As Aristotle and Aquinas teach us, human beings are by nature
rational social animals.  Because we are a kind of animal, we need to be safe from violent attack and we need the
freedom to acquire food, shelter, clothing and other material goods and to be
able to rely on stable possession of them. 
Because we are social animals,
we need the cooperation of others in order to acquire these material goods, and
we also need the warmth of human relationships and a sense of belonging and loyalty
to a larger whole – to a family, a community, a nation.  Because we are rational animals, we need for others to appeal to our reason in
order to persuade us of their opinions and favored policies, rather than
resorting to intimidation and violence.

These are basic
human goods insofar as they are the necessary preconditions of other goods, and
the fundamental duty of government is to safeguard these basic goods.  It must do so in a way that respects the
natural law principle of subsidiarity,
according to which it is a grave injustice for the state to take over from
lower-level social orders (such as the family) what they can do for
themselves.  And it must do so in a way
that respects the rule of law.  The rule of law is not the same thing as the
arbitrary will of some legislator, but precisely the opposite of that.  True law must reflect rationality both in its motivation and in its effects.  A decree that has no consistent rationale or
application, or which makes the social order unpredictable or otherwise
unstable, smacks of tyranny rather than lawfulness.  As Aquinas writes:

In order
that the volition of what is commanded may have the nature of law, it needs to
be in accord with some rule of reason. 
And in this sense is to be understood the saying that the will of the
sovereign has the force of law; otherwise the sovereign’s will would savor of
lawlessness rather than of law
. 
(Summa Theologiae
I-II.90.1)

And of tyranny he says:

Everything
is uncertain when there is a departure from justice.  Nobody will be able firmly to state: This
thing is such and such, when it depends upon the will of another, not to say
upon his caprice
. (On Kingship,
Book
I, Chapter 4
)

Protecting these basic goods of human beings as rational
social animals, in a way that respects subsidiarity and the rule of law, is the
foundation of true social justice as
it is understood in the natural law tradition and in Catholic moral theology.  Any regime that imperils these basic goods is
fundamentally socially unjust.  And any regime that imperils them in the name of social justice is not
only unjust, but diabolically perverse.

New world
disorder

Now, the last few months have seen the sudden rise of a
strange new order of things (or rather a disorder
of things) that imperils all of these basic goods.  It has three main components:

(1) Open-ended stop-and-start lockdowns imposed in the name
of public health that are unnecessary, excessive in the material and spiritual costs
they impose on citizens, and arbitrary in their application;

(2) The refusal of many public officials to suppress widespread
rioting, vandalism, and looting, conjoined with their seriously entertaining
(and in some cases actively working to implement) the dismantling of ordinary police
protections; and

(3) The spread throughout news media, entertainment, educational
institutions, corporate Human Resources departments, and governmental agencies
of a Maoist-style “cancel culture” that shrilly insists on a simplistic and
divisive Manichean ideology, and tries to shout down and otherwise harass
dissenters and make them infamous and unemployable. 

This confluence of trends endangers the vast majority of
citizens, particularly the poor and the middle class and small business owners.  It has little effect on the super-rich and
large corporations, who have the resources to shield themselves from the worst
effects of economic disruption and social chaos.  So, who benefits from it?  Mainly two groups: (a) revolutionaries and other
lawbreakers who profit from the breakdown in social order, and (b) governmental
officials and corporate bureaucrats (such as HR personnel looking to ferret out
insufficiently “woke” employees) seeking to expand their discretionary power
over others.  In other words, it benefits
the tyrannical personality type described
by Plato, which preys upon society from below (in the case of criminals and
revolutionaries) and from above (in the case of ideologues in positions of
power).  The law-abiding public is caught
between these two groups, as in a vise.  Indeed,
as
I have argued elsewhere
, what we are seeing with some of these
trends is eerily reminiscent of what Plato describes in the Republic as the classic mechanism by
which democracy degenerates into tyranny. 

Let’s consider each of these trends and how they threaten the
basic human goods I described above.

Lawless lockdowns

No doubt some readers have already had to wipe spittle flecks
off of their computer screens, outraged at the very suggestion that the
lockdowns might be in any way questionable. 
Such knee-jerk attitudes are precisely part of the problem I have in
mind.  I do not deny that COVID-19 is a
serious problem, and I do not deny that many of the measures taken to deal with
it (social distancing, the wearing of masks in public, etc.) are
reasonable.  I also do not deny that the
initial lockdown was justifiable as a way of keeping hospitals from being
overwhelmed – indeed, I
defended it
.  (Though in
hindsight, it was vain to hope that public officials would be willing to close
that particular Pandora’s Box once the public allowed them to open it.)

It simply doesn’t follow, though, that lockdowns were
necessary or justifiable beyond that, and it is foolish either flatly to assert
that “Lockdowns work!” or to pretend that shouting “Science!” suffices to
justify them.  To take the latter point
first, whether lockdowns are a good idea or not is not a purely scientific
question.  In addition to the
epidemiological considerations, there are questions about the effects lockdowns
have on people’s livelihoods and life savings, their repercussions for
health-related issues other than COVID-19, the psychological costs of
lockdowns, their effects on education, questions about the circumstances under
which it is ethically permissible to
impose such huge burdens on citizens, questions about the effects of lockdowns
on social and political stability, and so on. 
Epidemiologists and physicians have no special expertise on most of
these matters.  Resolving them is the
task of the statesman (Aristotle’s politikos) – not the natural scientist,
whose role is merely to provide expert but fallible advice on some aspects of the question.  To pretend otherwise is scientism,
not science
.

For another thing, “Do lockdowns work?” is the wrong
question.  Yes, considered in the
abstract, keeping someone shut up in his house makes it less likely that he is
going to catch or spread the virus.  But
of course, it also makes it less likely that he is going to be involved in a
car accident that kills either himself or another person, and it makes it less
likely that he is either going to murder someone or be murdered.  But no one thinks that lockdowns might be a
good way to reduce the incidence of traffic fatalities or murder until such
time as we can improve traffic safety and criminal justice.  So, it would be quite silly to think the
obvious fact that, in the abstract, we are “safer at home” by itself proves anything. 

There is also the fact that, as
I have argued before
, lockdowns involve actions that, under ordinary
circumstances, would be gravely unjust.  Human
beings have a natural right to labor
in order to provide for themselves and their families.  They have a natural right to gather together for religious worship.  They have a natural right to decide how best to educate their children.  They have a natural right to the liberty of action involved in ordinary
day-to-day social activities.  They have
a natural right to the stability and
predictability necessary for long-range planning, which the rule of law is
supposed to guarantee.  Interference with
these normal human activities and goods causes grave harm.  Hence, while they can in principle be
temporarily suspended when absolutely necessary in an emergency, there is a
strong presumption against this.  The
burden of proof is always on government
to demonstrate that interference with these goods is strictly necessary, and
not on citizens to show that such interference is unnecessary.

So, again, “Do lockdowns work?” is the wrong question.  The right question is: “Do we know with moral certainty that lockdowns
are strictly necessary to prevent the potential harms of the virus, and that those harms are greater than the
aggregate of harms that the lockdowns themselves cause?”  And I submit that we know no such thing, and
that continued lockdowns are, accordingly, unjustifiable and tyrannical. 

Those who are in serious danger from the virus are the
elderly and those with serious preexisting medical conditions, and not the
general population.  And it
is certainly not a serious threat to the young
.  Hence, in order to justify general lockdowns
and the closing of schools, at the very least we would have to be morally certain that quarantining only
those who are in serious danger, together with less draconian measures for the
general population (social distancing, masks, etc.), would not be
sufficient.  Note that it is not good
enough to respond that those at special risk might catch the virus from others
who are out and about in the general population.  For that is already the case even given the lockdowns that have occurred (where
grocery stores, hardware stores, and the like were not shut down).  So, what we would have to be morally certain
of is that shutting down so-called non-essential businesses
and schools
is strictly necessary, when we’re already letting lots of
businesses stay open.

Yet there is simply no evidence
that lockdowns are strictly necessary for bringing about the results desired, nor
even strong evidence that they are particularly effective in doing so.  Sweden opted to pursue herd immunity rather
than imposing draconian lockdowns, and while it had more deaths than some
countries that imposed them, it
had fewer deaths than other countries that did
.  Despite its large elderly population and
densely packed cities, Japan kept its death rate
low without a lockdown
.  Public
health experts like Johan
Giesecke
, John
Ioannides
, and Sunetra
Gupta
have long been arguing that the hoped-for benefits of lockdowns
do not outweigh the known harms.  Recently,
Greg
Ip
has usefully summarized their costs, and Donald
Luskin
the lack of statistical correlation between lockdowns and
improved outcomes vis-à-vis COVID-19.  The
most widely publicized COVID deaths – those of thousands of elderly people – resulted,
not from the absence of lockdowns, but from the policy of some states of
sending infected people back into nursing homes.  Meanwhile, it is precisely the
poor and otherwise vulnerable
who have suffered the most from
lockdowns.

The defender of lockdowns will insist that all of this
doesn’t prove that lockdowns aren’t
necessary, but the burden of proof isn’t on me or anyone else in the first
place to prove that they aren’t.  The burden
is on the defender to prove that they
are necessary, and to do so with moral certainty.  Absent such proof, governments have no
business destroying ordinary people’s livelihoods and life savings and ability
to educate their children and to plan for the future – nor any business papering
over the true costs they are imposing by pretending that it is only some
abstraction called “the economy,” rather than flesh-and-blood human beings,
that they are harming.  Absent such
proof, this destruction is tyrannical
– it is government causing grave and unjust
harm to its citizens rather than protecting them from it.

Abetting
anarchy

If there were any doubt that the government officials most enamored
of lockdowns were not acting with wisdom and justice, it was dispelled by their
reaction to the protests and rioting that began two months into the
lockdown. 

For one thing, many of the same officials who sternly forbade
large gatherings, on the grounds that they posed a grave public health hazard,
suddenly tolerated or even encouraged such gatherings when the political cause
that motivated them was one the officials sympathized with.  The justification given for this double
standard was that the cause of fighting police brutality was no less a matter
of public health than COVID-19 is. 

But
this is rank sophistry
.  First, prior
to the protests, lockdown defenders were assuring us that assembling in large
crowds and thereby facilitating spread of the virus threatened innocent lives, and was even tantamount to murder. 
So how is doing something tantamount to murder a good way to protest murder, or to prevent further
murders?

Second, the number of people who die in police shootings
annually is nowhere remotely close to the number who have died from
COVID-19.  In the United States, police
kill about
1,000 people a year
– that’s all
killings, including the ones that no one claims were unjustifiable.  Meanwhile, so far over 190,000 deaths in the U.S. have been attributed to COVID-19 this
year.  So, if your interest is in saving
as many innocent lives as possible (as lockdown defenders claim theirs is),
then how can you justify doing something that risks a vastly larger number of innocent lives in the name of protesting something that
risks fewer of them?

Third, many of the protests degenerated into riots, and riots
themselves pose threats to innocent lives, not to mention the property and
livelihoods of innocent people.

So, their response to the protests all by itself demonstrates
that those public officials who have pushed lockdowns the hardest do not have
good judgment.  But far worse even than
that was their response to the riots, vandalism, and looting that some of the
protests gave way to – which many of these public officials took no significant
action to prevent, and which some even tried to excuse or put a positive spin
on. 

Here too the justifications given were manifest
sophistries.  They amounted to arguments
like: “Person A unjustly killed Person B; therefore it is defensible (or at
least excusable, or understandable) for Person C to loot and burn down Person
D’s business.”  Moreover, those who
suffer most from rioting and looting are the
minority communities
that these public officials claim to be most
concerned for.  Even worse than that, some of these same public
officials have expressed sympathy for, and even tried to implement, calls to
“defund the police” – this despite the fact that the minority communities they
claim to be concerned for are, like the public in general, overwhelmingly
opposed to this insane policy
. 

Hence, here is what we can
know with moral certainty.  Public
officials who refuse to defend innocent people from rioters, looters, and
vandals, and who even entertain the idea of removing police protection from
them, cannot be trusted to make sound judgments about lockdowns, or pretty much
anything else for that matter.  They
manifestly do not have the best interests of law-abiding citizens at heart,
and/or lack even rudimentary common sense. 
And occasionally,
the
mask drops
and their true concerns are revealed.

It is difficult to overstate the gravity of what has been
happening, for it is far worse and more diabolical than the ordinary corruption
of which politicians are often guilty.  A
corrupt politician breaks the law himself, but nevertheless typically keeps the
law in place, pays lip service to it, and even upholds it when others break it.  But what we are seeing with this one-two
punch of arbitrary lockdowns and tolerance of criminality is the subversion of
the most basic function of government.  Governments
have themselves been directly causing
grave harm to the livelihoods and businesses of innocent citizens, and then have
refused to defend those citizens when criminals and anarchists looted and
burned down those businesses, and thereby destroyed those livelihoods.  Law-abiding citizens are punished and their
protections removed, while lawbreakers are treated with kid gloves and their
criminality is facilitated.  This is perverse, the direction of government
toward what is positively contrary to
its fundamental purpose under natural law. 
It is government undermining rather than upholding the basic
preconditions of the social order.

Empowering
ideologues

If lockdowns threaten the material goods we need as a kind of
animal, and anarchy threatens the
goods we need as social animals, the
“cancel culture” and the “woke” ideologues pushing it threaten the goods we
need as rational social animals. 

They do so, first of all, in their methods, insofar as they
shamelessly deploy elementary logical fallacies as their basic mode of
engagement with those they disagree with.   For example, they routinely assert simplistic
slogans unbacked by argument, and sweepingly dismiss opposing views as
“racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” or otherwise “bigoted” – where
whether such characterizations are fair, and whether the slogans are true, is
precisely what is at issue between the wokesters and their critics (so that the
wokesters are routinely guilty of the fallacy of begging the question). 

They routinely question the motives of their opponents rather
than addressing their arguments, dismiss them as “racists,” “bigots,” etc., and
dissuade others from paying them heed by way of mockery (the fallacies of appeal to motive, abusive ad hominem, and appeal
to ridicule
).  They relentlessly
distort the views of their opponents, putting on them the most sinister and
uncharitable interpretations possible (the straw
man
fallacy).  And needless to say,
they can barely utter a sentence without committing a fallacy of appeal to emotion.

Worst of all, they try to intimidate their opponents into
silence by stirring up Twitter mobs against them, doxing them, working to get
them fired from their jobs, making them infamous and unemployable, and so forth
(the fallacy of appeal to force). 

Of course, most human beings are prone to committing such
fallacies from time to time, especially in political contexts.  What is new and different about “cancel
culture” is that it represents a mass
movement
that has self-consciously adopted these tactics as a method for
securing political victories and social change. 
And the tactics reflect, not the occasional lapses of rationality to
which we are all prone, but ideologies that reject the very idea of neutral and
dispassionate rational discourse.  Political
conflict is interpreted as essentially a war
of wills
between competing identity groups or economic interests, rather
than an honest disagreement between minds sharing a common set of basic
assumptions and standards of argumentation. 
Accordingly, the desired outcome is interpreted as the imposition of one’s own will (or the will of
one’s interest group) on the other
, rather than the persuasion of fellow
rational agents via argument.

Hence, the wokester or Social Justice Warrior tends, I would
suggest, to be of what I have elsewhere called the
“voluntarist personality type.”
 
And the dulling of his reason and content of his opinions tend, I would
argue, to have two deeper sources, the envy characteristic
of the egalitarian ideologue
and the blindness
of mind of those deeply enmeshed in sexual vice
.   As
Plato warns us in the Republic
,
egalitarian envy and disordered sexual desire are the seeds from which tyranny
grows within the late stages of a democracy. 

In any event, what we find in “cancel culture” are several of
what Aquinas characterizes as sins against the peace of a community, such as discord
and strife.  And in both its content and the inspiration
it gives to the rioters, vandals, and looters, it also manifests the sins of sedition
and of hatred
of one’s own country
.  For
instance, it demonizes the United States and its institutions as wicked to
their very foundations, on the basis of crackpot historical claims that serious
historians (including left-wing historians) have debunked
.  And on the basis of crackpot
social science
, it sows hatred and paranoia by demonizing
an entire race
as so deeply permeated by evil that its members are
unaware that everything they say and do manifests that evil.  (Some left-wing critics have
pointed out
the essentially “Hitlerian” character of these so-called
“anti-racist” theories, the only difference from Nazi ideology being which race is demonized.)  Such calumnies divide citizens into
inherently hostile camps, provide a rationalization for extremism and violence,
and render impossible the compromise, good will, and solidarity that a stable
political order requires.

And once again, the same government officials most favorable
toward lockdowns, and least inclined to put a stop to rioting, vandalism, and
looting, and are also the least inclined to criticize “cancel culture” and its
excesses.  Do the math.

Plato the
prophet

The sudden and dramatic disruption of the preconditions of
everyday social life represented by these three trends has, unsurprisingly, had
as its sequel an
alarming increase in general anxiety and despair
.  But that merely accelerated a trend that
already existed
due to the more gradual breakdown in the fundamental social institution, the
family.  That breakdown is also the true
root cause of the poverty
and crime
that underlie contemporary social unrest. 
And of course, the breakdown of the family is in turn due primarily to
the Sexual Revolution. 

Now, liberals and those further to the Left have more or less
been in agreement on the Sexual Revolution, and happy to go along with its
destruction of the restraints on desire that have traditionally safeguarded the
stability of the family.  The difference
is that liberals nevertheless wanted to preserve
the stability of bourgeois financial and political institutions.  This was the Clintonian Democrat/socially
liberal Republican “bourgeois bohemian” dream: You can have your sexual license
and a safe neighborhood, a flourishing 401(k), and some flag-waving too. 

But the woke Left, which is now pushing aside the liberals,
wants to tear it all down – the family,
the market economy, police, patriotism, and the rule of law, which it would
replace with the rule of ever-evolving woke diktat.  The liberals are “nice nihilists,” to borrow
a phrase from
Alex Rosenberg
.  The woke Left, not
so nice.  Liberals, like termites
hollowing out the inside of a tree, destroyed the core social institution of the family.  And now the wokesters want to blast away the
empty outward husk too.  There is in them
a complete sickness of soul, an
unquenchable lust for destruction, that is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Demons,
Nietzsche’s tarantulas, or Plato’s
tyrannical man. 

Again, I
have argued elsewhere
that Plato’s analysis illuminates our current
situation.  Recall his classification of
five basic types of political order, and the way they reflect different character
types or conditions of the soul.  The
human psyche, Plato tells us, has three parts: the rational part, the spirited
part
(the part of us that is moved by considerations of honor and shame),
and the appetites.  The well-ordered soul is one in which the rational
part is in charge and the spirited part is its ally in keeping the appetites in
check.  A disordered soul is one in which
this order of things is upended in one of several ways, some of them worse than
others.  The best political regime is one
in which the well-ordered soul is honored, and those possessed of it are in
charge.  The four bad regimes, each worse
than the preceding one, are those which are dominated by increasingly more disordered
souls.

In particular, the ideal regime in Plato’s account is, of
course, the reign of philosopher-kings,
who are not just any old type of philosopher but, specifically, those committed
to a broadly
Platonic
metaphysics and ethics. 
Again, this is analogous to the kind of soul in which reason dominates
the spirited part and the appetites, and it is the kind of society in which
that kind of soul is idealized.  Its
ideal human being would be the man who has forsaken the cares of the world for
the contemplation of eternal truth and mystical union with the Form of the
Good.

The second kind of regime – bad compared to the reign of the
philosopher-kings, but the least bad
of the unjust political orders – is timocracy.  The character type that predominates in this
kind of society is one in which the spirited part of the soul is dominant.  The military man, rather than the Platonic
philosopher, is its ideal, and virtues like courage and self-sacrifice are the
ones most honored.  Because it puts honor
above the disinterested pursuit of truth, it is inferior to the reign of the
philosopher-kings.  But because it
nevertheless subordinates the pull of the appetites to considerations of honor
and shame, it retains a measure of nobility.

The third kind of regime is oligarchy, by which Plato essentially has in mind the sort of society
oriented toward commerce and the accumulation of wealth.  The character type that dominates it, and
which it idealizes, is the capitalist. 
This sort of regime is inferior to timocracy, and much inferior to the
reign of the philosopher-kings, because the appetites have now come to dominate
society and those who govern it.  However,
the disorder of the soul is still not complete in an oligarchy, because
accumulating and securing wealth requires putting some check on the appetites. 
Hence oligarchies will honor bourgeois virtues like thrift, the delaying
of gratification, regard for law and order, and concern for respectability.  Oligarchic man is stolid even if not terribly
inspiring or noble. 

The fourth kind of regime is democracy, by which Plato has in mind the sort of society that
prizes freedom and equality above all else. 
In particular, its tendency is to regard every desire and every way of
life as equally good, and to resent any suggestion that some desires and ways
of life are bad or even inferior to others. 
“Do your own thing” is its ethos, and tolerance is its most prized
virtue.  The character type that prevails
in this sort of society is one so dominated by appetite that even the bourgeois
virtues of the oligarch are gradually undermined.  Relativism and irrationalism also become
prevalent, because the very idea of objective standards of goodness and truth
becomes odious to egalitarian man.

The only thing worse than that sort of society, in Plato’s
view, is the kind it tends to degenerate into, which is tyranny.  In a certain kind
of soul within egalitarian society, the dominance of appetite and resentment of
social constraints become so overwhelming that it is not satisfied with being
left alone to do its own thing.  It wants
to impose itself on others.  The laid
back hippie becomes the bitter revolutionary, and “free love and free stuff” something
to be secured by the ammo box rather than the ballot box.  For Plato, tyranny is not the opposite of democracy as he understands
it, but its culmination.

The Evil
Party and the Stupid Party

See my
recent American Mind article

for more on Plato’s analysis, and in particular on why he thinks there is a
tendency for each kind of regime to give way over time to the next and worse
kind.  Naturally, I wouldn’t endorse
every detail of Plato’s political philosophy. 
But the broad outlines of his analysis of the main types of regime and
the character types they reflect are, I think, illuminating.  I would suggest that what we are seeing in
current events may turn out to be something like the transition he described
between democracy and tyranny.  And I
think Plato’s analysis also sheds light on the nature of contemporary American
politics more generally.

For most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, both
the Republican and Democratic parties have essentially been oligarchic, in Plato’s sense.  The difference between them, especially in
recent decades, is this.  The Republicans
have been more inclined to celebrate the military virtues and patriotism, so
that there is in their view of things at least an echo of timocracy in Plato’s
sense; and to the extent that they have also been more inclined to praise
traditional religious belief and restraint on the appetites, there is even a
faint echo of the otherworldliness of the philosopher-king.  Meanwhile, the Democrats have in recent
decades become less comfortable with religion and patriotism, while at the same
time enthusiastically championing the Sexual Revolution, feminism, and, in
general, radical egalitarianism and liberation from traditional restraints on
appetite.  Hence their trajectory has
clearly been in the direction of democracy
as Plato understands it; and insofar as in recent years they have begun
flirting with outright socialism, there is even an echo of tyranny in Plato’s sense. 
More than an echo, in the case of the wokesters. 

Republican senator Alan Simpson once famously said: “We have
two political parties in this country, the Stupid Party and the Evil Party.  I belong to the Stupid Party.”  I’ve long thought that that’s a pretty apt
description of modern right- and left-wing political parties in general.  Naturally, I don’t mean that every
right-winger is stupid or that every left-winger is evil.  But the general tendency of modern left-wing
parties is to push us ever further in the trajectory of what the Platonic
analysis would regard as social and political degeneracy.  And the general tendency of right-wing
political parties has been to resist this trajectory, but in a way that is
timid, inconsistent, incompetent, and at best only temporarily effective – and
of course, in a way that rarely aims for anything higher than what Plato calls
oligarchy, even if it resists the lower sorts of regime.  That is unsurprising, for the overall
trajectory of modern Western society is itself
leftward and democratic in Plato’s sense. 
And the trend is accelerating, and has worked its way into right-wing
parties themselves.

Holding actions, half-hearted, badly implemented, barely
effective, and bound to fail eventually, seem to be the best we can
realistically hope for from politics for the foreseeable future.  What I said just over four years ago goes
double now: Never has the Stupid Party been more stupid, or the Evil Party more
evil.

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