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 )
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, )
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, , 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.
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, . (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 .
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, 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., lockdowns involve actions that, under ordinary circumstances, would be gravely unjust.
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 . 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 Sweden opted to pursue herd immunity rather than imposing draconian lockdowns, and while it had more deaths than some countries that imposed them, . Despite its large elderly population and densely packed cities, . Public health experts like , , and have long been arguing that the hoped-for benefits of lockdowns do not outweigh the known harms. Recently, has usefully summarized their costs, and 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 who have suffered the most from lockdowns. that lockdowns are strictly necessary for bringing about the results desired, nor even strong evidence that they are particularly effective in doing so.
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.
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 – 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 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, .
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 , and .
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.
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 And the dulling of his reason and content of his opinions tend, I would argue, to have two deeper sources, the and the . , 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 And in both its content and the inspiration it gives to the rioters, vandals, and looters, it also manifests the sins of and of . For instance, it demonizes the United States and its institutions as wicked to their very foundations, on the basis of crackpot historical claims that . And on the basis of , it sows hatred and paranoia by as so deeply permeated by evil that its members are unaware that everything they say and do manifests that evil. (Some left-wing critics 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 .
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 But that merely accelerated a trend due to the more gradual breakdown in the fundamental social institution, the family. That breakdown is also the true root cause of the and 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 , Nietzsche’s , 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 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. metaphysics and ethics.
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 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 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.
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.