The Corner

Culture

The Strong Grounds for Pessimism

The great majority of human history was not liberal (in its true meaning), but instead authoritarian. People were expected to obey leaders and we fought endlessly. Tribes feared and hated each other. There was no progress, nor even such a concept. Life truly was nasty, brutish, and short.

Then, roughly 700 years ago, we broke free of those arrangements. We began to adopt what Deirdre McCloskey and Art Carden call “the bourgeois deal,” whereby humans were freed of the ancient constraints. The result was a huge explosion in prosperity.

Now, however, the liberal order is grave danger. The authoritarians among us are poised to throw the ratchet into reverse.

One of the pessimists is GMU economics professor Don Boudreaux. Writing for AIER, he reflects on a recent video by Daniel Hannan of Britain. Boudreaux writes:

The reaction to Covid-19 is powerful evidence that our primitive instincts remain alive and ready to reestablish their dominance over the happy accident that is the culture, and resulting institutions, of liberalism. The hysterical fear that Covid stirred in so many people — including in many who are highly educated, of a scientific mindset, and, until Covid, of a liberal bent — and the sheepishness with which people followed the “leaders” who promised protection from Covid prompts Dan Hannan to worry that 2020-2021 is the beginning of the end of modernity.

Indeed. Over the last 16 months, we have seen just how thin is the veneer of civilization.

Boudreaux concludes his essay:

Abruptly starting 16 months ago, modern men and women were not only given license to revert to atavistic dread of strangers, but positively encouraged to harbor such dread and to act on it. Such atavistic attitudes and actions came all too naturally.

Abruptly starting 16 months ago, humanity was encouraged to hold in contempt — even to censor — the relative few persons who refused to abandon liberal sensibilities.

Abruptly starting 16 months ago, we prostrated our panicked selves before our “leaders,” begging that they use their god-like knowledge and powers (called “the Science”) to safeguard us from one particular source of illness, believed to be demonic.

Abruptly starting 16 months ago, there quite possibly began the end of liberal civilization.

To that, I would add the eagerness with which many of our fellow citizens embraced the authoritarian policies and turned viciously against those of us who argued for liberty. We’re back to tribalism.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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