An Overabundance of Caution

History furnishes us with many examples of catastrophes brought about, intentionally or otherwise, by the intervention of human beings, whose malice or arrogance prevented them from seeing or caring about the horrors they were committing.

Though the sudden and systematic suspension of our natural and constitutional rights that has been perpetrated in the past year may not be the greatest evil in the annals of despotism, its global scale and seemingly indefinite shelf life may yet make it, in the final analysis, the most devastating.

As our lives and bronchial tubes are smothered by our administrative minders, we are repeatedly reassured that these allegedly temporary and ostensibly trivial measures are being taken from “an abundance of caution.”

Those seeking to signal their possession of the pseudo-virtue of sophistication are fond of invoking the “precautionary principle,” according to which (to quote our reigning demigod Anthony Fauci) wisdom means “assuming that the worst will happen, and” (note the first person) “I’ve got to stop the worst from happening.”

In their brilliant book, The Price of Panic, Axe, Briggs, and Richards patiently dismantle this abuse of an otherwise legitimate principle.

The true purpose of the precautionary principle is to place limits on human agency. When our own activity involves significant risks “to human health or the environment,” the burden is on us to establish that the risks are negligent, or that adequate precautions are being taken.

The premise of this principle is that human beings are morally responsible for what we do. This does not mean that negligent inaction is excusable. If natural phenomena or “acts of God” threaten human life, and we are able to prevent or mitigate this damage, we are bound to do so—assuming that reliable and proportionate means are available to us.

The trouble comes when Fauci and his fan club invert the precautionary principle. For them, it is God and nature who stand accused of wanting to wipe out the human race. It is inevitable, they assure us, that sooner or later nature will produce “a devastating new pandemic,” threatening the very survival of the human race.

In the most sympathetic telling, Fauci is a tireless genius who has devoted his life to combatting infectious disease because it combines two features to which he is psychologically drawn: a devastating threat to the well being of others, and the possibility that heroic human intervention can eliminate or alleviate this threat.

In other words, the best we can say about Fauci is that he has devoted his life to playing God.

According to his hubristic narrative, billions of dollars must be redirected, and all of society must be radically restructured, to combat a single threat whose existence is, to put it plainly, hypothetical.

Meanwhile, anyone who asks whether the cure for this imaginary threat may be worse than the delusory disease itself, is denounced as a “denier.”

True precaution would bid us take all reasonable measures against infectious disease, consistent with the general conditions of human flourishing. To sacrifice the latter for a fanciful fixation on the former is not caution, but madness.

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