By Barry Brownstein
Brown University economics professor Emily Oster recently created an uproar when she called for a “pandemic amnesty” for those who “made complicated choices in the face of deep uncertainty.” Oster wants to “focus on the future and fix the problems we still need to solve.” Yet those wounded by pandemic policies, those subjected to hate and ridicule for their opposing views, and those who value freedom, may not be in a forgiving mood.
Heather Heying and her husband Brett Weinstein were professors at Evergreen State College in Washington before a woke mob drove them out. Today, they are among the most articulate critics of centrally planned coercive responses to pandemics. Heying responded angrily to Oster’s article, decrying policies that “did a tremendous amount of damage to people… broke up families, destroyed income streams, made the last moments of lives for people bereft of meaning.” Heying added, “The idea that you would ask for amnesty without yet recognizing the errors and without yet fixing them and without even an apology is remarkable.”
Let’s be clear, Oster is no villain. By the fall of 2020, Oster was using evidence of risk versus the “enormous costs to children from closed schools” to advocate for reopening closed public schools.
At the same time, Heying is right. Many policymakers have learned nothing, changed nothing, and are still promoting policies at odds with science, such as pushing COVID vaccines on children. Erroneous policies have gravely damaged the economy and destroyed lives.
Oster would leave out of amnesty “willful purveyors of actual misinformation while forgiving the hard calls that people had no choice but to make with imperfect knowledge.”
Oster and I almost certainly disagree on who those “willful purveyors of actual misinformation” are, but we agree on the need for forgiveness.
When the pandemic began, Emily Oster is correct, most of us were making choices with imperfect information. I recall standing outside talking to a neighbor who had just returned from a COVID hotspot in Europe. At one point, my mind absurdly checked to see that I was 6 feet away from my neighbor.
Yet the critics of Oster are correct too. There is a difference between not knowing, and not knowing and then coercing others to follow your way.
When our mind is focused on those who transgressed against us, it is as if we see our life experience through a veil. Unheeded are basic lessons our experience can teach us.
Stoic philosopher Seneca counseled, “The majority of humankind gets angry not at the wrongs but at the wrongdoers. A good look at ourselves will make us more temperate if we ask ourselves: “Haven’t we ourselves also done something like that? Haven’t we gone astray in the same way? Does condemning these things really benefit us?’” Echoing Seneca, we can fix our gaze on righting the wrong rather than smiting the wrongdoers.
Forgiveness is a mindset, a way of being in the world, and not a specific behavior. It doesn’t mean we stay with an abusive spouse or excuse the actions of an authoritarian politician or petty bureaucrat. Amnesty is a legal decision made by the government. Forgiveness is a mindset chosen by individuals. Forgiveness means we have chosen not to harbor grievances.
Psychologist and concentration camp survivor Edith Eger points out in her book, The Choice, “There is a difference between victimization and victimhood. We are all likely to be victimized in some way in the course of our lives. At some point we will suffer some kind of affliction or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control.” Eger continues:
In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization. We develop a victim’s mind—a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors when we choose the confines of the victim’s mind.
Harboring grievances occupies our mental bandwidth and puts us on the path to victimhood. With grievances as the focus of life, our choices are distorted. Guided by grievances, when the last threads of our life’s tapestry are woven, we may not be content with a well-lived life.
Forgiveness is a choice to learn. We forgive for our own sake, so we take more effective action to reduce the odds that errors will happen again.
Forgiveness is a pathway to freedom and responsibility. Those who don’t forgive, don’t learn, and thus condemn themselves to repeat their errors.
Learning From the Suffering of Others
Throughout the pandemic, in several of my essays, I have turned to the work of Vasily Grossman to help us understand the consequences of authoritarian government policies. Grossman’s books are among the finest of the 20th century because he considered universal mindsets that may be present at any time, in any culture.
Grossman, a famed Soviet World War 2 war correspondent, was a fierce and effective eyewitness critic of the destructiveness of totalitarianism. His fact-based novels reveal the depravity and inhumanity of fascism and communism. Life and Fate is Grossman’s masterpiece, yet his shorter Everything Flows is perhaps a more accessible introduction to his work.
In Everything Flows, Grossman uses the device of an imagined trial conducted after the death of Stalin to consider the questions of “Who is guilty? Who will be held responsible?” On trial are the “informer-murderers”—called Judases by Grossman—who denounced others and caused immense suffering. The accused are ordinary people who went along and made totalitarianism work.
Notice, Grossman is not putting Stalin and other top officials on trial. His books clearly show where he stands on their evil.
Grossman describes the different types of informers, from those who denounced others while being tortured to those who “deftly and inventively [led] his friends to speak about dangerous matters” and “then handed in written reports to the authorities.”
There were those, Grossman explains, who were “captivated” by the “all-embracing” State. These “deadly swamp viper[s] had insinuated [themselves] into the confidence of many people—and brought them great suffering.” The targets the informers “destroyed were people like himself—kind, reserved, intelligent, timid people, his own oldest friends.”
Grossman imagines the “mentors” of informers, saying “We’re in trouble. We are surrounded by enemies. These men pretend to be tried-and-tested Party members, members of the prerevolutionary underground, men who fought in the Civil War—but they are enemies of the people, secret agents, provocateurs.” “Remember,” mentors said, “that you have neither father nor mother, neither brothers nor sisters. You have only the Party.”
Grossman’s personified voice of “The Party” says to informers, “Revere loyalty and obedience! It is the great Stalin, your father, who gives you the order: ‘Tally-ho! Hunt them down!’” Show no indecision or “you will prove that you are no different from these degenerates—and I will grind you to dust.”
Grossman explains the informers had no faith other than “faith in the mercilessness of the chastising hand of the great Stalin. In him lived the unhesitating obedience of the believer. In him lived a blissful timidity before a powerful force… A foot soldier of the great Stalin, he acted on Stalin’s orders.”
Grossman reveals the sad result of this faith. The informer “was acquiring a substance more precious than gold or land: the trust of the Party. He understood that in Soviet life the trust of the Party was everything: power, honor, authority. And he believed that his lies served a higher truth: in his denunciations he could glimpse this Truth.” This mindset, this “crazed, stupefied way of being… had been nourished by centuries of Russian slavery, of Asiatic despotism.”
The “bestiality” of Soviet life had turned some into beasts. Yet, Grossman is clear, succumbing to the Party was an individual choice.
Grossman himself suffered tremendously under communism. Soviet authorities seized the manuscript of his greatest work, Life and Fate, and he died thinking it would never be published. He was always unflinching about totalitarianism’s depravity and the Soviet mindset that enabled this inhumanity. Yet his imaginary telling of a post-Stalin “trial” of informers takes a surprising turn.
Grossman argues for amnesty for “informer-murders,” despite his own suffering and his pessimism that the Soviet mindset could ever support a free society.
During the pandemic, the critics of COVID policies were vilified by their friends, families and by the highest levels of government.
Following Grossman, imagine putting on trial today’s enforcers of unconstitutional edicts: bureaucrats working for government agencies, college and public-school administrators, hospital administrators, organizational leaders, police who enforced edicts against church attendance, and on and on.
The parallels are not exact. After all, despite the terrible excess of government overreach during the pandemic, Americans, unlike Grossman’s Soviets, still have a reservoir of valuing freedom. Yet, just as informers enabled Stalin’s reign of terror, enforcers enabled politicians to inflict harm.
In his imagined trial, Grossman has the accused attempt to evade responsibility by asking prosecutors, “Why are you so eager to condemn those, like us, who are small and weak? Why not begin with the State? Why not try the State? Our sin, after all, is its sin. Pass judgment on the State then—fearlessly, out loud, and in public.”
The accused queries, “What is the reason for this vile, universal weakness? Your weakness, our weakness, everyone’s weakness? What is the reason for our mass submissiveness?”
Then, no doubt speaking for Grossman, the accused answered with another penetrating question: “Maybe it is human nature itself that has engendered informers, stool pigeons, writers of denunciations, collaborators with the security organs?”
The “defense counsel,” again speaking for Grossman, argues it is not the State but the mindset of individuals, their way of being in the world:
The State does not itself give birth to people. Informers have sprouted from man. The hot steam of State terror breathed upon mankind and little grains that had been sleeping swelled and came to life. The State is the earth. If the earth has no grains lying hidden inside it, neither wheat nor tall weeds will grow from it. Humanity has only itself to blame for human filth.
Grossman’s defense counsel adds, “But do you know the vilest thing of all about stool pigeons and informers? Do you think it is the bad in them?”
The counsel answers his question: “No! The most terrible thing is the good in them; the saddest thing is that they are full of merits and good qualities”:
They are loving and affectionate sons, fathers, and husbands… They are capable of real achievements of virtue and labor.
Among them are brave and patient soldiers who shared with their comrade their last crust of bread or last pinch of tobacco and who, in their own arms, carried a wounded, bleeding fighter off the field of battle. And what gifted poets, musicians, physicists, and doctors there are among them. What skilled craftsmen—metalworkers and carpenters—men who are spoken of with admiration as having ‘golden hands.’
The counsel adds, “This is what is so terrifying; that there is so much good in them, so much good in their human essence.” And then Grossman’s defense counsel rests his case:
Whom, then, should we judge? Human nature! Human nature is what engenders these heaps of lies, all this meanness, cowardice, and weakness. But then human nature also engenders what is good, pure, and kind. Informers and stool pigeons are full of virtue, they should all be released and sent home—but how vile they are! Vile for all their virtues, vile even with all their sins absolved.
Being human, we all have a right mind, a wrong mind, and the ability to choose between the two. Few can say they have not fallen to human frailty.
No doubt, the enforcers of the pandemic era have wonderful qualities, as witnessed by people close to them. Grossman would say that this makes their cravenness all the sadder. Yet, seeing our common humanity with wrongdoers engenders our mindset of forgiveness.
Tilting the Odds So This Never Happens Again
Understanding human weakness, Odysseus resisted the temptation of the Sirens’ call by ordering his crew to lash him to the mast of his ship.
The Founding Fathers understood human weakness and thus created a constitutional government with limited and checked powers. The government was to be lashed to the mast, no matter how beguiling the temptation to set in motion a large, more-powerful government. The Founders couldn’t have imagined the modern presidency, with its broad executive powers and unconstitutional authority given to unelected officials of the administrative state.
The Founding Fathers couldn’t have imagined what President Eisenhower called the “scientific-technological elite” having such a large presence at the policy table. They couldn’t have imagined the government granting vaccine manufacturers 100 percent immunity from liability if their products harmed others.
Emily Oster vaccinated her children against COVID. Oster apparently was not concerned about the liability issue, and implicitly adopted the belief that COVID vaccines not subject to tort law are safe. When corporations are subsidized and protected from the consequences of their behavior, expect wrongdoing.
When coercion interferes with individuals’ choices, markets cannot check human greed. The market must be free to punish corporate mistakes. A free market rightfully grants no amnesty.
In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek explains why this respect for the rights of others is necessary for the freedom to choose. Limits on our actions are not to be decided by majority opinions. Hayek writes, “The benefits I derive from freedom are thus largely the result of the uses of freedom by others, and mostly of those uses of freedom that I could never avail myself of.” You can make the best choice for you and your family and understand that your freedom of choice depends on respecting the rights of others to do the same.
Don Boudreaux is concerned that “the risk is too high that the pursuit of justice will descend into a hunt for revenge” if we set up tribunals to judge those policymakers who pursued destructive COVID policies. University of Chicago philosophy and law professor Martha Nussbaum argues it is magical thinking to believe vengeance can somehow correct the damage done by those who transgressed against us. Is it not far better to turn our focus to restoring constitutional limits on the president and Congress and dismantling the administrative state? Taking account of human frailty, we can tie ourselves to the mast of principles so that no matter how scared we get in the future, we will not allow authoritarians to exploit our human weakness. We can forgive ourselves and those who transgressed against us for holding the magical belief that authoritarian power can ever point the way forward.