blue: public health, and the sudden assertion of the rights of people (some people) not to be exposed to germs. That one consideration became the overriding consideration, and liberty had to fall by the wayside. The “libertarian” movement (with some exceptions) not only had no consensus answer to that claim – people had not thought much about it either way – and many top voices in this community even affirmed this view, as if germs are a phenomenon visited upon the world for the first time and therefore required extraordinary measures by the state to protect society from pathogens. The lack of understanding of public health fundamentals disabled the decisive influence the “libertarian” sector of life might have had during the worst attack on liberty during our lifetimes.
It was worse than that in terms of general public understanding. The lack of education in basic science over the several decades took its toll. The postwar effort to teach about health in high school, along with basic principles of virus and immunology, clearly faltered over the decades, leaving several generations without the intellectual wherewithal to counter disease panic. The New York Times overtly advocated a medieval solution; the public, in general, reverted to a medieval understanding of disease as if the last 100 years of scientific progress in public health had never happened.
Meanwhile, the left-wing was so embroiled in their Trump derangement syndrome that they were ready to throw out all principles of civil liberties and back lockdowns. And the right-wing was also disabled due to presidential loyalities; it was Trump himself who initially ordered the lockdowns as part of his longstanding nationalistic bias and “get China” policy. That forged a left-right consensus for lockdowns just as they were happening. That did not break up until many months later when the virus became entirely politicized, with “conservatives” more doubtful of the prevailing narrative and the “liberals” ready to lock down for the duration, regardless of the baneful effects of the constituencies whose interests they claim to champion (the poor, children, workers, people of color, poor nations, etc).
That confluence of events created a lonely struggle for those of us who had consistent opposition to lockdowns from the beginning. Liberty had been frittered away, the schools and churches closed, business shut, travel restricted, association throttled. Even in places where liberty has a high value, people went along: in rural Texas, SWAT teams were arresting people who gathered in bars just to grab a beer. The population was being mentally reprogrammed in real time. The masking of the whole population was a case in point: without precedent, without solid scientific rationale, with dreadful social effects, but still, compliance was extremely high with people ratting out their friends and neighbors for going without.
The moral imperative was for compliance and with what? With whatever the CDC was pushing at the time, and that in turn was filtered through a complicated mixture of messy science and political agendas. Still, whatever the CDC said became gospel. And this in turn was reflected in media priorities. Social media began to delete all dissenting opinions. It was ruthless. Media personalities who disagreed were not only deplatformed but made to disappear from any public presence at all.
And with this perfect storm, liberty took an unprecedented blow in the land of the free. Those of us who had worked for decades to inspire a deep and abiding public commitment to the cause of freedom were left feeling as if our efforts were in vain. Just when the resistance to despotism needed a social force to counter it, it became meek at best, and isolated. I shudder to think what might have happened had a few souls not been out there to take the risk of speaking out. It gained us a tremendous amount of hate, but we served as a reminder that there was no perfect consensus out there for these egregious actions.
2. The sources of resistance to tyranny come from unexpected places.
Where were the places that did not lock down? It was not the tax havens. It was not the birthplaces of liberty like Spain, Italy, or the UK. It was not among the most highly educated and credentialed populations of Massachusetts or Melbourne. Internationally, it was Tanzania, Sweden, Japan, Taiwan, Nicaragua, and Belarus. Even Russia opened up sooner than the US with much fewer stringencies. If I had told you in 2019 to move to Nicaragua right away to preserve your freedom, you would have thought me crazy. And yet that is precisely where we found ourselves, living on a big globe with only a handful of implausible outposts of resistance that no one could have identified in advance.
In the US, there was only one state that fully resisted apart from closing schools for two weeks, and that was South Dakota. That was due to the courage of Governor Kristi Noem, who made her decision to stay open based on an intuition that freedom is better than all forms of government planning. Despite media denunciation, her decision was politically popular in this state that prides itself on the frontier spirit of independence and skepticism toward power. Beyond that, Georgia was the first state to open up after having fully closed. It was accomplished by a Republican governor who defied even President Trump. His decision was widely popular in his state. That further led to openings in Florida, South Carolina, and finally Texas, each one greeted by howls from the media and predictions of disaster that never came true.
Other communities in the US never locked down, defying even their own governors. A major one that received very little attention – other than perfunctory denunciation from the governor of New York – were the Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. They went on with their lives under the conviction that their faith dictated certain forms of community engagement, and they refused to give up what was central to their lives for some claim of a disease on the loose that required them to comply.
Another group receiving almost no attention for their resistance was the Amish of Pennsylvania and Ohio. As the meme said, they were unaffected by Covid because they didn’t have TV or the internet. Yet another community to resist were many people of color in the South. Even now, their vaccination rates are the lowest in the country owing to a deep and justifiable fear of a medical establishment telling them what they are supposed to inject into their arms. These communities of color in the South took to the streets with the George Floyd protests (BLM) but there was plenty of evidence at the time that there was a metatext to these protests: a defiance of lockdowns to which major media could not object. My friends who live here were deeply grateful for the protests and those who pushed them because they knew what was really going on. This was not about BLM; this was standing up to the police power that was enforcing the lockdowns and thus asserting their rights to live freely.
These were the forces of resistance in the US, in addition to the very small intellectual resistance mostly led by a few outposts and led by small research teams. As time went on, once Trump gave up on lockdowns, Red State governors jumped on board, and with that Fox News spoke out too (rather late in the game). Once it was safe, we saw the D.C. think tanks get involved but this was late in the year. The two weeks to flatten the curve turned to 8 and 10 months before the people who had been assigned the tasks of defending American freedom woke up and got to work. Meanwhile, the real resistance had taken place in the least auspicious communities – ones that we could never have predicted and in places that hardly anyone would have guessed would have led the way in standing up.
In addition, there were the disparate people out there in many states who were skeptical all along – a minority to be sure but they were there. In the early days, I saw very few of these people on social media. People fell silent. Those of us who did speak received torrents of death wishes and denunciation.
Gradually, over time, that changed. After a year or so of living hell, people began to crawl out and post their opinions. Today, Twitter is filled with people who say that lockdowns were always a terrible idea and that they always opposed them. That’s probably true but the fear campaigns from the media and government silenced them. They were only emboldened by a consistent voice to lead and give them courage.
I take from these extraordinary examples that the demographics of pushback against tyranny are mixed, unpredictable, and inspired mostly by deep convictions that transcend political categories as we know them. Plus they had to have the courage to act. Tellingly, none of them were part of any well-funded and well-organized “movement.” Their resistance was spontaneous, beautifully unorganized, and stemmed from deep moral conviction.
3. How resistance is achieved comes mainly from the intellectual sphere, pushed with good timing in a venue with genuine reach.
When I say “intellectual sphere” I do not mean universities and think tanks. I mean, pertaining to the ideas that people hold about themselves and their public lives. These are affected by myriad influences from many branches of thought: religion, economics, public health, memory, deep cultural assumptions, and so on. It is the ideas that people hold that drive the decision to resist or comply. The time to encourage and mold the ideas that people hold are when people are asking the right questions. It is not some abstract “education” that fixes the world but compelling ideas spoken with conviction at the right time. The time for intellectuals to speak out was when the lockdowns happened, not a year later when it was safe to do so.
At this point, I will briefly recount the history of the Great Barrington Declaration that came out in October 2020 and received tens of thousands of media mentions over the coming month. The scientists who were behind this faced an astounding amount of criticism but still went on countless media venues to defend their anti-lockdown views. It was this that caught the attention of Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida, who opened his state completely following many months in which he had been gradually losing confidence in “mitigation measures.”
How did this begin? I had been scrolling through Twitter when I noticed a Harvard professor named Martin Kulldorff who had opened an account simply to remind people of the basic principles of public health, which are not about one disease but all factors that influence health, not just in the short run but the long run. I noticed the parallel with the same teachings from economics as spelled out by Henry Hazlitt.
I dropped a quick note to him, knowing full well of his likely loneliness, and invited him for a meeting. I invited a few others. It was a blessing finally to speak to other sensible people, and his scientific credentials gave us all confidence. Within two weeks and no preparation, we put together a gathering of others in the field of epidemiology plus some journalists. The declaration was written. It was edited in the living room by reading aloud. It was codified and published on a site quickly put together by design technologist Lou Eastman.
Then the explosion began, not just in the US but all over the world. People were both furious and thrilled depending on which side of the lockdown debate one was on. This was a remarkable thing to watch because I saw the course of ideas fundamentally change in real time. From one small document, a global resistance began rallying not around some extremist dogma but on basic principles of public health and freedom as a precondition for social and market functioning.
It was then that I realized: the path to fixing the world is perhaps not what I thought it was. It is not about an industrialized movement. It is not about strict dogmas of fine points, infighting within a movement, tedious pedagogy, or even radicalized agitation. It is about basic truth stated when the world seems to have forgotten them. These core truths made the difference because of the strategies we used for communication, their credentialled sources, and how the statement tapped into a deep memory of what good sense in public health feels like.
I’m under no illusions that this particular strategy and this particular event is repeatable. The challenges are always changing and the needs of the moment are too. The real lesson I take from this is the desperate need of people who want to influence the world to have an entrepreneurial spirit, one that is adaptable, alert to opportunities, a willingness to invest, and the determination to stick it out through every kind of pressure to stop. And like all successful entrepreneurship, it also requires technical skill, discipline, and careful market cultivation. Such is borne of long experience in the world of ideas – entrepreneurship is not something taught in school – and also a burning passion to make a difference.
4. How ideas travel and realize their results cannot be gamed.
Historians and social scientists have long speculated about the proper strategy for social change. They examine particular incidents of history and ask the foundational question. How did the Protestant Revolution happen? From where did capitalism come and why did it land and thrive where it did? How did the Bolsheviks rise to power? How did the Prohibitionists come to prevail? What were the means by which marijuana went from illegal narcotic to fully legal weed in so many towns? These are fascinating questions with no consistent or certain answers.
The reason for this pertains to the unique nature of ideas. They are not like hard widgets or services with supply chains and clear structures of production. Ideas are malleable, infinitely reproducible, invisible, and travel an unpredictable trajectory. There are no aspects to what we call influence that can be gamed. There is no one path or strategy. In addition, the effect of ideas on the human mind is infinitely complex. One person can hear one idea a million times but only truly listen and become convinced on the one-millionth and first time it is heard. The sources of influences are equally diverse. We think teachers are the key but it could be social media, radio, television, or a simple experience in life that triggers the desire to know more.
There are no limits to the market for a good idea, and no formula that assures it will travel a certain way and land in a particular place. Releasing an idea always takes place in the middle of a metaphorical sandstorm where every grain is another competing idea. The best approach is to build platforms with maximum-possible reach and deploy ideas to networks that find them compelling enough to share publicly or privately, thus expanding the reach bit by bit. In other words, the potential audience for ideas is essentially everyone.
Too many institutions and movements forget this and instead turn inward with in-fighting, arcane language, and modes of argumentation designed for small cliques of friends and colleagues. It is understandable at one level: people want to speak in ways they feel make a difference, and that means rallying or getting under the skin of people you know personally. But this creates a serious problem. Small marginal movements tend to forget the big picture while obsessing about small controversies within their social circle or, worse, think mainly about their own professional advancement rather than taking intellectual risks. This throttles their effectiveness.
The friends of liberty need to be prepared to grapple with the unique features of ideas, and not imagine that there is only one way forward. Moreover, the successes of the past (the Great Barrington Declaration as an example) are not necessarily the way forward for the future. A good strategy is borne of a cultivated instinct that acts on intuition, one that is finely honed using a variety of life experiences. It also must avoid very obvious turn-offs: any idea advanced with anger, exhortation, malice, or resentment is already at a disadvantage to that which is inspired by compassion, warmth, generosity, and love. This is especially true for a cause that is as radical as the desire for human freedom to have a durable and primary place in public life.
5. The motivation to confront evil stems from moral conviction primarily and relies on a relentless focus with strategic considerations.
I’ve noticed through the years working in ideological spaces that despair is a huge problem. Even for the most sincere intellectuals, there are so many barriers to making a difference, it can be discouraging when the results of these efforts are not very apparent. But also from my experience, there is one force that is the most powerful and yet the most neglected one: a willingness to stand up when it counts due to deep moral conviction. It need not always be worn and paraded but it must exist.
Expediency as a first principle is easily detectable as a grave form of weakness and it can kill any cause. Expediency can also stem from institutional arrangements in which purpose is uncertain, leadership is divided, or leaders are risk-averse. Such problems can make change impossible, whereas a steadfast commitment is indeed capable of bringing about change. Any institution lacking in clear purpose will drift, and its staff and employees will drift with it.
This moral conviction need not be set against creativity, strategic adaptability, and clever marketing. All these are crucial for good strategy but conviction is the indispensable element. When the war comes, when lockdowns are upon us, when the violation of free speech occurs, when people are not granted their fundamental rights, when policies bump hard against what our intuition tells us is right and true, freedom requires that compelling voices speak out, not later, but now, not with ambiguity but with real precision and conviction. The mystery of influence will never be fully solved but these are the core fundamentals that can never be given up, lest the cause is lost.
In 2020 liberty took a huge blow – the likes of which hasn’t been seen for many generations – but it was not finally mortal. The means by which we’ve crawled out of the pit deserve close scrutiny. The cause of human rights is nowhere near being safe. But the ground has been prepared. In all the places where lockdowns have faltered and political and intellectual change have arisen in their stead, we’ve consistently seen one word rise to the top of public rhetoric: freedom. It’s a simple word, much used but rarely understood in all its fullness. To be free is an implausible state of humanity. It is the great exception. When freedom does triumph, and when it does stick as a stable presumption of public life, the results are astonishing but also threatening to established interests and partisans of a thousand other causes. If we can keep in mind the primacy of freedom as an ideal, and let that ideal moor us to all that we think and do, we stand the highest possible chance of success.