Acton Institute Powerblog

John Henry Newman on Dr. Fauci and the COVID-19 lockdowns

Dr. Anthony Fauci briefs the press on January 21, 2021. (Photo credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File.)

Johnson & Johnson’s new COVID-19 vaccine brings the hope that all American adults could be vaccinated by June and, with it, the prospect of returning to a normal life. To this, Dr. Anthony Fauci has emerged to tell the public, “Not so fast.”

“There are things, even if you’re vaccinated, that you’re not going to be able to do in society … For example, indoor dining, theaters, places where people congregate,” Fauci said. “That’s because of the safety of society.” The insistence on preserving the most isolating, and economically devastating, aspects of the current lockdown regime threatens to reverse Americans’ record-breaking willingnesss to be vaccinated. “Could Fauci do more to remove any personal incentive to get the shot?” asked Andrew Sullivan.

Sullivan understood that an economic reality known as incentives motivate our actions. Sure, we all want to eradicate the coronavirus 346 days after we launched “15 days to stop the spread.” But we always weigh the steps necessary to do so against other, competing interests.

A canonized saint, writing 159 years ago, addressed the trade-offs of health policy so clearly that he could have been talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci’s latest press conference. Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-1890), an Anglican convert to Catholicism who later became a saint, noted how Christians can and must prayerfully evaluate health experts’ advice against a host of other values. In his 1852 work The Idea of a University, he wrote:

[A] physician may tell you, that if you are to preserve your health, you must give up your employment and retire to the country. He distinctly says “if;” that is all in which he is concerned, he is no judge whether there are objects dearer to you, more urgent upon you, than the preservation of your health; he does not enter into your circumstances, your duties, your liabilities, the persons dependent on you; he knows nothing about what is advisable or what is not; he only says, “I speak as a physician; if you would be well, give up your profession, your trade, your office, whatever it is.” However he may wish it, it would be impertinent in him to say more, unless indeed he spoke, not as a physician but as a friend; and it would be extravagant, if he asserted that bodily health was the summum bonum, and that no one could be virtuous whose animal system was not in good order.

Newman says Christians must filter the guidance offered by an expert’s narrow specialization through a well-formed conscience. Had we taken that step, would we have decided to deprive the elderly and psychologically vulnerable of nearly all human contact for months on end, barred grieving children from attending their elderly parents’ funerals, or subjected children to a full year of academic decline? Or could at-risk populations have been protected while giving everyone else autonomy over their own lives?

Every activity in life involves well-vetted trade-offs – the reasoned, prudent choice to pursue one activity instead of, or more fervently, than another. These decisions carry with them the attendant inability to pursue other ends – something economists call “opportunity cost.” Newman exhorted us to get the facts and then engage them from a moral framework that encompasses other, often higher, values.

This is part of the reason pleas to “follow the science” fall flat. Science, as long as it remains science rather than scientism, cannot hand out marching orders. Science explains how things happen but not their significance in the broader moral order; it tells us what is but not what should be.

“The problem here is not that public health officials are wicked,” wrote Jay Richards in the Fall 2020 issue of Religion & Liberty. “The problem is that they are bound to maximize a certain kind of safety, to the neglect of other goods. … [P]utting medical specialists in charge of nations – or the whole globe – is asking for overly cautious and even oppressive policies.”

Those “oppressive policies” would substitute the rule of “experts” for our moral imagination by asserting government control over all economic activity. As Friedrich von Hayek wrote in chapter seven of The Road to Serfdom:

[W]hoever controls all economic activity controls the means for all our ends, and must therefore decide which are to be satisfied and which not. This is really the crux of the matter. Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends.

That, roughly, is where the United States has found itself thanks to restrictive COVID-19 lockdowns. The state decided, apart from much input from U.S. citizens, that slowing the spread of a virus with a 99%-plus survival rate trumps the right to make a living (particularly for those who are not politically connected), hold family holidays, or even worship the Lord God Almighty.

Ironically, clergy and other moral leaders often accuse the antidote to this kind of tyranny – the free economy – of warping our culture. “Communitarians also labour under the misapprehension that liberal economists somehow have the power to change social norms,” observes Kristian Niemietz, the head of political economy at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA):

Liberal economists have no influence on what people value, and seek no such influence. We don’t make people move places. We don’t make people change jobs. We don’t make people prioritise their careers over other things.

If you value the community spirit of a small town in rural Wales more highly than the job prospects of the English Southeast, or if you value the collegiality of your current workplace more highly than the better pay you could earn elsewhere, or if you turn down a promotion because you would rather spend more time with your family – that’s great. There’s not a single economist in the world, liberal or otherwise, who would tell you that you are doing anything wrong. (And even if there were, why would you care about some random person’s opinion?)

The free economy that he sketches out blends harmoniously with Newman’s insistence that believers measure every decision on the scales of morality and grace. This economy allows each Christian the freedom to live according to the dictates of his or her conscience and respects each person’s God-given status as a moral being.

Giving Americans more freedom from COVID-19 lockdowns will incentivize them to discover their own reasons for vaccination, based on their own moral calculus. And society will be better – and safer – for it.

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.