After the pandemic, Americans should never let public-health authorities deprive them of their liberties

John Tierney:

More than a century ago, Mark Twain identified two fundamental problems that would prove relevant to the Covid pandemic. “How easy it is to make people believe a lie,” he wrote, “and how hard it is to undo that work again!” No convincing evidence existed at the start of the pandemic that lockdowns, school closures, and mask mandates would protect people against the virus, but it was remarkably easy to make the public believe that these policies were “the science.” Today, thanks to two years of actual scientific evidence, it’s clearer than ever that these were terrible mistakes; yet most people still believe that the measures were worthwhile—and many are eager to maintain some mandates even longer.

Undoing this deception is essential to avoid further hardship and future fiascos, but it will be exceptionally hard to do. The problem is that so many people want to keep believing the falsehood—and it’s not just the politicians, bureaucrats, researchers, and journalists who don’t want to admit that they promoted disastrous policies. Ordinary citizens have an incentive, too. Adults meekly surrendered their most basic liberties, cheered on leaders who devastated the economy, and imposed two years of cruel and unnecessary deprivations on their children. They don’t want to admit that these sacrifices were in vain.

They’re engaging in “effort justification,” a phenomenon famously demonstrated in 1959 with an experiment involving a tame version of a hazing ritual. Social psychologists Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills offered female undergraduate students a chance to join a discussion group on the psychology of sex, but first some of them had to pass an “embarrassment test.” In the mild version of the test, some students read aloud words like “prostitute” and “petting.” Others had to pass a more severe version by reading aloud from novels with explicit sex scenes and lots of anatomical obscenities (much more embarrassing for a young woman in the 1950s than for students today). Afterward, all the students, including some who hadn’t been required to pass any test, listened in on a session of the discussion group, which the researchers had staged to be a “dull and banal” conversation about the secondary sexual behavior of lower-order animals. The participants spoke haltingly, hemmed and hawed, didn’t finish their sentences, mumbled non sequiturs, and “in general conducted one of the most worthless and uninteresting discussions imaginable.”

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