The great conservative thinker William F. Buckley in 1963 wrotethat he would rather “live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.” Buckley recognized the great “brainpower” among the university’s faculty, but feared the “intellectual arrogance that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university which refuses to accept any common premise.”

I thought of that oft-quoted line four years after the COVID-19 panic. It was a very real public health threat, so much so that it enabled Americans to transfer wide-ranging and largely unchecked powersto the experts. For two years, it was exactly as if Buckley’s fears came true and we were ruled by the type of people found in the faculty lounge.

It’s no secret that American universities are dominated by progressives, who don’t typically accept the “common premise” of limited governance. A core principle ofprogressivism, dating to its early 20th century roots, is the rule by experts. Disinterested parties would reform, protect, and re-engineer society based on their superior knowledge. Although adherents of this worldview speak in the name of the People, they don’t actually trust individuals to manage their own lives.

Looking back, COVID-19 shows the nation’s foundersrather than intellectual social engineershad it right. The founders created a system of checks and balances that made it hard for leaders to easily have their way. “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions,” wroteJames Madison. The pandemic stripped away those precautions, albeit (mostly) temporarily.

In fairness, the response to COVID by many ordinary Americans left much to be desired. Social media provided a megaphone forconspiracy theoriesand idiotic home remedies. Instead of acting responsibly by voluntarily embracing the best-known practices at the time, many Americans defied even the most sensible rules and acted out against store clerks and others. I was left disgusted by the edicts of our leaders and the behavior of many of my fellow citizens.

Nevertheless, the skeptics generally were correct. “The coronavirus shutdowns have created a dichotomy between those who tend to trust whatever the authorities sayand those who don’t seem to trust any official information at all,” I wrotein May 2020. “It’s not even slightly conspiratorial, however, to question the forecasts, data and presuppositions of those officials who are driving these policies. They have shut down society, forced us to stay at home, driven businesses into bankruptcy, caused widespread misery, and suspended many civil liberties.”

Yes, many of us told you so.

The experts and politicians touted the “science” even though that was really just a way of telling us to shut up and follow orders while they muddled their way through it. We’ve since learned that masks and plastic sneeze bars, lockdowns, school shutdowns, and the panoply of makeshift protections were, likely, of marginal value. Critics who questioned official death statistics were tarred as conspiratorialists. But even a 2023 Washington Post reportfound that officials seemed to be counting people who died “with” COVID rather than “from” it.

And don’t get me started on how politicians reacted. Some of the initial emergency edicts were justifiable, but then governors realized they could ram through unrelated (or tangentially related) political priorities by invoking fear. One former Assembly member compiled a 123-pagelistof Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-related executive orders. The courts ultimately struck down a handful of them, but the governor certainly didn’t let a good crisis go to waste.

The nation is still reeling from pandemic blowback. Inflation is soaring, sparked by supply chain disruptions and federal spending sprees that started with the shutdowns. Big cities such as San Francisco have hemorrhaged population as workers learned they no longer needed to commute into offices. Transit ridershipplummeted, sparking yet another funding crisis. Large segments of the public have become more dependent on government handouts. Municipal budgets are in shambles. Anti-eviction edicts further screwed up our rental markets.

Many downtowns, such as Sacramento, have yet to recover from the lockdowns, as shuttered businesseseach reflecting a personal tragedy for their ownersremain boarded up. And don’t get me started on the impact on education, especially for the poor. There’s a lost generation of students, victimized by school systems that couldn’t master distance learningresulting dismal test scoresand soaring absentee rates. We saw unions resist school re-openings because their priorities are workers, not students. Even some experts nowresearchthe resulting psychological harms.

I’m not saying that COVID didn’t require a reasonable response, but by listening solely to the equivalent of progressive academics and ignoring the concerns of Buckley’s proverbial first 2,000 names in the phone book, our governmentfailedits people.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.

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