Fear Is a Viral Monster

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American Institute for Economic Research

Reading the late Hans Rosling’s 2018 book, Factfulness, during the summer of 2020 creates a sensation of surrealness that would have been absent had I read this volume in 2018 or 2019. On nearly every page of Factfulness Rosling busts the popular myth that we denizens of modernity face imminent calamities that will destroy us and the earth. Widespread fears – such as of overpopulation, of terrorism, and of the rich getting richer while the poor stagnate – are methodically revealed to be either completely unjustified or exorbitantly exaggerated.

But today, in the midst of the ongoing lockdowns and with no end in sight to the hysteria over COVID, I’ve lost all of the natural optimism that has long resided within me and that would have otherwise been fortified by Rosling’s splendid work.

The image that keeps coming into my head is of a sledgehammer. With brute force, a blunt and heavy instrument was swung down on society by the state. Sledgehammers crush. They demolish. That’s their only function. They do not build. And for as long as the dreadful weight of this particular sledgehammer – the massive mallet that is the COVID-19 lockdown – continues to press down on the rubble that it caused, there is very little opportunity for the human creativity and work effort unleashed by markets to bring about the kind of improvements that Rosling documents.

An invisible virus is the perfect troublemaker to portray as an existential monster. Like an evil spirit, it can live, usually silently, within the breast of each of us. And so if a large enough number of us can be convinced that an unseen, vile monster lurks in everyone else, the resulting widespread fear empowers government officials to do what government officials do best – and what they’ve done so horribly over the past five months: destroy.

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