The spate of restrictive measures aimed at the coronavirus has revealed a crisis of authority. A lot of Americans are not following the rules, and they do not recognize the right of the rulemakers to command them. Masks and social distancing have become partisan issues, with many on the Right actively resisting restrictions and questioning their underlying wisdom.
Young people, for no particularly ideological reasons, simply want to live and are also ignoring most of these restrictions. While half the people have had enough, the other half are aghast at what they consider a rebellion against common sense and common decency.
The vacuum of respected authority means that we cannot do what other countries have done more easily in the name of public health. We cannot do much of anything these days: have safe streets, build a wall, or preserve our industrial power.
Someday when something more drastic occurs—a war of self-defense, a more virulent public health crisis, or a natural disaster—it’s doubtful that what is necessary can or will be done. Americans no longer trust the government and the ruling class to advance the common good during a crisis.
Roots of Authority
Where does authority—and its corollary, obedience—come from? There’s more than one kind of authority; that of your parents is different from that of your boss, and both of these are different from the authority of a policeman. Societies of course differ in how they are ruled. But all of these figures—kings and dads, governors and constables—depend upon their authority to accomplish the tasks of their jobs.
Whether it is rooted in experience, wisdom, courage, birth, or virtue, all political authority derives from a belief that a leader is fit for the job. Which is most important depends on the culture of the society. But, in every case, authority derives from a belief that those in command deserve the job, are better at it than the common man, and, therefore, have the right to rule.
Authority rises and falls based on perceived responsibility and empathy. For a ruler’s authority truly to be respected, ultimately he must demonstrate some concern for you, your family’s welfare, and the general flourishing of people like you. Someone who is superior and hostile may be feared and even respected—in the same sense one respects a capable adversary—but he would not have authority.
Societies will endure curfews and rationing during a crisis. Soldiers will suffer great privation and near-certain death out of a sense of duty to their mission. But no one willingly suffers for things they consider meaningless. A stupid, unnecessary risk is an affront, a squandering of trust. If the rulers do not appear concerned for your welfare, do not share your burdens, and are willing to sacrifice the general welfare to advance their personal interests, they put their authority in jeopardy.
Finally, there must be some justice. Rewards and honors should flow regularly, predictably, and to the right sorts, just as punishments and dishonor should be dispensed to wrongdoers. If the rules and the application of them is wholly arbitrary, the only lesson for the little people is “don’t get caught” and “there’s no way to get ahead.”
This is what Sam Francis had in mind with his concept of anarcho-tyranny. In such a regime, the full weight of the government is simultaneously applied against one group, while completely loosened from another. One type of person is given a heavy sentence for vandalism, while a violent thug is freed to commit more mischief.
If one group consistently is favored at another’s expense, the out-group may deem it “necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.”
America’s Hostile Ruling Class
While democratic government pays homage to the people as rulers, that’s always been something of a fiction in practice. Along these lines, conservatives used to be fond of saying America is not really a democracy, but a republic. But over the last 100 years, it has moved far beyond even that. All of our major institutions—universities, corporations, government, and media—are now ruled by an increasingly insular managerial class that is defined by its credentials and common opinions.
Urban, degreed, conformist, and operating within a closed system, they lack the independence of a true aristocracy, the courage and practicality of warriors, or the noble birth and sense of stewardship that used to be expected of kings. They are mediocre by design, prone to ambition and groupthink, and, lately, naked self-interest.
The ones doing the voting and the buying are not the same as those doing the ruling and the selling, and everyone knows it. Whether it is geography, wealth, or tastes, the people in charge and those being ruled have little in common.
The coronavirus crisis is just the last in a series of events that have undermined the authority of the ruling class. After 9/11 and Iraq, the American people endured and accepted a great deal of inconvenience to make us safer. But when weapons of mass destruction didn’t materialize in Iraq, and we heard the umpteenth defense of mass immigration from places filled with people who want to kill us seconds after they actually did so, the gap between the official line and reality was impossible to conceal. Clearly, another logic was at work.
Similarly, after the 2009 economic crisis, in spite of all the talk of belt-tightening and the need to reform a risky financial system, we instead saw tons of money poured into connected enterprises, while homeowners and small businessmen were devastated. The Obamacare system further crushed those outside the managerial system, particularly small businesses, sole proprietors, and young people starting their lives.
Just as things started to seem better, the coronavirus hit. We were told the entire country needed to shut down so we could “flatten the curve.” Stay home and save lives. People accepted this, more or less. Like increased airport security after 9/11, it had a certain logic to it. The virus looked serious, and the experts were making increasingly dire predictions.
But the pain was spread unevenly. Millions, mostly in the private sector, lost their jobs and couldn’t pay their bills. Those who still had jobs lived like people under house arrest. We were all in this together . . . but we were not.
We were soon reminded of the privileges of the ruling class. The left-wing mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, decided she needed a haircut, even when she forbade others to get them. “I felt like I needed to have a haircut,” she said, barely defending her actions.
CNN’s Chris Cuomo gave a star performance as an ailing victim of the coronavirus, constantly criticizing Republicans and the president for their more laissez-faire attitudes. But, in his spare time, he was gallivanting off to the Hamptons. When confronted by an overzealous local, Cuomo protested, “I can do what I want!” Indeed, he can; he’s not one of the little people.
On a larger scale, the media and political class’s apologies for rioters shouting messages favored by the progressive elite, while lambasting beachgoers and shutdown protests, was simply too much to bear. Reflexive exceptions for themselves and their friends are the marks of a ruling class buttressed by callow disregard for ordinary people and deception.
The Coronavirus Crisis Breaks the System
The ruling class purports to base its authority on science, but science doesn’t mean much without some basic honesty. First masks were bad, then they were good. Were we not supposed to notice? They said we had “15 days to flatten the curve.” It did not do much good, so instead of revisiting the assumptions behind this inhumane policy, some cities have been shut down for months.
A handful of red states, including Florida and Texas, decided to reopen. People went out to the beach, got haircuts, got a drink, and saw their friends. Jobs came back. In spite of predictions, deaths kept dropping throughout June and July. Old deaths had to be unearthed to keep the narrative going.
Now that the parade of horribles is not materializing, new goalposts are being erected—such as the number of cases. New outlandish predictions, much like those we endured only a month ago, are being repeated constantly. When is it over?
The people in charge are barely affected by what they have imposed. While millions are unemployed, very few government workers are experiencing pay cuts or layoffs as a result of the coronavirus. Internet multinationals have thrived, while brick and mortar businesses have foundered. There are winners and losers in this crisis, and they align closely with those already favored or disfavored by the ruling class.
There are times when a society must do something drastic, costly, and painful in order to avoid greater costs and greater pains. Wartime restrictions are the most prominent example, but extreme measures to preserve law and order and public health are close seconds.
None of this can happen, however, without genuine authority, and we can’t have that without some trust. Recent events have squandered whatever trust was left in the people for the ruling class. It’s worse than the boy who cried wolf. It’s the boy who cried wolf in order to enrich and empower himself and got caught.
While there have always been disagreements about what exactly constitutes the common good, it is now a question of whether there is even such a thing as a common good. We live in the same nation and are similarly situated to the rest of the world. We stand together when facing the faceless brutality of nature, including its deadly diseases. But we are not similarly situated to the legal regime, our economic vulnerability, or our values and priorities. Thus, the ruling class does not command the respect or obedience of nearly half the country.
To the extent the government commands any obedience and respect, they will find it chiefly among the managerial class and its clients, who are concentrated in the blue states and the blue cities. This includes the very rich, the very poor, and government workers.
On the other side are the productive members of the private sector, for whom these various rules and restrictions range from annoying to devastating. In other words, the ruling elite and its clients are engaged in a pincer movement against the property-owning middle class with meddlesome bureaucrats harrying them on one side and wild mobs coming for them on the other. The middle class is becoming self-conscious of the fact that it is now an oppressed group. This is not a tenable situation.
There are solutions to this. A more robust federalism might solve the problem, as we could each live according to our own lights in our respective corners of the country. But the progressive ideology does not allow for deviation or diversity, ironically enough.
The Declaration of Independence is a storied document of America’s founding and a powerful testament to the values of a young America. But it also is a story of things being so intolerable, that the old authority is lost, and separation is the best course for mutually hostile neighbors. The coronavirus and its mask mandates have unmasked a hostile ruling class that does not deserve our obedience.