Speaking of Liberal Values

Jay Bhattacharya recently issued a powerful warning against pending legislation in California designed to compel physicians to adhere to the official science on COVID. Here’s Bhattacharya:

According to California Assembly Bill 2098, physicians who deviate from an authorized set of beliefs would do so at risk to their medical license. The bill, written by Assemblyman Evan Low, a Democrat in Silicon Valley, and currently making its way through the California Legislature, is motivated by the idea that practicing doctors are spreading “misinformation” about the risks of Covid, its treatment, and the Covid vaccine. It declares that physicians and surgeons who “disseminate or promote misinformation or disinformation related to COVID-19, including false or misleading information regarding the nature and risks of the virus, its prevention and treatment; and the development, safety, and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines” shall be subject to “disciplinary action,” which could result in the loss of the doctor’s medical license.

The language of the bill itself is intentionally vague about what constitutes “misinformation,” which makes it even more damaging. Doctors, fearing loss of their livelihoods, will need to hew closely to the government line on Covid science and policy, even if that line does not track the scientific evidence. After all, until recently, top government science bureaucrats like Dr. Fauci claimed that the idea that Covid came from a Wuhan laboratory was a conspiracy theory, rather than a valid hypothesis that should be open to discussion. The government’s track record on discerning Covid truths is poor.

Bhattacharya – a professor at the Stanford Medical School and a co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration – does not exaggerate when he predicts that “[t]he ultimate effect of the bill will be to chill public criticism by California doctors of mistaken government public health diktats since few will want to put their licenses in the hands of the very public health officials with whom they disagree over the interpretation of science. Even legitimate dissent from public health orthodoxy by licensed doctors may be excised from the public square as a consequence.”

How could there come to pass any outcome other than the frightful, dystopian one predicted by Bhattacharya? Yet reflection on this rhetorical question raises another question that’s not at all rhetorical: What is becoming of liberal civilization?

Perhaps my non-rhetorical question seems histrionic. I think that it is, unfortunately, not. A bedrock value of liberal modernity is that no human being ever will – because no human being ever can – possess truth so surely that he or she is to be trusted to compel any other human being to accept his or her propositions as Truth. Capital-T Truth – Truth as understood by God and established for all time – might or might not exist; either way, no mortal or group of mortals can be trusted to lay claim to possessing it.

Persuasion, Not Coercion

For the past three centuries, in places infused with Enlightenment values, the norm for the discovery and dissemination of knowledge has been persuasion rather than compulsion. Nicolaus has a new idea about the circulation of planets. William has a new idea about the circulation of blood. Adam has a new idea about the circulation of goods and services in commerce. How are we to know if these ideas have merit? Simple: We allow these ideas to be articulated without obstruction, and we allow other people – any other people – to join in the discussion. If Adam wants me to accept his idea, he’s not allowed to club me over the head or seize my property if I reject his idea. He must talk to me (or write; same thing really). He must persuade me.

There’s something else Adam isn’t allowed to do. He’s not allowed to stop Karl, or Maynard, or Donald, or Bernie, or Alexandria, or anyone else from talking to me. Adam, being human, would perhaps prefer to be able to muzzle the mouths or clog the keyboards of those who express ideas that contradict his own. That way it would be so much easier for him to persuade me that his ideas really are the best. But an invisible and impartial spectator perched on Adam’s shoulder informs him of a reality that, ironically, comes as close as any in this vale to being a Truth: No idea is so surely complete or correct that it might not be improved, or even discredited, by encountering different and better ideas.

Here’s something else Adam, if he is wise, knows: If his ideas are worthy, he doesn’t need to force them on other people with coercion. Their worthiness gives these ideas a pretty good advantage naturally. Adam, being wise, gives a knowing thumbs-up to H.L. Mencken’s terse observation that “The kind of man who demands that government enforce his ideas is always the kind whose ideas are idiotic.”

Of course, because we humans are imperfect, it’s possible that Adam’s excellent ideas will nevertheless be widely rejected in favor of ideas that Adam and his many wise and well-read friends fervently believe to be inferior. But in a society that rejects coercion as a means of promoting ideas, wise Adam knows also that, over time, if his ideas really are the best available, they will at least always enjoy the prospect of one day being accepted.

There’s yet another piece of knowledge – one especially crucial – known to wise Adam, which is this: If he were today to resort to coercion to press his ideas, he’d thereby pave the path for Karl or Alexandria, when they gain positions of power, to use coercion to impose ‘acceptance’ of their ideas. And not only does Adam wisely fear that particular outcome, he understands that he would then have no standing to object to Karl’s or Alexandria’s resort to coercion as the means of achieving ‘acceptance’ of their ideas.

Wisdom Waning

Until the recent outbreaks of wokeness and the COVID-times’ mindless rendition of “Follow the Science,” the above reflections would have been trite. Or rather, these reflections would have seemed trite. Yet the very fact that reflections that would have been labeled in, say, 2012 as too obvious for words are in 2022 substantive and germane speaks to the importance of repeating these reflections. After all, were the wisdom of these reflections widely enough accepted in 2022, legislation of the sort now pending in California – assuming that it was even proposed in the first place – would have so little prospect of enactment that Jay Bhattacharya would have felt no need to spend valuable time warning of it.

Liberal, enlightened values are never so firmly entrenched that their widespread acceptance can safely be taken for granted. The propositions in which these values are grounded must be constantly polished and refined, and the values themselves must be incessantly repeated, defended, and championed.

In her 2021 book, Bettering Humanomics, Deirdre McCloskey continues to make the case that the way we treat each other – including through government policies – is largely determined by the way we talk to each other. “The word’s the thing,” she says. What we say, how we say it, and who is given respectful hearings all matter very much. Change the talking for the better, change society for the better; change the talking for the worse, change society for the worse. To coercively obstruct discussion and debate is unquestionably to change the talking for the worse. And as McCloskey documents, such change can happen rather quickly.

We Americans are fortunate inheritors of the enlightened liberalism not only of Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, but also of thinkers such as Hume, Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Mill, Acton, and Hayek. What these statesmen and philosophers said and wrote mattered greatly. But however much we might applaud these expressed sensibilities, we must recognize that they are not self-reinforcing. On the loose always are illiberal sentiments, expressed by the arrogant, the ignorant, the unenlightened, and the authoritarian. To establish their utopias, enemies of liberalism will never hesitate to squelch free expression. We liberals, therefore, must forever be ready, understanding the power of words, to challenge with our own words these assaults on freedom of expression and on open, peaceful discourse and debate.

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