William L. Anderson – April 24, 2020
Listen to the Audio Mises Daily version of this article.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States became a very public event, the one face that has become most familiar to Americans is that of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and perhaps the second most polarizing figure in the crisis, next to President Donald Trump. To progressives and those at least on the moderate left, Fauci is the Great Hero, the man who has struggled mightily against the wiles of the deranged Trump in order to save Americans from the scourge known as the coronavirus. Watch CNN or MSNBC or read the New York Times and the portrayals of Fauci are that of nearly a god who came down for This Purpose.
Conservatives and libertarians have another picture of Fauci, one of a “deep state” operative who actively is working to undermine the president and help elect Joe Biden in November. (Outfits like the New York Times and the leftist Buzzfeed, of course, see such accusations as ridiculous paranoia, something one would expect from the Right, which almost to a person does not recognize the mortal danger that COVID-19 presents.)
This article is not an attempt to paint Fauci as neither a hero nor a villain, or at least a villain in league with Democrats operating with an ulterior political agenda aimed at bringing down the president. No doubt Fauci would love to see a Democrat in the White House and one can be sure that he would help bring down Trump, but only if such actions fell in the category of his work. (His fawning tweet celebrating Hillary Clinton after her disastrous testimony to Congress on the Benghazi fiasco should dispel any doubts about his political leanings.) People like Fauci, however, do not see themselves as political hacks or operatives, instead thinking themselves above the fray because they are public health professionals—and, in their world, there can be no higher calling. Progressives believe that people like Fauci should have more authority, something completely understandable to the Fauci class in government—after all, they are experts, and at the core of progressive ideology is the belief that experts should be given governing power, not bumbling politicians, and certainly not bumbling politicians like Donald Trump.
Progressives and Bureaucrats
To understand Anthony Fauci, one must understand progressive ideology, and in order to best understand progressive ideology, one needs to read Ludwig von Mises’s book Bureaucracy. The book itself is not about progressivism—indeed, Mises doesn’t mention such a philosophy in his book—but it does explain the decision-making processes that dominate bureaucracies and guide bureaucrats like Fauci. And Fauci is nothing but the consummate bureaucrat, albeit one that can speak in front of a television camera.
Progressives share the belief that markets, although they are good at producing useless goods, such as the too many deodorants that Bernie Sanders denounced on the campaign trail, simply cannot lead a great nation, are cumbersome, and have no mechanism by which to meet the real needs of people in society. Experts are needed to guide people in what they should have, from food to clothing to transportation to medical care, and then to lay out the plan for how people should obtain these things.
Mises writes that bureaucracies exist to carry out the directives of those in political power and not to engage in policymaking themselves. However, after more than a century of progressive rule the bureaucracies themselves have become the chief instruments of government power, as men like Fauci, with their anticapitalist mentalities and their single-minded approaches to life, are calling the shots. Although most people instinctively understand risks and tradeoffs, public health bureaucrats like Fauci tend to believe that the only thing that matters is the eradication of whatever is coming, no matter what the cost.
Fauci Embraces Media Narrative in Order to Bypass Scientific Inquiry
Fauci, as well as any public health bureaucrat in US history, understands the power of media and of single-mindedness. In the mid-1980s Fauci had a leading role in promoting AIDS research. Yet none of his predictions about the course AIDS would take came true. It did not infect vast stretches of Americans, and the “vast pandemic” that he and other AIDS researchers claimed would infect the USA never materialized. That did not stop government agencies from pouring a disproportionate amount of funding into AIDS research, bypassing diseases that lack the powerful political constituencies behind those victimized by AIDS. Researchers and public health bureaucrats like Fauci were declaring that the AIDS wolf was at the nation’s door while, in reality, they were crying wolf themselves.
Second, Fauci learned through his work on HIV and AIDS that the road to success in public health is not necessarily harnessing the scientific method, at least not how it is traditionally done in medical research, but rather in finding ways to bypass things like scientific peer review and go to the media, and especially the New York Times. For example, the HIV-AIDS thesis in 1984 clearly had not been established in medical research enough for the government to go full bore in that direction, but once Fauci and others convinced the editors of the Gray Lady that they had found the “magic bullet,” there was no stopping the narrative, with or without scientific research to back it up. In a 1994 article in Reason, Charles A. Thomas, Kary B. Mullis (1993 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry), and Phillip E. Johnson wrote:
The HIV establishment and its journalist allies have replied to various specific criticisms of the HIV theory without taking them seriously. They have never provided an authoritative paper that undertakes to prove that HIV really is the cause of AIDS–meaning a paper that does not start by assuming the point at issue. The HIV theory was established as fact by Robert Gallo’s official press conference in 1984, before any papers were published in American journals. Thereafter the research agenda was set in concrete, and skeptics were treated as enemies to be ignored or punished. As a result, the self-correcting processes of science have broken down, and journalists have not known how to ask the hard questions.
Indeed, others in academe, including historian Nancy MacLean in her truly awful Democracy in Chains and the contributors of the NYT’s 1619 Project, have learned that the way to avoid the kind of scrutiny that exists in the academic world is to convince a few influential journalists that their version of “truth” fits the progressive narrative, and then we are off to the races. Falsehoods become established truths, are then recycled in radical university departments, and finally make it into the mainstream. Fauci is one who has learned that lesson very well and managed in the process to receive the coveted Medal of Freedom when George W. Bush was president.
The third and perhaps most important point to understand is that public health really is political health. Another way to put it is that the way for ambitious officials like Fauci to achieve stardom in the present media age is not by slugging it out in the quiet trenches of medical research and peer review, but rather by unearthing crisis after crisis, riding the media wave, and very publicly plunging themselves into the pandemic arena, where both journalists and politicians bow to one’s “expertise,” appealing to science while simultaneously undermining it. Once a crisis is identified, vast amounts of taxpayer dollars follow.
As I noted earlier, progressives bow down to so-called experts, and no one in the COVID-19 pandemic is seen by the media and political establishment as a greater expert on this subject than Anthony Fauci. Yet when one examines his record during this crisis, it is hard to find the reason why he is so revered in Washington. He has been all over the place with the models, and when news first hit of the spreading virus, he eagerly adopted the wildly inaccurate Imperial College model that predicted up to 2.2 million coronavirus deaths in the USA if authorities did absolutely nothing. (Think the movie Animal House, in which the band is trying to march—unsuccessfully—through a brick wall at the end of an alley.)
In fact, none of the models Fauci and others have adopted have accurately predicted the COVID-19 death rate in this country and, instead, have wildly exaggerated possible numbers of deaths. This failure to match models with reality is not a mere oversight, but a problem built into the entire mentality of public health. Organizations such as the National Institutes for Health, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control are seen as bastions of expertise staffed by brilliant, public-spirited men and women who have all of the answers when a health crisis occurs.
Yet, as Shikha Dalmia writes in Reason, these public health “experts” actually “have failed America at every level.”
[O]ne of the few things the WHO did right was to send hundreds of thousands of tests to dozens of labs around the world within a few weeks. If the United States had done what South Korea, Taiwan, and Germany did and allowed private and state labs to get these tests ready for mass production, we would have been able to conduct country-wide screening almost immediately. Instead the CDC decided to reinvent the wheel and develop its own test. It ordered private labs to desist and told them to wait for its test—and when the agency finally rolled the test out, it didn’t work. By the end of February, only 4,000 tests had been conducted and the country had no idea how fast the virus was spreading.
Meanwhile, the feds were bungling reporting procedures, causing even more waste and delay. In early March, when private testing had yet to come up to speed and public labs were the only game in town, the FDA issued a directive requiring the CDC to retest every positive coronavirus result by these labs before certifying it. This meant that for several crucial weeks, America’s coronavirus tally was lagging and everyone was underestimating how bad things were. Worse, it meant that lab resources and chemical agents, which have been in acutely short supply, couldn’t be used for new tests. The FDA was apparently afraid that false positives would make the spread look worse than it was.
Public health official and epidemiologists like Fauci have a built-in problem in that their worldviews fundamentally are administrative. Like most progressives, they believe that an entire economy and, indeed, an entire society can be operated administratively, that is, with a top-down hierarchy. Mises dealt with this issue in Bureaucracy, and he emphasized that although bureaucracies could successfully carry out orders in limited situations, the application of bureaucratic principles to an entire economy would be disastrous.
Because their entire worldview is administrative, people like Fauci simply cannot fathom a place for markets, since, in their minds, markets are slow, chaotic, and unfair. The idea of people acting in their own interest outside of progressive medical supervision is not a way to advance civilization, in the view of progressives, but rather a recipe for disaster.
On the radical side of this kind of thinking, Joe Biden’s health adviser Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel has called for the USA to be locked down for eighteen months, as though there would be no enormous and lasting consequences for such a policy. (Emanuel also has declared that no one over age seventy-five should be permitted to receive medical care. One supposes that he will make an exception for his 78-year-old boss.)
Although Fauci has not publicly sided with Emanuel, nonetheless his record in this crisis reflects his progressive, administrative worldview, in which the only thing that matters is eradication (or at least massive suppression) of COVID-19, something that cannot be done under the present medical regimes. We have to live with this problem just as societies throughout history have lived with much worse, from the bubonic plague that roiled much of the world for centuries to smallpox epidemics, to the measles and polio epidemics of my childhood (I got measles and all of us were scared to death of catching polio, which ravaged one of my relatives) to the common flu of modern times. Thanks to capitalism—yes, capitalism—we not only see fewer pandemics in the world, but are better able to stand up to them.
One can surmise that Fauci would never understand the role that capitalism has played in eradicating not only diseases around the world, but also poverty and hunger. As a public health bureaucrat all of his professional life, who sees the world in terms of budgets, spending, and following orders, he simply cannot fathom how private enterprise makes the world a healthier place, and so he cannot understand that one does not eradicate diseases by destroying an economy. And that, not any alleged “deep state” activities, makes him unfit to be the face of fighting the coronavirus.