I’m a huge believer in freedom, and the loss of freedom experienced globally since the Great Covid-19 Experiment began last year is as alarming to me as it is inexplicable.
How can so many educated, intelligent citizens of nations which have so long enjoyed the greatest combination of freedom from tyranny and economic prosperity ever seen in world history, so easily surrender those freedoms with nary a whimper? These freedoms have not just been easily, but enthusiastically given away.
In part, our immense national prosperity and the far flung remoteness of any wars for many generations now, goes some way to explaining the lack of value we place on our personal autonomy: our freedom to work, travel, assemble, protest or worship.
The 18th Century, American political activist and theorist Thomas Paine observed:
What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.
But I don’t believe it’s that simple: that we’ve simply forgotten what social carnage the tyranny of Kings and collectives can do to a nation because we don’t value freedom as much as the generations which shed blood for it.
I believe there’s a much deeper quirk of human psychology being relied upon and cynically manipulated by our leaders. Allow me to explain and present the evidence, and please tell me if there’s a better explanation.
Freedom should not be absolute. We are not individually sovereign and completely unaccountable to authority. There is literally nowhere we can flee to and avoid our responsibility to others, though living off the grid and remotely may bring a very large illusion of absolute freedom.
My philosophy of freedom is informed by my theology, my understanding that God alone is unaccountable, and that He grants freedom to individuals. I believe God ordained both the authority and responsibility of governments to uphold His laws and protect people from harm, domestic or foreign. Thus violating freedoms granted by God and not government is in breach of government’s own sacred duty to natural laws, a responsibility for which they will certainly one day answer to God.
You may not be religious or believe as I do, but I hope you can at least agree governments are not the authors and originators of human rights and freedoms. As such, any laws they may pass curtailing fundamental rights and freedoms are a corrupt fraud, temporarily legitimised only by cooperation. For example, it is not any human authority’s right to legalise slavery, eugenics, genocide or abortion.
This simple philosophy is neither original nor young. It is older than the history of Australia, established many centuries ago in British jurisprudence. The novel philosophy increasingly replacing it is legal positivism, the post-modern view that laws are validated entirely by the power to legislate, a kind of “might is right” rationalisation of legislation and justice.
Proponents of legal positivism may argue, “Abortion is moral and just, because the Supreme Court of the United States said it’s in the Constitution,” or “because it’s now legal in Australia.” They conveniently ignore that the same Supreme Court, some generations prior, also ruled that the US Constitution protected the property rights of slave owners. They might also stand in condemnation of old Australian laws now considered racist. But you can’t have it both ways.
The fallibility of human authority and social norms is devastating to the philosophy that authority to make a law makes the law inherently moral.
It is also not any human authority’s legitimate right to prohibit or encumber the freedom of healthy, innocent people to work for their living, to travel where ever they wish as citizens and without mandatory detention, or to assemble for worship or peaceful, political protest. I would grant the only possible exception to the constancy of these freedoms is the physical presence on our soil of a foreign military invasion.
Government should only be as big as is necessary to fulfill its responsibilities to protect God-given freedom and its citizens from harm. Expansions beyond this authority usurp the other levels of government God ordained: self-government, families and the Church. Yet we see the ever expanding behemoth of civil government constantly treading on the toes if not breaking the legs of individual autonomy, parental authority and the kind of religious freedom which was foundational to our pluralistic, liberal democracy.
How War Criminals Think
To the question of why so many voters have enthusiastically embraced lockdowns et cetera and presumed a moral superiority to anyone daring to question the government’s orders — even reporting their neighbours like good little Stalinists, I want to consider with you the relevance of the learnings from the Milgram Obedience Experiment.
In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, examined the excuses given at the Nuremberg War Criminal trials by Nazis accused of war crimes. They infamously claimed they were just following orders, and had no choice because of the authority their superiors had over them.
Milgram wanted to know if Germans were particularly inclined to unquestioning obedience to authority figures, a popular narrative in those days attempting to explain the Holocaust.
Unquestioning obedience to authority figures? That sounds just like the average Victorian or Queensland voter, hence why this experiment and its results are extremely relevant half a century later.
The aim of the experiment was to see how far people would go if their obedience to an authority figure meant harm to another person. How easily could people be influenced to actually participate in the kind of atrocious human rights violations they would normally condemn?
The Milgram Experiment
The experiment always involved three people. One was a ‘learner’, one was a ‘teacher’, and one was the ‘researcher’. The learner would go into one room and have electrodes attached to his arms, and the teacher and researcher went into an adjoining room where the teacher could speak to the learner via intercom.
The teacher would sit at a console which had a row of switches to give the learner electric shocks with 30 levels from a mild 15 volts, to a really dangerous 450 volts, and would flick the switches as instructed by the researcher if the learner gave an incorrect answer.
But there was no real electric shocks being given. The learner was always an actor, and the researcher was in on the ruse. Only the teacher believed he was really giving electric shocks to a complete stranger, who would then respond with increasing sounds of pain and pleas for mercy.
Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was told to give him an electric shock, increasing the level each time.
When the teacher eventually got uncomfortable and refused to administer a shock, the researcher had four prepared responses he had to read out, in order, each time the teacher continued to refuse.
“The experiment requires you to continue.”
“It is absolutely essential that you continue.”
“You have no other choice but to continue.”
Guess how many ordinary people, aged between 20 and 50, ranging from unskilled workers to educated professionals, continued to administer the severe shock level?
All of them.
Guess how many participants continued to the highest level as a matter of obedience to authority?
Two thirds, 65%.
Interestingly, in November 2020, Premier Daniel Andrews enjoyed an approval rating of 71%.
Dr Stanley Milgram varied the experiment in 18 different ways to see how the participants’ obedience was affected in various situations. Milgrim later commented on his study:
Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.
The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation.
Milgram suggested that people have two different states of behaviour socially. The autonomous state is when people take responsibility for themselves and choose their own actions. The agentic state is when people agree to be agents for other people who will bear the responsibility and consequences of the actions they direct.
Agency theory says people will obey an authority when they believe the authority will take responsibility.
When the Milgram Experiment’s participants were told they had personal responsibility for their actions, almost none of them were prepared to obey. But if the researcher present in the room assured the teacher, the subject, that he would take all responsibility, many subjects who had initially refused did go on.
In total, 636 subjects participated in 18 variations to the experiment.
In the baseline study described above, the researcher wore a lab coat, representing what today’s Premiers like to refer to as an “expert”, and “the best medical advice”. In one variation the researcher was called away to take a phone call right at the beginning, and replaced with someone not wearing a lab coat. The obedience level dropped from 65% to just 20%.
In another variation the experiment was conducted in some run down offices rather than the impressive Yale University, and obedience dropped to just 47.5%, another indicator that the perceived status of the authority figure helps many people abdicate personal responsibility, critical thinking faculties and autonomy.
What’s very interesting is the varied condition of letting the subject, the teacher, instruct someone else to press the switches. Their obedience to the maximum voltage of 450 volts then increased to a whopping 92.5%!
Conversely, when the learner was brought into the same room as the teacher and the teacher had to personally force the learner’s hand down onto a charged metal plate, obedience more than halved. Seeing the consequences of their actions firsthand made people less likely to obey the experts with authority.
The support condition may be the most encouraging. If the subject had two other teachers present, also played by actors, and the first refused to obey the researcher at 150 volts, and the second refused to go past 210 volts, the rate of obedience fell to a mere 10%.
Although some have subsequently questioned the integrity of Milgram’s reporting, this experiment has been subsequently conducted in a variety of industrialised Western cultures, and the findings have been replicated with most leading to the same conclusions as Milgram’s original study.
You’ll be glad to know, Milgram did fully debrief the participants afterwards and showed them the learner was fine. He also interviewed them a year later and concluded most were still happy to have been involved, though many had been visibly distressed during it.
The Politicians’ Mind Games
The first thing the politicians do to manipulate voters out of the autonomous state and into the agentic state, is wheel out an expert they claim is the authority we must obey without choice. Instead of a lab coat, they give them an impressive title like Chief Health Officer.
Instead of Yale University, they give them official government-branded backdrops and a sign-language translator like they generally do when there’s a natural disaster.
The politicians tell us the experts will flip the switches for how much our neighbours will suffer, but we have no choice other than to support their arbitrary & inconsistent instructions without question or debate.
We are kept completely in the dark as to what the enormous human costs of lockdown are, with Big Tech and Big Media coordinating to censor all criticism of and dissent from authoritarianism. We must never acknowledge the excellent reasons why liberal democracies have never granted governments such extraordinary control over every citizen’s movements, associations, worship and employment.
We must never look closely at the enormous suffering coincidental to the vaccine roll-out, we must only keep doing as we are told by the experts and authorities.
And most of all, any non-compliance with public health directions must be ruthlessly extinguished by heavily armed riot police and threats of enormous fines or jail time lest people find support and others are encouraged to question the experts and authorities.
But this is not a benign experiment with fake suffering caused by excesses and abuse of government authority. This is frighteningly real.
There of course was no acceptable excuse for Nazi war criminals.
Equally so, routinely denying fundamental human rights resulting in tremendous personal, social, financial, psychological, health and other costs borne by entire nations since very early last year is inexcusable.
The interview and article I did with Canadian Professor Doug Allen detailed why he calls lockdown the greatest peacetime policy failure in modern history after his scholarly study of over 80 academic papers and data sites on the topic. Not only is it a despicable violation of God-given freedoms, by September the evidence showed to absolute certainty lockdown has virtually no real benefits.
That governments persist in the tyrannical policy can be fairly suspected of the desire to avoid admitting they made a terrible mistake.
The lesson we can take from these insights is irrational obedience to authority is a normal human behaviour, even when we know to obey is harmful to others. This is especially true when the suffering is unseen, distant, not done directly by us, and endorsed by experts.
The caution for us is to learn to develop a healthy scepticism of so-called experts insisting we just trust them, just trust the science, just do as we’re told because they’ll take full responsibility.
It is far healthier for a society to generally prefer small and limited government, free and open debate, and to nurture a deep reluctance to surrender autonomy or delegate personal responsibility to others.
For those lockdown apologists who, decades from now, will insist as their defence when accused of being accomplices in the trampling of human rights and all its ensuing suffering that they were just following orders, there will of course be no excuse.
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Dave Pellowe is a Christian writer & commentator, founder of The Good Sauce, convener of the annual Australian Church And State Summit and host of Good Sauce's weekly The Church And State Show, also syndicated on ADH TV. Since 2016 Dave has undertaken the mission of arming Christians to influence culture through events from Perth to Auckland, videos, podcasts and articles published in multiple journals across Australia and New Zealand. [more]