Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The Ship of Fools allegory first appears in Plato’s Republic, where Plato uses it to show how a weak and badly trained captain creates chaos among the crew, who bicker over which of them should steer the ship, even though they have little of the knowledge and skills necessary for doing so. They end up mutinying against the captain and spending their time plundering the ship’s stores and eating and drinking, even as they sail towards disaster.
Plato, of course, was targeting the Athenian democracy, and its presumption that ordinary citizens have the capacity to govern, even though they lack the philosophical knowledge that shows what is good for people and the city they inhabit––not power, conquest, wealthy, or the pleasures of the body, but the virtue that comes from philosophical study. In other words, a technocratic oligarchy that Plato called “guardians” in his imagined perfect government.
For over a century the West has been evolving into such a government, whether it be socialism, communism, or the progressivism that has increasingly dominated our technocratic “managerial elite” and the numerous executive agencies staffed by credentialed “experts” who know better than the people what’s best for them.
This tyranny of the minority “managerial elite” has been more dangerous than the tyranny of the majority, assaulting our Constitutional structure that managed to avoid those extremes through divided and balanced government, along with the unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The multiple failures of our “experts” over the last several decades have refuted Plato’s allegory and exposed it as a false analogy–– it’s the technocratic “guardians” who pose the real danger, mismanaging our country and sailing it into ruin, even as they claim they are just “following the science,” and scorn the common sense and practical wisdom of the citizen masses. The result has been policies and beliefs so outlandish and devoid of common sense that they seem to come from some surreal satire.
Exhibit one in the catalogue of folly is transgenderism, the preposterous notion that merely wanting to self-identify as the opposite sex is warrant enough for undergoing irreversible changes to the body. This unscientific idea, moreover, is promoted and supported by the self-styled “brights,” including professional medical associations, who claim the authority of science to back up their political preferences. It reminds one of Jonathan Swift’s Academy of Projectors in Gulliver’s Travels, who work on ridiculous projects like extracting sunlight from cumbers and transforming excrement back into food.
Apart from violating common sense and real biological science, this notion is wildly incoherent. If our government is going to promote and subsidize this unscientific fad, why not the idea that race is equally mutable? After all, the dubious notion of race is much less immutable than biological sex. People can reproduce with someone from another race and create mixed-race offspring. If this happens consistently over several generations, as it did in the harems of Cordoba and the Ottoman empire, the offspring will end up being just one “race.” But the same “woke” geniuses who push for poisoning and mutilating children proscribe as “appropriation” any Caucasian who claims to be black.
The federal and state governments’ incompetent and lethal handling of the coronavirus pandemic is another example of the failure of state agencies and their technocratic bureaucrats’ claims to “follow the science.” The CDC’s and researchers’ diktats concerning the infectability of the disease; its mitigation protocols like masks, lockdowns, and social distancing; the efficacy and dangers of vaccines and boosters; and its lethality––all turned out to be spectacularly wrong, as the CDC itself virtually admitted in its August 11 new covid guidelines.
Equally repudiating of the top-down, bullying control of “experts” is the CDC’s endorsement of “personal responsibility” as critical for mitigating the disease. Now people should “decide which prevention behaviors to use and when (at all times or at specific times), based on their own risk for severe illness and that of members of their household, their risk tolerance, and setting-specific factors.” Technocrats rarely admit that a free people just might be more efficient at solving their problems than distant functionaries who depend on dubious or incomplete scientific evidence.
The CDC’s shift, of course, is too late for all those who have suffered “deaths of despair” that were multiplied by the lockdowns; or death and injury from the vaccines; or lost jobs and businesses, or the violation of the First Amendment rights of scientists, researchers, and commentators who challenged the “experts’” orthodoxy.
Nor is the CDC likely to change its behavior, given how dominated it is by agency received wisdom and institutional orthodoxy, and how protected it is from any accountability to the people. As the Founders frequently warned, “power is of an encroaching nature,” and those who enjoy power rarely give it up voluntarily, especially not a government agency during election season, when a change in which party controls Congress could negatively impact an agency’s budget, or summon its managers to uncomfortable congressional hearings.
Finally, there’s the mother of all government lunacy, the “war on fossil fuels” being waged by “green” crusaders like California’s government, which has decreed that in just eight years, only electric-powered vehicles will be sold in the state. No “expert,” however, has told us how a state that can’t keep the lights on during a forest-fire will create, and power, an electrical grid large and efficient enough to charge up all those new EVs.
Worse, this feckless policy relies on the notion that human-created CO2 will in a few decades destroy human civilization, which is not a scientific fact. Two physicists, William Happer (Emeritus Professor of Physics at Princeton), and Richard Lindzen (Emeritus Professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at MIT), recently testified before Congress that “science demonstrates that there is no climate-related risk caused by fossil fuels and CO2 and no climate emergency.”
Add in other dissidents who have challenged “climate change” or the efficacy of eliminating fossil fuels; the computer models of future warming serially repudiated by empirical data; the manipulation of data to fit the models, and the feckless policies like net-zero carbon promoted to prevent the alleged apocalypse, and it’s clear that manmade, apocalyptic global warming is not even close to being supported by real science. And don’t leave out the moral hazard of “green” grifters plundering billions through government subsidies and friendly regulations.
Yet all the “climate change” experts continue to promote these dangerous policies and their exorbitant, multitrillion dollar price tag, while compromising the production of the cheap, efficient fossil fuels that created the modern world and its wealth.
An illiterate peasant in the 18th century would have had enough common sense to know that you don’t destroy your vital energy source, all the while hoping that an equally cheap and efficient substitute somehow will turn up.
All these failures and irresponsible policies have undercut the progressive argument for an oligarchy of technocrats that armed with “science” will usher in the brave new world of perfect justice and happiness. The Founders knew better, for the flaws of human nature and its “passions and interests,” make that goal an impossible dream. They knew that power corrupts and encroaches, and that tyranny can come from the enlightened few as well as from the ignorant many.
Yet we have been seduced by the utopians who pretend that human nature and human life can be reduced to formulas and algorithms that they manipulate to improve humanity. We have given these “experts” an authority and power they frequently don’t deserve, and defer to their directives no matter how much they violate common sense or the traditional wisdom learned from generations of human experience.
Why else would a people like Americans––with a long tradition of freedom, independence, and self-sufficiency––so eagerly comply with the shifting, bullying covid protocols that compromised our freedom, put at risk our children, and damaged so many lives now and in the future?
We have become passengers on the Ship of Fools, and our reckoning fast approaches.