Wednesday, February 23, 2022
From the beginning of the pandemic, technocratic elites have offered us a dubious bill of goods. Aided and abetted by the media and by many academics, politicians proffered—indeed, likely believed—the idea that the pandemic would go away if everyone just did as they were told. “If everyone wore a mask for two weeks …” became a telltale refrain, a claim that was neither true nor possible. Pundits celebrated President Joe Biden’s ill-fated “hundred days of masking,” which promised “just 100 days to mask, not forever.” This habit of exaggeration and blind optimism among elites helps explain gaffes like Biden’s bizarre claim during his campaign that every single pandemic death could have been averted by better leadership.
Choices needed to be made, and leaders got some right (accelerating vaccine research) and others wrong (failing to protect the elderly). In other instances, they missed opportunities, failing to strengthen policies like sick leave that would improve our resilience—a topic almost entirely avoided by political elites, who prefer to blame the pandemic’s consequences on a handful of dissenters. But in acting as if their policy choices came from scientific omniscience, elites minimized the messiness of the real world—in which chance, trust, and voluntary decisions all play a crucial role.
Today, the plerophory of elites—born of hubris and unbridled self confidence—is bearing bitter fruit. For some, the overselling of policy has led them to religiouslike zeal and dogmatism about particular interventions. For others, it has led to a complete loss of faith in institutions like the CDC, the FDA, and the NIH, which depend on public trust in order to fulfill their missions. Masking was simultaneously described as a panacea—better than a vaccine, in the memorable words of the former CDC director—yet it wasn’t good enough to quickly reopen many closed schools, even given that an unvaccinated child faced lower risk than a vaccinated grandparent. The arbitrariness of the resulting policy recommendations and mandates is etched into the many photographs of masked kids, sometimes posed with unmasked politicians, that will likely come to represent much of our badly flawed pandemic response.