The Paradox of Specialization
“That it may live better, [society] creates the state as an instrument. Then [it] gains the upper hand and society has to begin to live for the state… We become dependent on barbarians of specialization.”—Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses.
Why does it sometimes feel that the nation has been invaded by barbarians? Viral goths are running rampant through the land, laying waste to everything in their paths.
The Los Angeles Times reports widespread disruption of the supply chains that supply food to the country. In the US, schools, stadia, Starbucks, theaters, parks, restaurants, beaches, gyms, tennis courts, airports, lie barred or abandoned. Working out by himself, Tom Brady is ushered out of a Tampa park by police.
But for all the tragic-comic outrages in the US, damage in the third world is vastly more crushing. Contending that the global lockdown may be the “Greatest Mistake in History,” Dennis Prager cites the closures that are ravaging the economy of India and wreaking mass starvation there. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that by the end of the year 260 million people will face starvation.
Prager quotes Michael Levitt, professor of structural biology at Stanford Medical School and winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in chemistry, “There is no doubt in my mind that when we come to look back on this, the damage done by lockdown will exceed any saving of lives by a huge factor.”
The Good Doctor
Anthony Fauci, by all reports, is an exemplary physician. He’s “The Good Doctor,” as a fascinating April 20 New Yorker biographic article by Michael Specter enshrines him. Today, nearly all our investments are in his hands.
Apart from The New Yorker tic of blaming Donald Trump for all the world’s defects, from bad weather to viruses to male sexuality, this article affords a valuable view of the mindset behind the catastrophic response to COVID-19. It also illustrates the Damoclean threat this mentality poses to the American future.
Specter concludes with a revealing quote from Fauci: “I give the appearance of being optimistic. But, deep down, I just do everything I possibly can, assuming that the worst will happen, and I’ve got to stop the worst from happening.”
Hey, he’s a doctor, a specialist in infectious diseases. His job is to stop his patients from dying of infections. Under this mandate, pretty much anything goes. Now he is effectively assuming political power in an effort to stop what he fears is the possibility of millions of deaths from the coronavirus.
Here we encounter the paradox of specialization. Every specialist has his own special doomsday theory on which the cautionary principle justifies any expenditure of money, loss of freedom, or imposition of regulatory power. The paradox is that one specialist can have his way and do good in a limited domain. But if all have their way, the doomsday they are trying to stop becomes inevitable.
If it is not a pandemic, it’s an incoming meteor or bioterror menace, or rise of foreign terrestrial, space-based or naval power, or threat to the power grid, or rise of coastal waters, or electromagnetic pulse (EMP), or the San Andreas fault, or genetically modified crops, or carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), or 5G microwaves, or asbestos fibers. I could go on and on, but every threat has specialists devoted to it, and lawyers litigating it, and doomsday Adventist experts determined that no measures are too extreme to combat it. Some of the threats are actually real. But all are urgent and demand dictatorial power and huge expenditures to overcome.
At any time in history a projection of the dangers and impending scarcities would have shown the human enterprise untenable. It is an essentially religious faith that the world makes sense that underlies all scientific and technological progress and entrepreneurial creativity.
As I wrote in Wealth and Poverty some 40 years ago, “modern civilization is hopelessly contingent and problematical, subject to destruction any day by possible climatic reversals, astrophysical mishaps, meteors, mutations, genetic plagues, nuclear conflicts, geological convulsions and atmospheric transformations — all conceivable catastrophes originating beyond the ken of plausible remedy or control.”
If we try to battle all these threats at once, we will end up wasting all our wealth on windmills, strewing them across the environment, or tilting with them like Don Quixote. We will resort to ever more stifling controls that will suppress the unexpected boons of creativity that have always been the source of our prosperity and success.
We will invest in problems rather than in opportunities and end up without either wealth or freedom. The human race has prevailed against the plagues and scarcities of its past, not through regulation or lockdown but through creativity and faith.
State planning killed close to a billion people in the 20th century. Led by the banning of DDT, the resurgence of malaria, the suppression of nuclear power, and the retardation of global growth, environmentalist excesses have already killed more people than environmental pollution ever did. Now the expert response to the coronavirus is on track to exceed even environmentalism in its vast damage of our civilization.
Now in the name of fighting COVID-19, we are destroying the monetary underpinnings of capitalist markets with untold trillions of dollars of wanton spending and crony bailouts. We are closing down much of the economy for months on end. We are jeopardizing food supplies and other medical services. We are giving up world leadership in technology to Communists in China. We are condoning a devastating blow to the economies of Third World countries that unlike the US cannot merely print dollars and expect people to take them.
This is President Trump’s moment. Either he stops this catastrophe, or he becomes complicit in the barbarism.
Editor, Gilder’s Daily Prophecy