It Always Is 1918 at the CDC

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Wherever one turns, whether it is on the broadcast news or the Internet, we are bombarded with Swine Flu stories. Government tells us not to "panic," while it simultaneously engages in activities meant to spread widespread fear.

Indeed, as Robert Higgs has written, the very basis of government rests upon cultivating human fear:

The people who have the effrontery to rule us, who call themselves our government, understand this basic fact of human nature (about fear). They exploit it, and they cultivate it. Whether they compose a warfare state or a welfare state, they depend on it to secure popular submission, compliance with official dictates, and, on some occasions, affirmative cooperation with the state’s enterprises and adventures. Without popular fear, no government could endure more than twenty-four hours. David Hume taught that all government rests on public opinion, but that opinion, I maintain, is not the bedrock of government. Public opinion itself rests on something deeper: fear.

If one wishes to "test" Professor Higgs’ proposition, one needs to look no further than the actions of the Centers for Disease Control, which claims to be in a constant state of readiness in order to protect us from the next pandemic. At the CDC, it always is 1918, and an outbreak of "Spanish Flu" or something like it is just around the corner.

A visit to the CDC’s website shows that the CDC has placed the latest outbreak of Swine Flu front-and-center. News reports monitor the every word of the CDC "experts" who are bombarded with questions about whether or not this is the "Big One." My sense is that the "experts," the media, and everyone else in the Flu chain will be disappointed when this turns out to be another overblown "crisis" that governments have foisted upon us right-and-left.

One must remember that for many years, the CDC has been creating vast emergency "plans" that are supposed to swing into action the minute that a rumor is afloat that someone, somewhere, has the flu. Politicians and media figures also want a cut of the action and make sure that they keep the issue before us, telling us "what we need to know."

Actually, what we need to know is that government is the last thing we need in our faces if there is a real pandemic. That is because governments played a major role in creating the conditions that turned the "Spanish Flu" situation of 1918 into a world-wide tragedy that led to the death of millions. If government is to trot out its "war emergency" model as the way to "protect" us from the flu, perhaps we need to be reminded of how well that model works — in making sure lots of people become sick and die.

Most people don’t remember 1918 as the year the flu pandemic began; they remember it as the year that World War I ended. This was the "War to End All Wars," or so it was called, when a more appropriate title might have been the "War to Permanently Expand the State." More than 10 million soldiers died on the battlefields of Europe and millions of civilians died deaths of starvation or were killed in the crossfire.

Since war is a tool of the state, we safely and honestly can say that the calamities of World War I were state-created. Unfortunately, people did not just die from bullets, artillery shells, bombs, and even starvation. Across the globe, the war resulted in vast swaths of malnourishment as crops were diverted from civilian populations to the huge armies strung across Europe. At the same time, once-productive croplands in Europe were reduced to moonscapes as the armies obliterated the land.

But governments were not satisfied with the sheer amount of physical and human destruction. Indeed, the government made things worse through lies, and nowhere was that more apparent that the lies told by state agents in order to "prevent panic" from the onrushing flu epidemic. As Wikipedia points out:

The Great Influenza was the source of much fear in citizens around the world. Further inflaming that fear was the fact that governments and health officials were downplaying the influenza. While the panic from World War I was dwindling, governments attempted to keep morale up by spreading lies and dismissing the influenza. On September 11, 1918, Washington officials reported that the Spanish Influenza had arrived in the city. The following day, roughly thirteen million men across the country lined up to register for the war draft, providing the influenza with an efficient way to spread. However, the influenza had little impact upon institutions and organizations. While medical scientists did rapidly attempt to discover a cure or vaccine, there were virtually no changes in the government or corporations. Additionally, the political and military events were fairly unaffected due to the impartiality of the disease, which affected both sides alike.

Exacerbating the crisis in this country was the crowding of American troops onto ships following the war’s end, which was guaranteed to spread the sickness and help it spread when the soldiers reached the USA. On the home front, huge war bond rallies in large cities brought people into very close proximity with each other, allowing the flu to spread rapidly. On one end, the government helped to create the conditions that spread the flu; on the other hand, agents representing the state lied about those conditions.

By the war’s end, Germany was near starvation (and many people did starve to death during the British blockade that lasted well into 1919), and about a half-million civilians succumbed to the sickness in that country. It is estimated that 16 million people in India died of the pandemic.

Yet, when it raises the prospect of a repeat of this very horror, governments engage in more lies. We forget that life expectancy in the United States was in the mid-50s for white males and less than 50 for black men. In countries elsewhere, and especially in Asia and Africa, life expectancy was much shorter. Medical care at that time was primitive compared to what we have today, even in poor countries, and it was not uncommon in that era for people to be exposed to epidemics that pretty much have disappeared today.

Even with those odds, the mortality rate during the 1918—1920 pandemic was estimated at between 2.5 and 5 percent. We can be assured today that not only would fewer people become sick, but even fewer people would die. In other words, even at its worst, the current outbreak of Swine Flu, while bad, is not going to turn into a pandemic no matter what CNN and the CDC try to tell us.

We supposedly live in an age of "enlightened" government, yet governments in 1918 allegedly were "enlightened," too, and that was at the height of the "Progressive Era." The real problem, however, was that those "enlightened" governments had created the very conditions that served as the tinderbox to ignite this pandemic.

If anything, governments today seek to restrict human freedom even more so than did governments of that era, as bad as they were. President Obama, like his predecessor, would have no problem grabbing "emergency" powers in order to fight this supposed onslaught of disease. Emergency plans hatched in the bowels of the CDC bureaucracy await implementation, which would release the inner dictator that resides in the hearts of thousands of bureaucrats across the country.

I doubt seriously that any plan by government can or will lessen the impact of this current "epidemic," if we can call it that. However, I also have no doubt that if emergency plans are kicked into place, it will be much easier for the government to call for further states of emergency, with the threshold becoming lower and lower. That we should fear much more than the Swine Flu.

May 2, 2009

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services.

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