The defining moment in the "rules for thee but not for me" ethos of the ruling class during the COVID-19 pandemic may have come when Neil Ferguson, the epidemiologist behind Britain's lockdown policy, met with his married girlfriend in defiance of the restrictions he promoted. Eager to threaten the common people with penalties if they failed to socially distance, he saw no reason to inconvenience himself the same way—although at least he conceded that propriety required him to resign his government post when the trysts were discovered in May.
"He has peculiarly breached his own guidelines, and for an intelligent man I find that very hard to believe," marveled Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a prominent member of the ruling Conservative Party. "It risks undermining the Government's lockdown message."
Well, yes. But like all too many officials, Ferguson obviously never thought he'd be caught violating rules that he'd never intended be applied to himself. As we've since learned, Ferguson's above-the-law attitude is common among those who feel entitled to write regulations and impose penalties on others for violating them.
That attitude is obvious in Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose wife and daughter visited properties in Florida and Wisconsin even as he ordered state residents to stay at home except for "essential" activities. "My official duties have nothing to do with my family," Pritzker huffed when a reporter called him out about his family's wanderings. "So I'm not going to answer that question. It's inappropriate, and I find it reprehensible."
Reprehensible might more accurately describe government officials who penalize the common folk for behavior in which they themselves indulge. The word also could be applied to officials and hangers-on who try to leverage their positions for special advantage.
That appears to be what motivated Marc Mallory, husband of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in the lead-up to Memorial Day weekend. After his wife eased some of the travel restrictions she had imposed on state residents, Mallory invoked his political connections in a failed effort to get his boat in the water ahead of everybody else.
"He jokingly asked if being married to me might move him up," Whitmer conceded after the offended marina owner described the incident, which he found less than humorous, on social media. "He regrets it," she added. "I wish it wouldn't have happened." She did not clarify whether it was the power play or the marina owner's public complaint.
For Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, the it moment was a hearty meal at a Maryland restaurant while indoor dining in his own city remained forbidden by his order. "I know some are upset that I dined indoors at a restaurant in Maryland yesterday," Kenney sniffed on Twitter in August. "I felt the risk was low because the county I visited has had fewer than 800 COVID-19 cases, compared to over 33,000 cases in Philadelphia. Regardless, I understand the frustration."
A few days later, Eater Philadelphia published a long but incomplete list of restaurants that had permanently closed their doors because of the COVID-19 lockdown. The former owners of those businesses undoubtedly have plenty of frustration to share with the mayor.
"It was clearly a setup," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) complained after a salon owner released video footage of the powerful lawmaker, maskless and getting her hair done, in defiance of the rules in San Francisco. "I take responsibility for falling for a setup by a neighborhood salon I've gone to for many years."
Maybe it was a setup—the salon owner is an open critic of Pelosi and of pandemic restrictions. But a setup would be possible only because the owner could correctly assume the House speaker wouldn't flinch at violating widely publicized restrictions.
As we've seen time and again, such hypocrisy is common. We're expected to suffer discomfort, economic pain, and emotional distress or else pay fines and even serve jail time. Government officials, meanwhile, take offense when called out for violating the standards they created.
The pandemic will eventually pass, but it will leave behind our memories of arrogant authorities who consider themselves above the concerns of the common people. Long after the virus is gone, those memories should stay with us as a vaccine against future trust in agents of the state.