America Deserves a Second Opinion

Dr. Fauci’s latest admission of a noble lie to the New York Times — that he has “slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts” of his public herd immunity estimates “partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks” — drew apt comparisons to the disappointing elite described in Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public.

Antonio García Martínez tweeted in reaction, “I see @mgurri and the unsustainability of elite authority everywhere I look now.”

Dr. Fauci is the perfect archetype of Gurri’s Olympian technocrat, an elite man of the “center” whose mastery of esoteric knowledge has granted him the privilege of distance from the public. His foil, President Trump, is the perfect archetype of Gurri’s tribune of the deplorables, a man of the “border” whose mastery of communicating sectarian rage won him the bully pulpit in order to take the Faucis of the world down a peg.

Dr. Fauci is a good man. He has devoted his life and estimable technical gifts to the public weal. His role in PEPFAR alone, not to mention Operation Warp Speed, should seal his place in the book of noble public servants. Nonetheless, he is a leader elevated in a bygone era whose virtues are wrong for the present age.

In a world of institutional monopoly on technical knowledge and societal narrative — the industrial information ecosystem of the 20th Century — the license to tell the noble lie was one of the highest badges of elite merit. Aspiring technocrats day dreamt in Ivy League libraries of the public crisis during which they might be called upon to lie to the naive face of Joe Public for his own good, all while feeling a warm glow of both intellectual superiority and moral rectitude.

Yet in a world where the flow of information is less like that of a unidirectional command through an industrial hierarchy and more like that of a leaking industrial solvent corroding the pipes that carry it, the noble lie (once revealed) is a grave threat to what shred of public trust in institutions remains.

Revealing the noble lie at this juncture, when public trust in authority is not an abstraction but an essential prerequisite to the widespread adoption of world-saving vaccines, is a devastatingly bad judgment call that can only come from someone as bright and well-intentioned as Dr. Fauci when he is being loyal to an institutional value system that made the noble lie a key feature of his public-health ministerial portfolio.

If we want a “legitimate hierarchy” — the kind that might be able to achieve the requisite buy in for a world-saving vaccine — we now require new virtues and values among our leaders.

As Gurri himself writes, “The qualities I would look for among elites to get politics off this treadmill are honesty and humility: old-school virtues, long accepted to be the living spirit behind the machinery of the democratic republic, though now almost lost from sight.”

I leave it to the reader to determine whether the clinical mien of Dr. Fauci evinces humility.

Needless to say, the noble lie is not honesty. Since Dr. Fauci is a good man loyal to public well-being he should use his technocratic perch to communicate to our budding next generation of elites that the time has come for a new ethic of elite truth-telling that aligns the esoteric and exoteric narratives.

The development of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is a triumph of the elite — a technical problem solved. While the elite are competent at solving technical problems, they mistook this ability for the capacity to solve social problems. As Gurri puts it:

Modern government’s original sin is pride. It was elected on a boast — that it can solve any “problem,” even to fixing the human condition — and it endures on a sickly diet of utopian expectations. We now know better. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have understood that even the most brutal application of power cannot redeem the human lot.

Martin Gurri, The Revolt of the Public (Stripe Press 2018), 424.

It is revealing that Dr. Fauci’s noble lie centered around the concept of herd immunity. Given the development of multiple safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, herd immunity in large part becomes a function of public adoption of the inoculation, which in turn is in large part a function of public trust in authority.

Fauci’s increasing confidence in the public’s willingness to get the jabs led him to reveal that herd immunity was further away than he previously told. The logic of this communication strategy — to this observer at least — is not immediately obvious. Presumably Fauci’s thinking was that the public should not be demoralized by a goal that is too far away as to appear unattainable, as that demoralization would lead too many citizens to forego the vaccine, effectively thinking “since we’ll never get to 90%, what’s the use in me bothering to get the vaccine at all” — call this the “demoralization theory.” This theory of human reasoning, however, is also not obviously correct. One can imagine — and in fact has observed — public health communications that make the picture look worse to the public than it actually is in order to inspire action; this approach with respect to herd immunity would make one offer a higher estimate in order to scare the public into getting vaccinated in droves if we’re to have any hope at all of beating this thing — call this the “scared straight theory.”

Public health communicators have lied on both sides of the ledger — making the problem seem more manageable than it is and worse than it actually is in order to inspire desirable public action. This inconsistency in the strategy of the noble lie reveals a belief in the value of noble lying itself that is stronger than a belief in either the demoralization or scared straight theories of public action. Again, the elite are competent at solving technical problems (developing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine) but incompetent at solving social problems: nudging public behavior in the right direction.

In discussing herd immunity, Dr. Fauci is essentially discussing how much longer we have to live in fear and a state of suspended animation. He acted the part of the parent driver on the road trip who fibs “just a little farther” in response to “are we there yet” in order to forestall a tantrum (or mutiny).

Query, however, what the appropriate metric for the end of our lives in fear and suspended animation actually should be. When a safe and effective vaccine is in the offing, high levels of caution and risk aversion are eminently rational — as we may actually slay this dragon. This observer endorses this approach based on the belief that the dragon will actually be slain by the technical miracle of our COVID-19 vaccines. Yet if the dragon were somehow not likely to be slain, by this observer’s lights, life in the bunker would still need to end at some point nonetheless. Reasonable precautions like masks and rapid at-home testing would remain eminently sensible and essential in a world of an extant dragon and reemergence from the bunker, yet all dreams deferred would not remain sensible: we can sacrifice one Thanksgiving and one Christmas with loved ones, but any more beyond that and what life really are we preserving in the bunker? Noble lies avoid this question. A healthy and competent society should not be in the business of avoiding difficult questions, nor should its leaders.

Coverups, Corruption, and inCapacity

China has some impressive institutions. One can decry the immorality of the CCP’s concentration-camp-building surveillance state and obfuscation of a burgeoning global pandemic while also acknowledging, for example, that China’s disease tracing program bore impressive results. (Query whether the U.S. or any Western state would or should (!) tolerate the involuntary commitment of babies and the publishing of an infected person’s entire post-infection whereabouts on a municipal WeChat account.)

Repeatedly, intellectuals in Western democracies embarrass themselves salivating over the perception of uber-competence in authoritarian competitor states. Nonetheless, it can be true, for example, that the Soviets both built Potemkin props to seduce Western useful idiots and also built a genuinely impressive roster of mathematicians (though query whether the Soviets or a deeper Russian civilization did the latter).

While there is something to admire in the speed with which China can stand up a new rail station or construct an airstrip on an artificial island, there is also reason to believe the edifice of CCP state capacity has cracks in its foundation. Literally.

Interesting analysis by Ian Storey in The Diplomat argues that the runways on China’s ostensibly fearsome forward operating bases in the Spratly islands may be too poorly built (hastily laid and at risk of subsidence) to sustain a viable jet fighter presence to establish local dominance.

In addition to inherent engineering challenges with artificial islands, corruption may have hurt the strategic project. Storey writes:

Doubts about the structural integrity of the artificial islands are amplified when the issue of corruption is considered. Despite President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign, corruption in China remains endemic, including in the military-industrial complex. For instance, in July 2019 Su Bo, who oversaw the construction of China’s first domestically produced aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was convicted of corruption and jailed for 12 years. And in May 2020, Hu Wenming, the head of China’s aircraft carrier construction program, was arrested and charged with corruption and passing secrets to foreign powers. Corruption in the building industry leads to short cuts and shoddy construction.

Ian Storey, “Why Doesn’t China Deploy Fighter Jets to the Spratly Islands?,” The Diplomat (Aug. 14, 2020).

While there is much to admire (and perhaps fear) in the glittering hardware markets of Shenzen, do not underestimate the extent to which corrupt institutions will bring down even the most technically competent civilizations. Even the most positive interpretations of China’s failure to warn the world about the COVID-19 outbreak pin the blame on the perverse incentives within the CCP regime. As the New York Times reports, “Local officials often withhold information from Beijing for fear of reprisal, current and former American officials say.” This is a manifestly unhealthy and unsustainable information conveying mechanism. Much is made of the Chinese surveillance state’s panoptic omniscience — and yet at best the story of COVID-19’s escape is one of Beijing’s inability to discern that middling bureaucrats from the provinces were hiding the onset of one of the greatest human crises in a century.

There will always be dark truths within a society. In many (if not most, if not all) cases, acknowledging and handling that reality is the best path forward. A civilization with institutions too corrupt to detect, surface, and mitigate internal and global threats in a timely fashion is not one that anyone desiring a healthy future should wish to emulate.

Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia

Alexis de Tocqueville (*This portrait is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.)

For many problems, local and preference-sensitive solutions are more efficient and effective than distant fiats (e.g., U.S. university-based network computing was far more advanced than Soviet computing). However, local preferences themselves can be inefficient (e.g., single family home owners opposing new construction). Between market mythologizing and top-down, central planning lies an option of preference cultivation.

Local cruft and inertia often need to be fracked. But centrally-chosen alternatives leave much to be desired. For example, well-run charter schools employing common core materials can outperform stagnant district schools, but the common core can stymie good teachers. Centrally-imposed solutions might raise the floor but lower the ceiling.

What if we could raise the floor against the wishes of vested and complacent special interests opposing reform but also raise the ceiling against arrogant technocrats demanding standardization? What if local preferences themselves could be reformed without the need for preference-denying guardrails. It would be like having a market that eschewed fast food instead of requiring a mayor to tax or ban it.

Incentives and self-interest matter. An individual teacher’s union member can understand where her bread is buttered and oppose non-unionized charters competing for students and per-pupil funding. That’s rational. But it may not be rational on a longer time horizon. One generation may benefit from an inefficient allocation. But the next generation will be left with underperforming schools and unaffordable public employees.

Civilization is premised on one generation caring about the welfare of the next. Somewhere among those with vested interests lies concern (even if overshadowed by other considerations) for the long-term well being of the community or at least one’s own progeny. (Note: civilization will not work without progeny.)

Individuals’ understanding of self-interest can be expanded to “self-interest properly understood” a la de Tocqueville. Horizons can be broadened, consequences can be ascertained, lessons can be learned, and tastes can be made. Rejecting those premises would mean rejecting any possibility for education, political persuasion or cultural transformation. Those premises would seemingly have to be accepted by both the left and the right, otherwise why do people ever open their mouths?

If education is at all possible, preferences can be changed. Preparing market and political participants to better understand their own self-interest as enmeshed in long-term community values, and cultivating their preferences accordingly, should lead to better outcomes.

Continue reading “Preference Cultivation and Overcoming Inertia”

All Three Federalist Papers Authors on Presidential Corruption and Foreign Influence

In Federalist No. 64, John Jay addressed fears that corrupt leaders would make treaties at the expense of the wider nation’s interests. He argued that requiring approval by a super-majority of Senators in addition to the President before a treaty could be formed rendered the possibility that the nation as a whole would be bound by the corrupt dealings of a compromised leader highly unlikely.[1] So long as the treaty did not pass the smell test for either the President, or, more likely in Jay’s scenario, one third of the Senate plus one vote, a nefarious instrument would be dead on arrival.

The fear of presidential corruption tainting treaties was also expounded by Jay’s Federalist Papers co-author Alexander Hamilton in Federalist No. 75. Hamilton’s words, in turn, were craftily echoed by James Madison in his Helvidius writings during the Pacificus-Helvidius debate over the interpretation of America’s treaty obligations to France.[2] Hamilton had forcefully explained the danger of leaving “to the sole disposal” of the President the power to commit the nation in foreign affairs; human nature being less than perfectly virtuous, a lone President’s self-interest might lead him to betray the country:

“[A] man raised from the station of a private citizen to the rank of chief magistrate, possessed of a moderate or slender fortune, and looking forward to a period not very remote when he may probably be obliged to return to the station from which he was taken, might sometimes be under temptations to sacrifice his duty to his interest, which it would require superlative virtue to withstand. An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the state to the acquisition of wealth. An ambitious man might make his own aggrandizement, by the aid of a foreign power, the price of his treachery to his constituents.”[3]

Therefore, avoiding national betrayal by a venal chief executive willing to sacrifice national interest for personal gain required a Senatorial check on the power to make treaties.

The features of the Constitution’s treatymaking process as put forward collectively by Jay, Hamilton, and Madison: requiring the approval of two-thirds of the Senate would ensure expertise, constituent representation, stability, and integrity in treaty formation and thus foreign affairs. Today, however, formal treatymaking with two-thirds of the Senate assenting under Article II, is not a necessary feature of the great majority of America’s international agreement making.[4] The framers’ arguments for the constitution’s treatymaking process notwithstanding, the United States as the leading global power does not continue to adhere orthodoxly to that procedure.


[1] The Federalist No. 64 (John Jay).

[2] James Madison, Letters of Helvidius, Nos. 1-4, No. IV. at 27 (1793).

[3] The Federalist No. 75 (Alexander Hamilton); See also David Golove, Constitutional Government in the Limiting Case: So-Called Non-Binding International Agreements, Remarks at the Yale-Duke Foreign Relations Law Roundtable (Oct. 15, 2016), at 2, 4.

[4] See John Yoo, Rational Treaties: Article II, Congressional-Executive Agreements, and International Bargaining, 97 Cornell L. Rev. 1, 2 (2011) (citing Oona A. Hathaway, Treaties’ End: The Past, Present, and Future of International Lawmaking in the United States, 117 Yale L.J. 1236, 1258-60 (2008) (documenting that 1939 to 1989, the U.S. made 11,698 nontreaty international agreements and 702 formal treaties, and 1980 to 2000, the U.S. made 2,744 congressional-executive agreements and 375 treaties)).