Definitions of mental illness or deficiency have always seemed to me as loony as the people they are supposed to help diagnose. But one such definition may be useful. Somewhere in college I learned that a sociopath is someone who has no empathy for other people and no feeling for any suffering he may inflict on them. This seems a fair description of the public officials to whom the coronavirus surrendered power over Americans’ lives.
If, for some urgent reason, a normal man or woman felt called upon to throw millions of people out of their jobs; deprive hundreds of millions of the ability to plan their work, their travel, and their daily lives, denying them even the ability to attend weddings and funerals and to practice their religion; and kill tens of thousands by shutting them in infected homes and preventing them from diagnostic care for life-threatening illnesses, wouldn’t that person be ravaged by the pain he was causing?
You may say, what kind of situation would ever demand such conduct? If you say that, you will be right. It’s almost unimaginable that anything short of a catastrophic war could necessitate the use of such powers. But grant it for the sake of argument. Suppose it happened, and you were the person who had to exercise those powers. Wouldn’t you show some distress at what you had to do? Wouldn’t you show some sympathy for the victims of your power? Wouldn’t you break down in tears? Wouldn’t you spend all day, every day, trying to repair the damage you had caused?
The answer, of course, is yes. Only a sociopath would do these things without compunction, empathy, or sympathy. But that is exactly what our public officials do.
There have been many nauseating displays of self-righteousness in American history, but this is something special.
I’m not talking about the significant minority who delayed cracking down on the public as long as they could, and then sought to reopen their domains to normal life as soon as possible, often while being hunted almost to extinction by outrage artists baying at their “weakness,” “selfishness,” and “politicization” of the “crisis.” They may not have been willing to voice all their doubts and regrets, but their hesitant and moderate actions usually indicated what was in their minds. Most public officials, however, leapt forward with schemes to imprison the populace, and they have loosened their grip only when forced to do so. It’s of these supposed idealists that I now write.
Think of one draconian governor, mayor, or health official who has broken down in tears. Think of one who has ever revealed a moral conflict. Think of one who has ever shown that he understood and actually felt the costs of the terrible things he says he was forced to do.
I can’t think of any. Can you? What we see instead is preening, politicking, microphone-grabbing, a constant delight in giving orders and a constant scorn for anyone who suggests that less stringent measures might succeed. A normal person would pursue every such possibility, anxious to shed the burden of hurting others. The officials in question never, ever do this. They are content, or in some cases positively thrilled, with things as they are. They wake up each morning happy to perform the next grim set of self-assigned duties.
There have been many nauseating displays of self-righteousness in American history, but this is something special. This is a blank indifference to suffering. It is true heartlessness, on a scale so great as to define the official class as the Heartless Class.
Of course, examples are not lacking of public officials who can walk through the cities they rule, view the miserable condition in which people live, and notice it only when they want to blame it on others. This is typical behavior in any ruling class. But when a person is directly causing enormous suffering, and he knows it and glories in his power to do it — that’s not normal in any class, except the one whose deeds we are witnessing now.
The famous chapter title in Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is “Why the Worst Get on Top.”