Religious speech gets shorted again

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition asking whether a transit authority can reject a Christmas ad for display on its buses just because the ad is religious. This is an easy question, and it’s a shame the Court denied the petition. Justices Gorsuch and Thomas, though, did write a short consolation prize, saying what they would have said if they granted the case: namely, the government can’t discriminate against a religious viewpoint on a topic while allowing other non-religious viewpoints.

The sides of buses are a frequent and heated battleground for free speech. Transit authorities often draw revenue by selling blank space on their buses. In this case, Archdiocese of Washington v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the Catholic Church tried to place a Christmas ad on D.C. buses with the silhouettes of a few shepherds and the phrase “Find the Perfect Gift.” The transit authority rejected the ad.

    The key fact here was that the transit authority allowed other ads about Christmas. All the parties, and the various courts, agreed that Christmas has a “secular” component and a “religious” component. Hence, Wal-Mart and Macy’s and every other retailer could slap their ads on buses across the metropolitan area clamoring about how to celebrate the holiday (by buying their stuff). But a religious advertiser could not express their views on how to celebrate the holiday in that same space, the only difference being the religious nature of the content.

    The Supreme Court has repeatedly stated in other settings that similar restrictions constitute viewpoint discrimination. If the government allows speech on a particular subject matter, it cannot then restrict speech on that topic simply because the viewpoint is religious. That’s true even if the proposed speech drips with religious sentiment–such sentiment deserves equal footing under the First Amendment.

    This isn’t to say that D.C. buses can now be overrun with religious zealotry. D.C. could lawfully limit advertisements to only commercial ads (they don’t). And of course they could always just forego the revenue and say no ads at all. But if the government opens up a space for expression, it must do so even-handedly.

    Ron Paul’s Revolution: A libertarian education

    The Mises Institute, lewrockwell.com, and FFF all had cool articles mixed in with some not so cool stuff, and I stuck with these sites for a while after opening the floodgates. The fact that these sites are more combative, more dogmatic than other libertarian organizations probably played a role in my reluctance to branch out too far into other spheres of influence. I was a product of the public school system and a relatively strict religious upbringing and, as a result, my mind was mush. The combativeness spoke to me. It seized me in its grasp and led me forcefully down a path I knew I needed to take. This personal intellectual journey was complemented by my foray into formal education. My professors, too, were combative but not in the same way as the paleo-libertarian websites I would frequent. They pushed me, hard. The cool thing about Cabrillo College was a combination of the weather, the girls (me and the Banana Slug broke up shortly after our arrival in Santa Cruz), the PhDs teaching there, and the fact that most of the classes shrunk in size to about 12 people (more or less) in a matter of weeks. I was getting a first-rate education from great teachers who happened to be married to the California Teachers’ Union. After one semester at Cabrillo College, I was reluctantly ushered into its fairly challenging Honors program, where a transfer to Cal or maybe even Stanford was all but guaranteed.

    My go-to websites began to change. The Independent Institute, where Anthony Gregory was officially employed, and Liberty, which published occasional essays by a French-American scholar who happened to live in Santa Cruz, became more influential. FEE’s smorgasbord of scholars overwhelmed me with libertarianism. Cato’s devout, firebrand non-interventionism emboldened my heart. EconLog and Cafe Hayek were too wishy-washy for me at the time. They had no oopmf. Reason was cool but it was too bubbly, too pop-culture for me. Tyler Cowen’s name began to pop up in places. I also came across Peter Boettke and Steve Horwitz via a brutal intralibertarian squabble at the Mises Institute’s website. These were scholars I earmarked as possible sources of knowledge, but their blogs were too informal for me. They reminded me of my college classes, and I already had enough of those on my plate as it was. I wanted – needed – my libertarianism to be sure of itself, formal, and able to reinforce my thoughts about the world at large. Just like Ron Paul.

    I decided to spend the summer of 2009 traveling not around Europe or Ghana, but around the United States in order to attend seminars that various libertarian foundations put on for undergraduate students.

    I attended four seminars that summer. The first one was up the road from Santa Cruz in Oakland at the Independent Institute. It was a strange way to be introduced into the world of formal libertarianism. First, they had no idea I was coming. I had signed up for the seminar, and I remember paying for it because I had found out that the Independent Institute offered seminars during the summer long after I had already bought my plane tickets for the other three, so I bummed the money from my dad in order to squeeze in a week at my favorite libertarian think tank. Mary and David Theroux were nonetheless ecstatic to have me there and offered to waive the fee. I politely declined their offer and paid up on the spot. (I was a libertarian now and not some freeloading socialist.) My situation was probably helped by the fact that there were only 4 or 5 other students attending the seminar, and most of them were high school students forced to attend for an assortment of reasons.

    I was especially excited about the lineup of scholars the institute had cobbled together. Robert Higgs could not be there (I would see him later, at different seminar), but Anthony Gregory and Fred Foldvary would both be there, as would three guys I had never heard of before: Brian Gothberg, James Ahiakpor, and José Maria J. Yulo.

    The two things that brought me into libertarianism was its non-interventionist foreign policy and its internationalist worldview. I have always been attracted to other ways of life, and Ron Paul’s 2008-2009 campaign perfectly encapsulated these two attractive -isms. That James Ahiakpor, an economist from Ghana, and José Maria J. Yulo, a philosopher from the Philippines, were to be teaching me about libertarianism, in person, was perfect. Ahiakpor lectured on Adam Smith, and Yulo on Plato, two dead white guys whose thoughts I had never been introduced to before (though I knew both of their names). Ahiakpor’s lectures were actually a bit of a dud. He was not able to fathom, or entertain, the notion of an economy without a central bank. He appealed to Adam Smith on the matter, and that was that. Dr Yulo’s lectures were quite different. They were rich and socratic. They were peppered with personal anecdotes, both funny and serious. They were conservative, too. Dr. Yulo’s lectures eviscerated my aversion to conservatism. He made conservatives human and worthy of my time and attention. Anthony was Anthony and Fred was Fred. The star of the seminar was undoubtedly Brian Gothberg.

    Gothberg’s passion for liberty oozed out into the makeshift classroom (this makeshift classroom was one of the many charms connected with attending the institute’s seminar). Gothberg had been a California liberal, a technocrat rather than a socialist like me, and his intellectual journey sounded, to me at the time, a lot like my own. He used basic economic reasoning to show how prices could help save the environment, and how the Robber Barons captured their rents. Most of all Gothberg used every opportunity he could to engage me personally. I am an introvert and I just showed up on the institute’s doorstep with apparently no heads up. Brian went out of his way to make me feel welcome, to help me voice my thoughts aloud, and to get to know me.

    I spent my nights in San Francisco that week, sleeping on my best friend’s couch. I brought him all of the books I would receive from the seminar. My friend and I marched together in San Francisco. He was attending San Francisco State at the time. We had heated but mostly civil discussions about liberty and American politics. He and I went to the same schools in the same town. We both had the same worldview of civics up until Ron Paul crashed the party. Looking back, those discussions represented the flowering of our intellectual capacity to think for ourselves. We were teasing out ideas and confronting stark intellectual challenges to our conceptions of the world. The books I gave him ended up in his garbage can. When I was again sleeping on his couch, in Austin, in 2016, he had voted for Gary Johnson. (During those hot summer nights in Austin, we both revealed what turned out to be a shared disgust in our fellow anti-war protestors. Those people were not marching in San Francisco to protest the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq; they were marching against the Republican Party and, by extension, democratic politics.)

    Next up were two of FEE’s venerated seminars, one in Midland, Michigan and the other in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. The Midland seminar, located at Northwood University, was a breath of fresh air. The topic of the seminar was “History & Liberty,” and lecturers included Lawrence Reed, Robert Higgs, Brad Birzer, Burton Folsom Jr., and Stephen Davies. Unlike the seminar in Oakland, this one was well-organized and well-funded. I was put up in a dorm and all of my meals were comped. These were also well-attended seminars. I met people from all over the world, though Midwestern Americans formed a slight majority. My roommate was none other than Vincent Geloso, 2017’s hottest libertarian blogger. In 2009, though, Vincent was already something of a star. A Quebecer, Geloso spent his free time either trying to get into the pants of an outgoing Guatemalan student whose name escapes me or watching Star Trek reruns on his laptop. He organized a boycott of Robert Higgs’ remaining lectures for the week after Dr. Higgs haughtily suggested that World War II was not worth the effort. Vincent also praised Paul Krugman’s academic work while bemoaning his blog at the New York Times, something I was not yet accustomed to libertarians doing. At Mises and FFF (and at the lectures of these summer seminars), Krugman was nothing more than a punching bag, not somebody you could learn from.

    Burton Folsom made everybody laugh, and Larry Reed made everybody feel good. Stephen Davies lectured on Paraguay, and its lessons have stuck with me over the years, but Brad Birzer’s intelligence and loquaciousness impressed me the most. Brad Birzer loves history. There are two events I remember most clearly about that first FEE seminar in humid Midland, Michigan. First: I remember seeing Sheldon Richman at a table by himself eating breakfast and reading at the same time. The man lived and breathed liberty. I remember thinking to myself (I dared not interrupt his breakfast) that he was probably reading some obscure work of Böhm-Bawerk or something. Second, I was dropped off at the airport a full day before my flight was scheduled. I tried to find a field to sleep in, but was instead picked up on the side of some god forsaken road by an airport employee on her way home, and she let me meet her family, dine with them, and crash on her couch for the night.

    The Irvington-on-Hudson seminar was an introductory course on “Austrian economics.” I don’t remember much about the lectures. Lawrence Reed was there again. He told different stories than the ones he told in Midland, and they were equally good. Sheldon Richman lectured, too. An economist named Paul Cwik lectured. He was funny, but unremarkable. I don’t think I learned anything new at this seminar.

    There was an Asian girl from Stanford, an economics major, who attended the seminar. She stood out because she was a she, she was Asian, and she attended an elite school. I remember her asking Sheldon Richman, after one of his forgettable lectures, a question about economics and him becoming flustered by the questions. The Asian girl actually put up her hands at one point and said “woah.” She backed away slowly and I never heard from her again. This seminar had less Midwestern Americans in it. There were more Europeans. I don’t remember who my roommate was at Irvington-on-Hudson but I do remember going to the city not once but twice. The first time I went with a Dane and a Swede, both of whom were business students. The Empire State Building blew them away. I went a second time to the city with two Italians, brothers Claudio and Adriano Gulisano. The brothers stayed out late and pretended to enjoy the nightlife. I could see in their eyes, though, that NY’s nightlife was a perfunctory for them; a duty to be performed as a European in the United States. The Brothers Gulisano were, and are, brooding individualists concerned only with the next move of their enemy (the state), and NY’s shallow nightlife rudely illuminated the chains of their social obligations.

    The highlight of the Austrian Economics seminar was not the old FEE building or New York, but Lode Cossaer, a Belgian libertarian whose passion for liberty was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He freely gave the Americans history lessons about their own country. He told the Eastern Europeans to beware of clever authoritarian traps nestled in their Hoppeanism. He explained to the Guatemalans why their university, Francisco Marroquin, was such an important institution for global liberty. Cossaer did all of these things with the worst haircut in the world, too. (He had one of those little boy bowlcuts that just makes you want to puke when you see a grown man sporting it.)

    The final seminar of that eventful summer brought me, full circle, back to northern California. The Institute for Humane Studies was an institute I hadn’t heard much about. There wasn’t a lot of writing on its website, but it was obviously libertarian and the seminar had some great topics (I think it was “liberty & economic development” or something along those lines). I had to write an essay and wait around to be rejected or accepted. The seminar was at Cal, a school I still didn’t think I could ever get in to. IHS set itself apart from FEE and the Independent Institute before the summer even started.

    The students were different, too. Elite research universities and expensive liberal arts colleges adorned most of the nametags. The majority of the students were from the eastern seaboard or the upper South. There were more Californians; two attended Cal, one attended UCSD (and whose boyfriend was from my hometown), and Rick Weber, my favorite economist-blogger. The lecturers had no public presence that I was aware of, except for one of them, who was officially was part of the Coordination Problem group blog but hardly ever wrote anything there. The IHS seminar had more of a university feel to it, overall, while the other three had more of a Fellowship of the Rings vibe to them. There were more leftists and fewer foreigners. My roommate was an older undergraduate who was attending Georgetown. He had just gotten out of the Navy. The lecturers included an anthropologist, two economists – one from France and one from the United States – and a philosopher.

    The economists were forgettable, except for the French one’s contempt for his home country, but the anthropologist and the philosopher were excellent. Susan Love Brown lectured on planned societies and their many failures, and Andrew I. Cohen actually brought leftists to tears with his rigorous logic. So defeated were these leftists that they had no recourse other than to do what their mommies and daddies had taught them to do: cry about it. This was a phenomenon that I had never witnessed before.

    The lecturers and the students would party together after dinner. At one point the organizers, the 24 year-olds responsible for overseeing the day-to-day affairs of the seminar, asked us as a group to be aware of the fact that a big-time donor would be at one of the lectures for half of the day. Many of the non-Californian students, as well as the lecturing American economist, ignored me once they learned that Cabrillo College was a community college rather than an obscure liberal arts college in the redwoods. Dr. Cohen reached out to me, as did Dr. Brown, but the overall atmosphere kept the vibe bittersweet. IHS at Cal was nothing like FEE or the Independent Institute in Oakland.

    Altogether, the IHS experience was more rewarding precisely because it was more alarming. Berkeley taught me that libertarian people as well as libertarian organizations are fallible, something that I think FEE and the Independent Institute tried to ignore or gloss over. There are careerists in the libertarian movement. There’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to professionalizing libertarian thought, strategy, and outreach. I tried to hitch a ride with one of the Cal students up to Sacramento, where I could take a bus to Placerville, but he didn’t have any room in his car. I took a train instead, from Berkeley to Sacramento, and a bus from Sacramento to Placerville. I spent the next two weeks on my mom’s couch, and then it was back to Santa Cruz for the fall.

    Next: from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles

    Eco’s ‘How to eat ice cream’

    A friend recently gifted me a vintage copy of some of Umberto Eco’s essays translated to English. One of the essays, titled “How to eat ice cream,” opened with an anecdote Eco said was based on his childhood. In the story, there was an ice cream vendor who sold regular cones for two cents and ice cream pie cones for four cents. Eco said his parents and grandmother would buy him which ever type he requested, but there was a limit. Young Eco envied the neighbor children who would parade down the street carrying a regular cone in each hand. But whenever he asked for four cents to buy two cones, the adults would flatly refuse and tell him that he could have a pie cone instead. As an adult, he mused:

    […] I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this was precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, an insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. […] And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenus, were bringing up their children in the foolish theatre of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.

    The parenting method must have worked because he became Umberto Eco. What Eco recognized was that his parents had inoculated him against false consumerist behavior. The preventative measures were not against the so-called consumerist society but ostentatious display, the process of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

    Around January 2018, there was a meme floating around social media. It said something along the lines of “Entrepreneur: someone who lives a few years the way most people won’t so that they can spend the rest of their lives living the way most people can’t.” I very belatedly discovered Carl Schramm’s 2004 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative. Schramm identified the 1950s as the time when American society ceased valorizing business ownership and virtuous risk in favor of material security. As part of the “security first” mentality, children and young people were openly discouraged from seeking independence or from being different in a positive way. The world was one of ossification and stagnation, even as the federal government and media pushed a strong Keynesian message of “consume to grow.” On a side note, now that I think about it, Keynesian economics resemble the children’s video game Snake: one guides the snake to food so that it will grow but eventually it becomes so big that it bites itself – Game over.

    Even given the massive propaganda effort put into promoting Keynesian theories, scapegoating “consumerism” or “consumerist society” is a form of escapist thought, a dodging of responsibility. Eco spotted the cause and effect nature of being a parvenu. The desire for “fictitious privilege” creates a set of priorities that cause one to spend his wherewithal thoughtlessly. In turn a “boast of wealth” strategy leads to “’I’d like to but I can’t’” through ensuring that there is no money when real opportunity arrives. The world becomes one of abundant middle as the effort to possess everything spirals.

    Again: Never reason from a fatality change

    The future isn’t written yet

    Last week Richard Epstein predicted around 500 fatalities in the United States (I originally misread his estimate to be 50,000 for the US, not the whole world). His estimate was tragically falsified within days and he has now revised his estimate to 5,000. I still think that’s optimistic but I am hopeful for less than 50,000 deaths in the United States given the social distancing measures currently in place.

    Today, several US peers have become excited about a Daily Wire article on comments by a British epidemiologist, Neil Ferguson. He has lowered his UK projections from 500,000 to 20,000 Coronavirus fatalities. The article omits the context of the change. The original New Scientist article (from which the Daily Wire is derivative with little original reporting) explains that the new fatality rate is partly due to a shift in our understanding of existing infections, but also a result of the social distancing measures introduced.

    The simple point is:

    Policy interventions will change infection rates, alter future stresses on the health system, and (when they work) lower future projections of fatalities. When projections are lower, it is not necessarily because the Coranavirus is intrinsically less deadly than believed but because appropriate responses have made it less deadly.

    Life

    Screenshot 2020-03-26 at 12.15.15

    No matter how old, frail or vulnerable it may be, a life isn’t something to take or risk at another’s discretion. Nor does it undermine culpability when someone dies as a result of negligence. The common law ‘eggshell skull’ rule reflects this moral principle.

    During the Coronavirus pandemic, some erstwhile defenders of the famous Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) appear to have forgotten that natural rights are conceived to protect life as well as liberty and property. They seem to think that the liberties we ordinarily enjoy have priority over the right to life of others. The environment has changed and, for the time being, many activities that we previously knew to be safe for others are not. They are not part of our set of liberties until a reformed set of rules, norms and habits establishes a sufficiently hygienic public environment. To say that bans on public gatherings violate natural rights a priori is as untenable as G.A. Cohen’s claim that a prohibition on walking onto a train without a valid ticket is a violation of one’s freedom.

    The clue for anarcho-capitalist state-sceptics that this is a genuine shift in social priorities is that even organized criminal gangs are willing to enforce social distancing. You do not have to believe that the state itself is legitimate to see that the need for social distancing is sufficiently morally compelling that it can be enforced absent free agreement, just as one does not need free agreement to exercise a right to self-defense.

    Not every restriction is going to be justified, although erring on the restrictive side makes sense while uncertainty about the spread of infection persists. Ultimately, restrictions have to balance genuine costs with plausible benefits. But rejecting restrictions on a priori grounds does not cohere with libertarian principles. Right now, our absolute liberties extend to the right to be alone. Everything else must be negotiated under uncertainty. Someone else’s life, even two-weeks or so in the future, is a valid side-constraint on liberty. People can rightfully be made to stay at home if they are fortunate enough to have one. When people have to travel out of necessity, they can be temporarily exempted, compensated or offered an alternative reasonable means of satisfying their immediate needs.

    A PPE pandemic reading list

    I haven’t written for a while – other duties get in the way – but I’d like to suggest this reading list in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics for the present time of crisis and perplexity. The main reason is that everyone seems to be an expert in Economics, Epidemiology, and Political Philosophy these days, assuming that from “facts” we can easily derive “values” and answer the question, “what is to be done?” I think this is at best a naïve attitude and at worst the same rationalistic hubris we experience everytime a political issue is simplified and reduced to a matter of “science”. Yes, there are facts and they shouldn’t be ignored, but it’s not easy to decide what is to be done, morally and politically, in light of those facts.

    The first item on the list is Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. A classic, and a reminder that people choose all the time to sacrifice some degree of liberty in the altar of survival (or a chance to survive), but also a reminder that Leviathan may turn from friend to foe, from protector to persecutor – and there is very little we can do about it. The second item is John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government, which then explores this topic in light of the fact that civil government shouldn’t have absolute power. It makes an attempt to show us how that power can, or should, be limited within a certain sphere of responsibility. Though it’s still there to protect us.

    In this time of pandemic, people feel tempted to panic. People and politicians are calling for dramatic measures, and one reason is that the use of government coercion – which, according to Locke, ought to be limited – might be necessary to force people to cooperate, for example, by staying home. This is a proposed solution to the dilemmas of collective action posed by the problem that some may “free-ride” on the rest, and, as a result, the disease will keep spreading, frustrating any attempt to slow it down. Against dramatic, desperate and, perhaps, arrogant, use of political power, and in favor of prudence and wisdom, Edmund Burke’s collection of writings from the period of the French Revolution can be a beacon of light. On the other hand, explaining the dilemmas of collective action and suggesting ways of solving them, Mancur Olson offers an insightful look at incentives and group behavior in The Logic of Collective Action.

    However, the idea that government coercion is the only solution to dilemmas of collective action (such as imposing a quarantine, for example) doesn’t hold water. In fact, other economists follow Olson in saying the problem is real and challenges a strict individualist way of thinking, but, adding to Olson’s point, they also acknowledge the role of private action and sanctions in fostering cooperation. Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons is a wonderful study that opens up a number of possibilities for private enforcing of collective action to preserve and promote the frugal allocation of common goods. This can be complemented by The Quest for Community, an overlooked work by sociologist Robert Nisbet, where it becomes clear that, between individuals, the state, and the market, there’s room for other associations and communities that strengthen civil society – particularly in this challenging time. Nisbet’s lesson invites liberty-loving people to reflect on whether a hyper-individualistic view of the world ends up pitting helpess individuals against Leviathan instead of offering the buffer zone of community in between. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville discussed in the 19th century.

    And just for the sake of dealing with the issue that “is” doesn’t easily lead to “ought”, and that science might have facts and an explanation for them, but does not easily conduce to a proper discussion on values policy, I must finish this PPE pandemic reading list with F. A. Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. On Chapter 4, for example, Hayek introduces a constrast between “rationalist liberalism” and “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Rationalist liberals assume too easily that knowledge of the facts on the ground will give them what they need to re-design a society governed by reason. Hayek warns us against this technocratic assumption and offers a defence of “anti-rationalist liberalism”. Anti-rationalist liberals understand the importance of spontaneous order and of constraining power (even at a time of crisis) while prudently balancing the values of liberty and safety in light of past experience and tradition.


    Three Additional readings:

    Buzan, Waever and De Wilde, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1997). In a liberal democracy, the state steps in suspending some civil liberties only if it can persuade citizens that there’s a threat that justifies it. This book offers a framework to interpret how such threats are constructed in official and non-official discourse, and to what extent this construction of a threat can be effective.

    Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (2013). 25th anniversary edition. Looks at US history and how government employed crises to its advantage and the advantage of the ruling elites. In particular, security and economy related issues are dealt with.

    Sanford Ikeda, Dynamics of the Mixed Economy (2002). Shows that a time of crisis might be a time for further interventionism in the economy, as Higgs (see above) suggests, but might also be a time for disintervention, as seems to be the case with part of the agenda today (FDA deregulation, etc.) This is based on Ludwig von Mises’ view that interventionist economies are not very stable and are always swinging as a pendulum between socialism and capitalism.

     

    A History of Plagues

    As COVID-19 continues to spread, fears and extraordinary predictions have also gone viral. While facing a new infectious threat, the unknowns of how new traits of our societies worldwide or of this novel coronavirus impact its spread. Though no two pandemics are equivalent, I thought it best to face this new threat armed with knowledge from past infectious episodes. The best inoculation against a plague of panic is to use evidence gained through billions of deaths, thousands of years, and a few vital breakthroughs to prepare our knowledge of today’s biological crises, social prognosis, and choices.

    Below, I address three key questions: First, what precedents do we have for infections with catastrophic potential across societies? Second, what are the greatest killers and how do pandemics compare? Lastly, what are our greatest accomplishments in fighting infectious diseases?

    As foundation for understanding how threats like COVID-19 come about and how their hosts fight back, I recommend reading The Red Queen concerning the evolutionary impact and mechanisms of host-disease competition and listening to Sam Harris’ “The Plague Years” podcast with Matt McCarthy from August 2019, which predated COVID-19 but had a strangely prophetic discussion of in-hospital strategies to mitigate drug resistance and their direct relation to evolutionary competition.

    • The Biggest Killers:

    Infectious diseases plagued humanity throughout prehistory and history, with a dramatic decrease in the number of infectious disease deaths coming in the past 200 years. In 1900, the leading killers of people were (1) Influenza, (2) Tuberculosis, and (3) Intestinal diseases, whereas now we die from (1) Heart disease, (2) Cancer, and (3) Stroke, all chronic conditions. This graph shows not that humans have vanquished infectious disease as a threat, but that in the never-ending war of evolutionary one-upmanship, we have won battles consistently since 1920 forward. When paired with Jonathan Haidt’s Most Important Graph in the World, this vindicates humanity’s methods of scientific and economic progress toward human flourishing.Death rates

    However, if the CDC had earlier data, it would show a huge range of diseases that dwarf wars and famines and dictators as causes of death in the premodern world. If we look to the history of plagues, we are really looking at the history of humanity’s greatest killers.

    The sources on the history of pandemics are astonishingly sparse/non-comprehensive. I created the following graphs only by combining evidence and estimates from the WHO, CDC, Wikipedia, Our World in Data, VisualCapitalist, and others (lowest estimates shown where ranges were presented) for both major historic pandemics and for ongoing communicable disease threats. This is not a complete dataset, and I will continue to add to it, but it shows representative death counts from across major infectious disease episodes, as well as the death rate per year based on world population estimates. See the end of this post for the full underlying data. First, the top 12 “plagues” in history:

    Capture disease top 12

     

    Note: blue=min, orange=max across the sources I examined. For ongoing diseases with year-by-year WHO evidence, like tuberculosis, measles, and cholera, I grouped mortality in 5-year spans (except AIDS, which does not have good estimates from the 1980s-90s, so I reported based on total estimated deaths).

    Now, let’s look at the plagues that were lowest on my list (number 55-66). Again, my list was not comprehensive, but this should provide context for COVID-19:

    Capture covid

    As we can see, the 11,400 people who have died from COVID-19 recently passed Ebola to take the 61st (out of 66) place on our list of plagues. Note again that several ongoing diseases were recorded in 5-year increments, and COVID-19 still comes in under the death rates for cholera. Even more notably, it has 0.015% as many victims as the plague in the 14th Century,

    • In Context of Current Infectious Diseases:

    For recent/ongoing diseases, it is easier to compare year-by-year data. Adding UNAIDS to our sources, we found the following rates of death across some of the leading infectious causes of death. Again, this is not comprehensive, but helps put COVID-19 (the small red dot, so far in the first 3 months of 2020) in context:

    Capture diseases by year

    Note: darker segments of lines are my own estimates; full data at bottom of the post. I did not include influenza due to the lack of good sources on a year-by-year basis, but a Lancet article found that 291,000-645,000 deaths from influenza in a year is predictable based on data from 1999-2015.

    None of this is to say that COVID-19 is not a major threat to human health globally–it is, and precautions could save lives. However, it should show us that there are major threats to human health globally all the time, that we must continue to fight. These trendlines tend to be going the right direction, but our war for survival has many foes, and will have more emerge in the future, and we should expend our resources in fighting them rationally based on the benefits to human health, not panic or headlines.

    • The Eradication List:

    As we think about the way to address COVID-19, we should keep in mind that this fight against infectious disease builds upon work so amazing that most internet junkies approach new infectious diseases with fear of the unknown, rather than tired acceptance that most humans succumb to them. That is a recent innovation in the human experience, and the strategies used to fight other diseases can inform our work now to reduce human suffering.

    While influenzas may be impossible to eradicate (in part due to an evolved strategy of constantly changing antigens), I wanted to direct everyone to an ever-growing monument to human achievement, the Eradication List. While humans have eradicated only a few infectious diseases, the amazing thing is that we can discuss which diseases may in fact disappear as threats through the work of scientists.

    On that happy note, I leave you here. More History of Plagues to come, in Volume 2: Vectors, Vaccines, and Virulence!

    Disease Start Year End Year Death Toll (low) Death Toll (high) Deaths per 100,000 people per year (global)
    Antonine Plague 165 180 5,000,000 5,000,000 164.5
    Plague of Justinian 541 542 25,000,000 100,000,000 6,250.0
    Japanese Smallpox Epidemic 735 737 1,000,000 1,000,000 158.7
    Bubonic Plague 1347 1351 75,000,000 200,000,000 4,166.7
    Smallpox (Central and South America) 1520 1591 56,000,000 56,000,000 172.8
    Cocoliztli (Mexico) 1545 1545 12,000,000 15,000,000 2,666.7
    Cocoliztli resurgence (Mexico) 1576 1576 2,000,000 2,000,000 444.4
    17th Century Plagues 1600 1699 3,000,000 3,000,000 6.0
    18th Century Plagues 1700 1799 600,000 600,000 1.0
    New World Measles 1700 1799 2,000,000 2,000,000 3.3
    Smallpox (North America) 1763 1782 400,000 500,000 2.6
    Cholera Pandemic (India, 1817-60) 1817 1860 15,000,000 15,000,000 34.1
    Cholera Pandemic (International, 1824-37) 1824 1837 305,000 305,000 2.2
    Great Plains Smallpox 1837 1837 17,200 17,200 1.7
    Cholera Pandemic (International, 1846-60) 1846 1860 1,488,000 1,488,000 8.3
    Hawaiian Plagues 1848 1849 40,000 40,000 1.7
    Yellow Fever 1850 1899 100,000 150,000 0.2
    The Third Plague (Bubonic) 1855 1855 12,000,000 12,000,000 1,000.0
    Cholera Pandemic (International, 1863-75) 1863 1875 170,000 170,000 1.1
    Indian Smallpox 1868 1907 4,700,000 4,700,000 9.8
    Franco-Prussian Smallpox 1870 1875 500,000 500,000 6.9
    Cholera Pandemic (International, 1881-96) 1881 1896 846,000 846,000 4.4
    Russian Flu 1889 1890 1,000,000 1,000,000 41.7
    Cholera Pandemic (India and Russia) 1899 1923 1,300,000 1,300,000 3.3
    Cholera Pandemic (Philippenes) 1902 1904 200,000 200,000 4.2
    Spanish Flu 1918 1919 40,000,000 100,000,000 1,250.0
    Cholera (International, 1950-54) 1950 1954 316,201 316,201 2.4
    Cholera (International, 1955-59) 1955 1959 186,055 186,055 1.3
    Asian Flu 1957 1958 1,100,000 1,100,000 19.1
    Cholera (International, 1960-64) 1960 1964 110,449 110,449 0.7
    Cholera (International, 1965-69) 1965 1969 22,244 22,244 0.1
    Hong Kong Flu 1968 1970 1,000,000 1,000,000 9.4
    Cholera (International, 1970-75) 1970 1974 62,053 62,053 0.3
    Cholera (International, 1975-79) 1975 1979 20,038 20,038 0.1
    Cholera (International, 1980-84) 1980 1984 12,714 12,714 0.1
    AIDS 1981 2020 25,000,000 35,000,000 13.8
    Measles (International, 1985) 1985 1989 4,800,000 4,800,000 19.7
    Cholera (International, 1985-89) 1985 1989 15,655 15,655 0.1
    Measles (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 2,900,000 2,900,000 10.9
    Cholera (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 47,829 47,829 0.2
    Malaria (International, 1990-94) 1990 1994 3,549,921 3,549,921 13.3
    Measles (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 2,400,000 2,400,000 8.4
    Cholera (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 37,887 37,887 0.1
    Malaria (International, 1995-99) 1995 1999 3,987,145 3,987,145 13.9
    Measles (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 2,300,000 2,300,000 7.5
    Malaria (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 4,516,664 4,516,664 14.7
    Tuberculosis (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 7,890,000 8,890,000 25.7
    Cholera (International, 2000-04) 2000 2004 16,969 16,969 0.1
    SARS 2002 2003 770 770 0.0
    Measles (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 1,300,000 1,300,000 4.0
    Malaria (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 4,438,106 4,438,106 13.6
    Tuberculosis (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 7,210,000 8,010,000 22.0
    Cholera (International, 2005-09) 2005 2009 22,694 22,694 0.1
    Swine Flu 2009 2010 200,000 500,000 1.5
    Measles (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 700,000 700,000 2.0
    Malaria (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 3,674,781 3,674,781 10.6
    Tuberculosis (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 6,480,000 7,250,000 18.6
    Cholera (International, 2010-14) 2010 2014 22,691 22,691 0.1
    MERS 2012 2020 850 850 0.0
    Ebola 2014 2016 11,300 11,300 0.1
    Malaria (International, 2015-17) 2015 2017 1,907,872 1,907,872 8.6
    Tuberculosis (International, 2015-18) 2015 2018 4,800,000 5,440,000 16.3
    Cholera (International, 2015-16) 2015 2016 3,724 3,724 0.0
    Measles (International, 2019) 2019 2019 140,000 140,000 1.8
    COVID-19 2019 2020 11,400 11,400 0.1

     

    Year Malaria Cholera Measles Tuberculosis Meningitis HIV/AIDS COVID-19
    1990 672,518 2,487 670,000 1,903 310,000
    1991 692,990 19,302 550,000 1,777 360,000
    1992 711,535 8,214 700,000 2,482 440,000
    1993 729,735 6,761 540,000 1,986 540,000
    1994 743,143 10,750 540,000 3,335 620,000
    1995 761,617 5,045 400,000 4,787 720,000
    1996 777,012 6,418 510,000 3,325 870,000
    1997 797,091 6,371 420,000 5,254 1,060,000
    1998 816,733 10,832 560,000 4,929 1,210,000
    1999 834,692 9,221 550,000 2,705 1,390,000
    2000 851,785 5,269 555,000 1,700,000 4,298 1,540,000
    2001 885,057 2,897 550,000 1,680,000 6,398 1,680,000
    2002 911,230 4,564 415,000 1,710,000 6,122 1,820,000
    2003 934,048 1,894 490,000 1,670,000 7,441 1,965,000
    2004 934,544 2,345 370,000 1,610,000 6,428 2,003,000
    2005 927,109 2,272 375,000 1,590,000 6,671 2,000,000
    2006 909,899 6,300 240,000 1,550,000 4,720 1,880,000
    2007 895,528 4,033 170,000 1,520,000 7,028 1,740,000
    2008 874,087 5,143 180,000 1,480,000 4,363 1,630,000
    2009 831,483 4,946 190,000 1,450,000 3,187 1,530,000
    2010 788,442 7,543 170,000 1,420,000 2,198 1,460,000
    2011 755,544 7,781 200,000 1,400,000 3,726 1,400,000
    2012 725,676 3,034 150,000 1,370,000 3,926 1,340,000
    2013 710,114 2,102 160,000 1,350,000 3,453 1,290,000
    2014 695,005 2,231 120,000 1,340,000 2,992 1,240,000
    2015 662,164 1,304 150,000 1,310,000 1,190,000
    2016 625,883 2,420 90,000 1,290,000 1,170,000
    2017 619,825 100,000 1,270,000 1,150,000
    2018 1,240,000
    2019
    2020 16,514