The debate between those who believe we are in the midst of a “plandemic” and those who think we are merely ruled by venal bunglers is no mere sparring match involving conspiracy theorists and those who explain failed COVID policy as the result of stupidity rather evil. There are higher scholarly enterprises involved here.
Political theory and the social sciences more broadly offer a rich seam of explanations for the COVID policy disasters of the past two-and-a-bit years. They comfortably explain both the decision-making and the supine acquiescence of peoples across the globe. In fact, there is a mere sliver of difference between plausible theories of the COVID State that emanate from Nobel Prize winning economists and their scholarly peers and what the Canadian COVID realist James Corbett tellingly terms “conspiracy research”.
One example. The whole of public choice theory – which posits that politicians and public officials (and we could throw in the legacy media and corporates as well) generally are just as motivated in their decision-making by their private self-interests as anyone else in private life or the marketplace – explains just about every hideous decision any global politician has made about COVID since March 2020. Think James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, to mention only the most prominent thinkers of the genre. Public choice theory, for example, explains the notion of government “capture” by interest groups and private corporations. Clearly, governments and, in particular, health bureaucrats, not to mention grant-hungry academics and the legacy media, have been captured by Big Tech, Big Science and Big Pharma. The retiring President Eisenhower warned the world at the beginning of the 1960s about the military-industrial complex. He would be spinning in his grave if he could see the twenty-first century simulacrums of his discovery.
The merging of interests between public and private sector players in the age of COVID has been something to behold. It might be argued that the governance rot set in with the massive global privatisation projects of the late twentieth century, where the State created new corporate players gifted with ownership of strategic public resources but lacking the morality to behave well. Now we witness the Chinese Communist Party owning great chunks of Australia’s strategic infrastructure and Big Tech players bidding for coal companies so they can shut them down in the cause of green fascism.
Corporate greed has met crony capitalism and crony socialism all at once, with a vengeance.
Public choice theory demonstrates that politicians are not just fickle and stupid, but are venal and power hungry. The truly awful realisation here is that there has been absolutely nothing that our governments didn’t and wouldn’t do to us in order to gain, maintain and increase their power. Lockdowns. Vaccine passports. Mandates. Useless masks. Curfews. Bans. QR codes. Sign-ins. Police thuggery. Wrongful arrests. Bullying and gaslighting the Deplorables, aka the unjabbed. Throwing small business under the bus. Suffocating free speech through censorship and the silencing of dissidents. Bullying people to accept an unnecessary, ineffective set of vaccines blighted by all-too-common side effects (watch the clip embedded below). Buying off the locked-down with funny money that governments did not have. Each and every last one of these was enacted to save political hides, or worse, to usher in even more heinous global regimes than those of which we have had a taste these past two years. All to advance the interests of those in power.
Another example of an explanatory theory from political science is “the issue attention cycle” proposed by the recently deceased American economist Anthony Downs. Downs created a model to explain why issues become public obsessions, remain prominent for a time and then, suddenly, vanish without trace, while the “problem” initially needing to be “solved” by public policy doesn’t go away. It just isn’t an issue anymore. Downs suggested five stages of the issue attention cycle:
2/ Alarmed discovery, with euphoric enthusiasm (about society’s ability to solve the problem or doing something effective quickly)
3/ Realising the cost of significant progress
4/ Gradual decline of public interest, through either discouragement (in the face of growing understanding that the problem cannot easily be solved), boredom or the fact that other issues are getting greater attention
5/ Post-problem –“the twilight of lesser attention” — the issue hasn’t gone away, it may well remain “unresolved” but the public just moves on.
Think of the impact of the Australian floods and the Ukraine war on COVID’s grip on the public imagination. Plus the odd election. In Britain, they had Partygate. Suddenly, every last one of the COVID restrictions simply vanished. Add a soupçon of COVID fatigue, growing grumpiness with lost freedoms in the face of a rampant yet mostly harmless Omicron COVID variant and a growing global understanding of the utter folly of governments seeking to eliminate viruses, and you have completed the COVID issue attention cycle. Poof! vanished. Suddenly the fear and the cowering are gone, the daily obsessing over COVID death porn, and with them many of the previous restrictions that were deemed only yesterday to be utterly necessary for our “safety”. Downs is vindicated yet again.
The liberal thinkers Friedrich Hayek (an Austrian economist) and Robert Nozick (a Harvard philosopher) are also useful in explaining aspects of the COVID era. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom provides a perfect outline of what has happened to us all over the period of pandemia (to borrow Alex Berenson’s excellent shorthand), as we stood mute and acquiescent like the slowly boiling frog as each and every one of our liberties were trashed by democratically elected governments with whom we thought we had a social contract.
Nozick’s idea of liberal utopias within the State – he preferred his states to be “minimal”, of course – coincides with emerging thinking about how to live “parallel” private lives beyond the reach of the locking down, forcibly vaccinating State. The American conservative Rod Dreher called this “the Benedict option”. You simply take yourself off-grid, in terms of where you live, with whom you associate, where you shop, whether you pay your taxes, engage in the black economy, which technology platforms you use, which “news” you consume, and so on.
Then there is the notion of “convergent opportunism” which seeks to marry the most compelling bits of conspiracy research (the “plandemic”) with Robert Hanlon’s Razor (‘never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’) and to suggest a plausible explanation of the COVID decision-making fiasco. Those who subscribe to the “always favour the cock-up over the conspiracy” school of thought are all-to-familiar with Hanlon’s Razor. Those who, like Mike Yeadon, see much to be alarmed at “behind” the apparent policy cock-ups, have come up with the idea that, no, there wasn’t an evil mastermind behind the COVID plague, but rather, many actors got on board and saw opportunities arising for their agendas as COVID decision-making emerged. Worth noting in passing is Their ABC’s treatment of Yeadon, who is dismissed flat-out as a retailer of “lies” because his warnings conflict with the opinions of “the experts” the national broadcaster prefers to heed. Those experts believed, with Rahm Emanuel, that no crisis should ever be wasted. They have been “opportunists” whose interests “converged” into the COVID State. This position has settled as a sort-of compromise between the cock-up thinkers (like Toby Young of The Spectator and The Daily Sceptic) and the die-hard conspiracy researchers, who often quote “the great reset” and those pushing it.
Perhaps, most famously, is the theory of “nudge”, where political science meets behavioural psychology. Nudge theory was made famous by another Nobel Prize winner, Richard Thaler (and his co-author Cass Sunstein, of Obama Administration infamy). He posited that behaviour could be altered through persuasion rather than coercion. Infamously, his theories have been molded and remolded by politicians with evil intent, from David Cameron to Daniel Andrews and lots of jurisdictions in between. Nudging people towards lockdowns, vaccines and COVID acquiescence generally has been core business for decision-makers since February 2020. It turns out that Thaler is the Machiavelli of the COVID totalitarian era.
If Thaler is the chief protagonist of the nudge, perhaps the Belgian psychologist, Mattias Desmet, is the main antagonist. His work on “mass formation” suggests that the crowds are not only “mad”, following Charles McKay in the 1840s and, more recently and derivatively, Douglas Murray, but they have, most likely, been hypnotised by governments and third parties in relation to COVID. They have swallowed the Kool-Aid they have been force-fed. On this view, the COVID State has employed psy-op strategies perfected by the Central Intelligence Agency, famous, of course, for inventing the term “conspiracy theory” in the 1960s to ridicule and, so, isolate trouble-makers and dissidents.
We could write a whole book on network theory and how networks impact decision-making. In fact, the historian Niall Ferguson did just that, in his excellent The Square and the Tower. He, no doubt, wishes to debunk conspiracy theories but ends up writing an elegant defence of them. So much of history is the outcome of the activities of networks.
Finally, there is Thomas Schelling and his notion of “Schelling points” (aka focal points). This is another potential explanation of the planned conspiracy that doesn’t rely on the caricatured image of a cabal of evil backroom boys and girls plotting a takeover of the world, yet recognises that conspiracies among politicians and other connected players are real, frequent and often evil.
Who was Thomas Schelling? Schelling was a renowned American economist and strategist whose principal area of research and practice was deterrence, nuclear war and defence policy more broadly. His magnum opus was The Strategy of Conflict (1960), and his genre was game theory. He has described game theory as simply the study of strategic thinking, of anticipating what a partner or an adversary might do in a given set of circumstances in order to better shape one’s own actions in response. Tim Hyde notes:
Schelling argued that people’s apparent ability to coordinate without communicating was key to understanding how real-life strategic games are solved.
Schelling points allow for collaboration among connected or unconnected actors without the need of communication. You can simply anticipate what other actors will do and calculate your own actions with this in mind. Like having your Twitter followers re-tweet your messages. Or leaking information about VicPol’s investigation into George Pell to a tame and trusted journalist predisposed to assume the worst. Or strategically timing the publishing of a book about allegations of sex abuse by a cardinal of the Catholic Church. Or spreading rumours about an unnamed Liberal politician a mentally troubled woman claimed had raped her decades earlier. In other words, you can create a sequence of events without the need to communicate anything to others also participating in the action.
How has this worked with COVID? It turns out that the world of COVID decision-making is riddled with Schelling points. People who were on the same team could achieve their various objectives without needing to communicate.
♦ Anthony Fauci might well have anticipated what might happen if he funded research into the creation of SARS-like viruses in Wuhan.
♦ China might well have anticipated what weak, craven Western leaders might do if it heavied the World Health Organisation into declaring lockdowns to be the preferred response to COVID.
♦ Intergenerational Northern Italian families all living cheek-by-jowl in a country with poor health facilities and lots of connections with Chinese travellers returning from Wuhan after the Chinese New Year celebrations in early 2020.
♦ Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College might well have anticipated the impact on wavering decision-makers at No 10 Downing Street of his flawed, out-by-orders-of-magnitude model projections of COVID deaths.
♦ Western leaders and their pals in the media might have anticipated what would happen if “the vaccine” was declared to be the ONLY way back to freedom from lockdowns.
♦ These same Western leaders might well have reasoned that putting on enough “performative safetyism”, as Paul du Quenoy has termed COVID theatre, would persuade the troops to all fall into line behind all the rules.
♦ What would low-information citizens do (the “rationally ignorant”, as Anthony Downs called voters who deliberately do not bother to inform themselves about political issues), when told that many of their rights would be taken away if they didn’t get vaccinated? That one is pretty easy to anticipate.
♦ Scott Morrison might well have anticipated that creating a national cabinet might spread the political risk associated with pandemic response and so save the political hides of many across eight jurisdictions. Particularly his own.
♦ Bill Gates might have understood very clearly what his funding of the CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations) roundtable on pandemics in October 2019, just weeks before the actual outbreak of a real “pandemic” (as defined by Gates’ friends at WHO), might achieve in terms of setting out strategies for dealing with a “hypothetical” global viral outbreak and embedding these strategies in government policy across the planet.
♦ Any one of us might well have anticipated what the corporate media and various, much-quoted academics would say about vaccines given the source of much of their incomes (the advertising and research revenue from Big Pharma).
♦ The Chinese leadership might well have anticipated the impact of a pandemic on the take-up of postal voting in American presidential election where the Chinese strongly backed one side (Biden), with all of its opportunities for election fraud.
♦ The authors of The Great Reset might have anticipated the extent to which a global virus scare might help nudge the world towards a global, technocratic governance model that no one voted for, with all of its bells and whistles – digital identity, central bank-driven digital currencies, bio-security systems previously unheard of, and the surveillance and tracking of citizens for whatever purposes the overclass might decide on. The road to serfdom, you might say.
The list just goes on and on.
COVID Schelling points might also be thought of as the sound of dominoes falling, as the world went crazy for two years over a relatively minor virus which leaves over 99 per cent of its sufferers rudely healthy.
So, this is the tour-de-COVID-decision-making.
It turns out that the social sciences have plenty to tell us about what has happened over the last two years, how, and why. How did they pull it off? Why did we all fall for the COVID scam, right from the start an elaborate construct of Wag the Dog proportions? If we know where to look among the great thinkers of our day (and of previous days), the COVID dissidents and COVID doubters at least might be able to gain some assurance that our current leaders, however especially craven and especially feeble they might seem in contrast to their predecessors, are simply following the political rulebook laid out down the ages by Machiavelli and his many distinguished successors. We might even say, come the next election in each and every jurisdiction which experienced COVID tyranny, we know exactly what you were up to. And now you will pay. For this, alas, we need far fewer low-information voters than we seem to have at present.
Three final points.
One, it turns out that the greatest political theorists of the twentieth century reached conclusions about the political class that have much in common with those who see conspiracies behind political decision-making. Conclusions about what motivates politicians and voters, how they make decisions, how they follow the leader, how self-centred, devious and venal the elites are, how they nudge us in preferred directions through quasi-hypnosis, and how we all get boiled slowly like the unfortunate frog on the road to serfdom, and how we might just escape the coming bio-digital Armageddon by finding our own Benedictine caves.
Discovering all of this should shock us back to reality. And convince us to listen less to the “experts” and more to dissidents, to thinkers.
Two, there is one social science theory that COVID demonstrates we can safely consign to the dustbin of history: the ‘rational actor’ model, which suggests that decision-makers without personal interests separate from ‘the public good’ coolly and calmly gather full information on the issue at hand, then make balanced decisions on the evidence. To suggest that COVID State mandarins have been “rational” and have acted without reference to personal interest is simply risible.
Three, conspiracy researchers, aka thinking historians and social scientists, should remain very much on alert.