The Fatal Conceit: Whose Fault Is the Disastrous Response to Coronavirus?

Who is to blame for the disastrous coronavirus response? The finger pointing is well under way, and with November’s elections approaching it is only going to be amplified. The left, to no one’s surprise, blames Trump. Early on, the right blamed Nancy Pelosi for wasting America’s time with a phony impeachment trial when the virus was already spreading. Dr. Anthony Fauci now seems to be the new popular target for the right. Government officials, like Andrew Cuomo, will blame private organizations when their mandated plan fails. China and the World Health Organization will get what many feel is well-deserved blame while others cry foul.

The only consensus is that no one will accept any responsibility. Pride goes before the fall and the “shut everything down” response has devastated people economically and eroded our civil liberties.

Partisanship will be the driving force on how the history of this crisis will be recorded.

Americans will align with their respected “team,” blame the “fools” on the other side, and claim if their chosen “expert” had been in charge, things would have been different. In the end, history tells us, both sides will allow the government to permanently grab more control over our lives than ever before.

What if this hyper partisanship is blinding us to where the actual blame should be laid?

The groundwork for the disastrous response to the virus was already in place well before the Trump administration had power, well before Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House. In fact, there is no one person, event, or party to blame. Who is to blame? We all are, along with our ever-growing acceptance of the belief that “experts” can plan our lives and save us from crisis with a well formulated plan. The real danger with this mindset is when the “experts” we put in charge start believing it too.

F.A. Hayek called this “The Fatal Conceit.”

When control is concentrated at the top we severely limit the knowledge available to decision makers. Local and time-specific knowledge can only be possessed by those who are there, on the ground. A scientist or bureaucrat cannot possibly know the unique individual details that make up thousands of different communities across the United States. Within these communities are millions of individual people that all feel, act, shop, worship, run businesses, and interact with each other in particular ways. This knowledge is known only to the people there locally, and this knowledge is critical in knowing how to respond effectively to the virus.

A central planner cannot possibly know the situation on the ground. Even if knowledge could be relayed to a central planner, by the time it arrived, a decision was made, and communicated back to the locality, the situation would probably have changed, rendering the central planner’s decision irrelevant. Why? Because people plan and make decisions based on the local knowledge available to them in the moment. This knowledge is always changing and it is only available to those who are there.

Letting central planners dictate responses to localities and individuals is essentially flying blind. America and most of the world have been flying blind through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past several decades there has been an increasing centralization of planning and control of the economy, especially in areas such as health care, not only on the national level but internationally as well. Increasingly, decision making power has been removed from localities and placed into the hands of bureaucracies in Washington D.C. or taken from sovereign nations and placed in the hands of global organizations such as the WHO or the EU.

At the beginning of the 20th century, around sixty percent of total U.S. government expenditures was spent at the local level. Fast forward to today: local government only makes up twenty-five percent of total U.S. government spending. This trend speaks to the continual centralization of power in the hands of a few out-of-touch bureaucrats tucked away in an out-of-touch city.

When economic planning is concentrated at the top, political centralization subsequently follows. What emerges when political forces become so intertwined with the scientific, especially during a crisis, is a singular perspective and response. The experts across the globe seemed to unilaterally accept the use of the model from the Imperial College of London (ICL) as the gold standard to base policy decisions around. The model contained a variety of scenarios, but what the planners latched onto was the worst-case, do nothing scenario predicting 2.2 million deaths in the U.S.

This model helped give way to the “shut everything down” response witnessed both nationally and internationally.

Dissenting experts have already pointed out how this model was never truly valid to begin with. As soon as people became aware of the virus they began reacting and planning. Masks and hand sanitizer were quickly bought up. People began voluntarily social distancing and businesses began making decisions to protect their employees and customers. But experts and central planners were using a model that assumed people would do nothing, and their policies reflected that.

Americans widely accepted these policy decisions early on. Panic had set in, and it was reasonable considering how little we knew. When knowledge is scarce, overreaction is natural. People wanted to know the risks, how deadly the virus was, how infectious it was, and most of all everyone wanted to know if they had coronavirus. But the concentration of decision making power handcuffed local medical experts from quickly delivering much needed testing, and through that the knowledge required to plan appropriately was not available.

The fatal conceit found within a one-size fits all solution, backed by political powers, can quite easily lead to the diminishment of diverse viewpoints and even the censorship of opposing perspectives. People with expertise, simply reflecting on their experiences, raising questions, and offering their opinions, have been silenced across different platforms. It is times like these when we need a diversity of perspectives from individuals who are experts on their communities, localities, businesses, and fields. When people across societal levels can contribute freely, it allows for a much more comprehensive response.

History is littered with despots who caused untold suffering and death to their people because they possessed this fatal conceit, and believed they knew better than anyone else. This mindset is not limited to the dictators and tyrants that fill our history books, but plagues everyday politicians and bureaucrats who think they have a plan for the rest of us. Leaders need to have the humility to recognize that many plans made up by individuals who have intimate knowledge of their circumstances are far superior than one plan handed down by a central planner. Through these many plans we can efficiently discover and share the knowledge needed to combat the crisis at hand. The world needs a lot more Hayek and less Keynes.

Learn more about this topic in The Deadly Isms Ep 4: Things Dictators Don’t Know.

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Mike Feuz

Mike is the Research Associate at Free the People and a grassroots activist in Virginia politics. When he isn't trying to fight the machine, he's busy being a dad to his two boys. With the little free time he has left, he spends it pursuing his graduate work in economics at George Mason University.

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