Police Violence, COVID-19 Lies, and the End of Legitimate Authority

Our leaders and institutions are failing us spectacularly. It's up to us to reboot society.


At first blush, the COVID-19 lockdowns and the protests over the police killing of George Floyd don't seem to have much in common other than chronological proximity: One came after the other and the frustration with the former might have intensified the anger of the latter. Yet separately, each represents a major blow to basic ideas about legitimate authority and together they represent nothing short of a crisis when it comes to having trust and confidence in the people and institutions that are supposed to govern us.

For the last half century, we have been steadily losing faith that the people in charge of government, law enforcement, business, religion, and nonprofits have our best interests at heart. If America was already a dumpster fire when we rang in the new year, the last few months have been a jug of lighter fluid squirted on the flames. We are in the midst of an ongoing horror show of bad, stupid, incompetent, and downright evil behavior by the folks who are in charge.

Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin didn't just choke out the life of George Floyd with his disturbingly nonchalant behavior. He helped to kill the once-widespread belief that the police can be trusted to be fair, especially when dealing with blacks. Six years ago, in the wake of police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, just 43 percent of us saw such deaths as "as indicative of broader problems in policing while 51 percent saw them as isolated incidents," reports The Washington Post. In the wake of the Floyd killing, which itself came on the heels of news of the shooting of Breonna Taylor, fully 69 percent of us see a systemic problem and just 29 percent of us write off such incidents as isolated. Three-quarters of us support protests against the police. Confidence in the law had already been sliding, with Gallup reporting last year in its latest annual survey of trust in institutions that 53 percent of us had a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the police. That was already down from a recent high of 64 percent in 2004.

When it comes to responses to the novel coronavirus, it's hard to even know where to begin. Local, state, and federal officials continue to botch things at every stage, including the seemingly simple act of compiling semi-reliable statistics about cases, infection rates, and deaths. Every day seems to bring another reason to kick in the TV or computer screen, as with White House coronavirus task force spokesman Anthony Fauci's new admission that people were told masks were ineffective at stopping the spread of the disease because authorities were worried about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Every bit as much as President Trump, governors and mayors have been lying and misspeaking out of both sides of their mouths, pushing contradictory policies without acknowledging reversals and mistakes. They've been abetted in their medical gaslighting by epidemiologists who have compounded wildly inaccurate predictions with transparently hypocritical defenses of protests as medically safe and a media that seems intent on killing any level of trust left among a dwindling readership.

It will surprise exactly nobody that, in Gallup's survey, confidence in newspapers is down from a high point of 51 percent in 1979 to just 23 percent last year. That's better than television news, which comes in at just 18 percent. It's safe to say that nothing that has transpired so far in 2020 is going to goose these numbers upwards.

From a libertarian perspective, it's tempting to think that universal cynicism toward authority, especially in the public sector, will create a consensus for smaller government. Nothing could be farther from the truth, though. As I've noted elsewhere, when high-trust societies shift into low-trust ones, citizens routinely demand more regulations and rules on economic, social, and political actions even as they know the rules will be enforced by bureaucrats who are some mix of stupid, incompetent, and corrupt. That's one explanation for why the size, scope, and spending of government has exploded over the past 50 years even as trust and confidence have cratered.

Looking forward, there's not a lot of reason for optimism. The 2020 presidential race hasn't really begun in earnest, but it will certainly be one of the meanest and ugliest in history and it will end with either Trump being reelected or Joe Biden, who is as responsible as any single politician for everything that is awful about contemporary America, taking office. We can look forward only to bigger and bigger growth-killing deficits, more deaths from COVID-19 and arbitrary restrictions on our social and economic freedom, and a hot war on free speech as conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats start chipping away at Section 230 and other guarantors of online expression.

We can take comfort in the fact that it's virtually certain that some meaningful reforms of police will take place at the local, state, and federal levels and that the next round of coronavirus lockdowns will be less enforceable than the previous ones. And we can perhaps take some comfort, naive as it might be, that Americans eventually figure out the right way forward after trying all the others.