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Wednesday, November 11, 2020 Leer en Español

Lockdown Despotism and the “Control Panel” Delusion

Why the Biden-Harris COVID-19 plan Is so ominous.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris recently updated their “plan to beat COVID-19.” One passage is worth examining for the dangerous mentality it betrays:

“Social distancing is not a light switch. It is a dial. President-elect Biden will direct the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] to provide specific evidence-based guidance for how to turn the dial up or down relative to the level of risk and degree of viral spread in a community, including when to open or close certain businesses, bars, restaurants, and other spaces; when to open or close schools, and what steps they need to take to make classrooms and facilities safe; appropriate restrictions on size of gatherings; when to issue stay-at-home restrictions.”

The passage brings to mind a warning given to America long ago.

The warning was delivered in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French observer and admirer of the young republic. In his classic book Democracy in America, de Tocqueville included a chapter called, “What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear,” in which he warned the American people of:

“…an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood…”

Does the Biden/Harris “plan to beat COVID-19” represent the kind of despotic power that de Tocqueville warned us about? Let’s see.

Freedoms Trampled

Is the power “absolute”? Well not yet, at least, since it refers to CDC “guidance” as opposed to federal mandates. But governors and mayors have proven to be quite deferential to the CDC, so its “guidance” has translated into state and local-level mandates before and likely will again.

Is the power “immense”? Clearly. It covers the opening and closing, not only of restaurants and bars, but of all businesses. Thus, it claims sway over the country’s entire in-person economy and commercial life, regardless of private property and self-ownership.

The plan covers, not only businesses, but all spaces: that is, everything about the coming and going of Americans, again irrespective of individual rights.

The plan also encompasses all gatherings wherever they may occur, thus violating “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” as enshrined in the First Amendment.

The plan entails “stay-at-home restrictions,” meaning the power to imprison at will Americans in their own homes, violating the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, according to which neither the federal government nor any state is allowed to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

So, yes, the plan is very immense, both in its scope and impact.

Discretionary Power

Is the power “minute”? Yes, the plan expressly distinguishes itself for promising much more “specific” guidance. That is what the “dial” metaphor is all about. Rather than a lockdown “light switch” to turn society off and on, the plan promises to use the CDC as a social distancing “dial” to scientifically fine-tune social proximity on a community-by-community basis.

Not only that, but within each community, it reserves the discretion to open or close certain businesses and spaces. We have already seen such discretion in action throughout the period of lockdowns, as certain political protests and celebrations have been allowed and even encouraged by officials even as they shutter nearby businesses and prohibit private gatherings, including funerals, marriages, parties, concerts, games, festivals, and religious services.

de Tocqueville famously observed that the strength of America rested in its vibrant civil society, consisting of a rich proliferation of non-governmental associations and institutions. That, and not merely “voting,” is what he meant by American democracy. He wrote:

“The political associations that exist in the United States form only a detail in the midst of the immense picture that the sum of associations presents there.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes…”

What we seem to be seeing in the lockdowns is the state using its “minute” and “discretionary” power to cripple all physical manifestations of civil society other than its own.

Wards of the State

Is the power “tutelary,” as in denoting the relationship between guardian and dependant?

Incredibly so, although it only accelerates something that has been long underway. The public has been so spooked by the government and media’s alarmist and distorted claims about the disease, that they have offered up a childlike deference to officialdom, abjectly following its lead, even after its “guidance” has often proved to be vacillating and wrong.

As de Tocqueville warned, the state has taken upon itself sole responsibility for our “fate.” And the public has eagerly acquiesced to this government tutelage, abdicating the responsibilities of free adults and letting our “guardians” keep us in “perpetual childhood.”

“Scientific” Central Planners

de Tocqueville wasn’t the only European to warn America of an all-encompassing, kindly despotism “for our own good.” Ludwig von Mises warned of central planners who, in the name of giving us everything we want, would take away everything we have—even everything we are.

As Mises wrote:

“Planning other people’s actions means to prevent them from planning for themselves, means to deprive them of their essentially human quality, means enslaving them.

The great crisis of our civilization is the outcome of this enthusiasm for all-round planning. There have always been people prepared to restrict their fellow citizens’ right and power to choose their own conduct. (…) What is new and characterizes our age is that the advocates of uniformity and conformity are raising their claims on behalf of science.”

Indeed, in its plan to beat COVID-19,” the Biden-Harris team boasts that their administration will “listen to science” and that the CDC’s “dialing” up and down of lockdowns throughout the country will be “evidence-based.”

This deference to “science” is meant to sound humble, but it is used to justify the extreme arrogance of the social engineer. As Mises wrote:

“It is customary nowadays to speak of “social engineering.” Like planning, this term is a synonym for dictatorship and totalitarian tyranny. The idea is to treat human beings in the same way in which the engineer treats the stuff out of which he builds his bridges, roads, and machines. The social engineer’s will is to be substituted for the will of the various people he plans to use for the construction of his Utopia. Mankind is to be divided into two classes: the almighty dictator, on the one hand, and the underlings who are to be reduced to the status of mere pawns in his plans and cogs in his machinery, on the other. If this were feasible, then of course the social engineer would not have to bother about understanding other people’s actions. He would be free to deal with them as technology deals with lumber and iron.”

However, such a grandiose undertaking is not feasible. As Mises and F.A. Hayek demonstrated, society is far too complex to be centrally planned.

Central planners, no matter how informed they are by “the science,” cannot access or process anywhere near the amount of knowledge that would be required to balance all the myriad trade-offs that are relevant to any decision impacting millions upon millions of unique individuals.

This inescapable fact makes no exception for central planners charged with “public health.” To shut down a business, to lock down a community, to isolate a human being, etc., has manifold unintended consequences that ripple like waves in a pond. Central planners cannot anticipate such ramifications, especially because so many of them involve human valuation and choice.

Rage Against the Machine

The Biden-Harris “dial” is pitched as an improvement on the “light switch” approach to lockdowns. But it doesn’t matter how many switches, dials, buttons, meters, and gauges that central planners cram onto their “control panel.” It’s all hubris and folly, because human beings are not and can never be cogs in a machine. And the more we let them treat us so, the more human lives will get crushed and torn asunder in the social engineer’s infernal contraptions.

As Mises and Hayek explained, the only way that human beings can navigate the sea of complexity that is life in society, including such multifaceted concerns as public health and pandemics, is through free cooperation among planning individuals (including individual scientific experts who earn the voluntary trust of others). Mises made an important distinction:

“The alternative is not plan or no plan. The question is: whose planning? Should each member of society plan for himself or should the paternal government alone plan for all? The issue is not automatism versus conscious action; it is spontaneous action of each individual versus the exclusive action of the government. It is freedom versus government omnipotence.”

To save our freedom, livelihoods, and long-term health from omnipotent government, we must defy the central planners and social engineers, scoff at their “scientific” switches and dials, and reclaim our responsibilities as a free and courageous people.

  • Dan Sanchez is an essayist, editor, and educator. His primary topics are liberty, economics, and educational philosophy. He is the Director of Content at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and the editor-in-chief of He created the Hazlitt Project at FEE, launched the Mises Academy at the Mises Institute, and taught writing for Praxis. He has written hundreds of essays for venues including (see his author archive),,, and The Objective Standard. Follow him on Twitter and Substack.