In my charming little village in Westchester County, there is a charming little gift shop. And in the shop’s charming little window stands a display of bobblehead dolls. Unlike, say, an Elvis Presley doll, or figurines depicting the cast of Friends, these dolls aren’t meant to be seen in the spirit of knowing irony. They are more like religious icons: ritual objects of liberal veneration.
The dolls include the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who has been posthumously reinvented as an avatar of legalistic Grrl Power. Next to her wobbles the head of Vice President Kamala Harris, a figure whose elevation to secular sainthood appears a bit premature. Above those stands Dr. Anthony Fauci, the uncontested exemplar of all that is true and noble in today’s liberal pantheon. (Did I mention it is a very liberal town? Did I need to?) I imagine the shop’s customers bringing home their Fauci bobbleheads and placing them in positions of honor in their otherwise tchotchke-free homes. Henceforth, all who enter those households will be expected to stop and genuflect before Good Saint Anthony.
None of this is healthy. A secular domestic shrine is no place for a scientist. For that matter, it’s no place for a Supreme Court justice. (About Vice President Harris, the less said, the better.) But such is the state of our national ideological logjam. On the left, Fauci has become an object of quasi-religious devotion. On the right, he is reviled as the all-powerful enabler of a quasi-totalitarian state. (“Fauci Lied, People Died,” reads one of the many anti-Fauci T-shirts available online.)
Both sides are wrong. Anthony Fauci is not some uniquely brilliant scientist whose edicts must be obeyed without question. Nor is he the evil genius who single-handedly engineered the unprecedented restrictions on our freedoms that we’ve suffered during the Covid-19 pandemic. Does Fauci embody arrogance and overreach? Absolutely. But the problem is not the man; it’s built into the structure of our public health system. Fauci could be replaced tomorrow, and those problems would remain. In fact, given Fauci’s plan to retire by the end of this year, I’ve no doubt that the next occupant of his chair will eventually develop the same excesses and failings.
Fauci is the product of a public health establishment that has placed far too much power in the hands of a single person. The agency Fauci leads, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, remains fairly obscure to most Americans. Unlike the acronyms for the Food and Drug Administration or the Centers for Disease Control, the letters “NIAID” don’t exactly roll off the tongue. But Fauci’s post at NIAID is quite unusual among high-level government officialdom. NIAID’s director operates with nearly total independence from political supervision or oversight.
It wasn’t always this way. Fauci’s name first became known to the public during the grim early years of AIDS. The then-young doctor was vilified (often unfairly) by AIDS activists who said he wasn’t doing enough to fight the mysterious scourge. In reality, at that time Fauci and NIAID had less power to steer medical research and very limited ability to influence public behavior. But Fauci did reveal a predilection that would come to full flower during the Covid crisis: the willingness to peddle white lies he believed would nudge the public toward proper behavior. As the Manhattan Institute’s John Tierney has noted, Fauci promoted the idea that AIDS could be spread through “routine close contact.” That was intended to send the message that everyone was at risk and a “heterosexual breakout” could occur any day. It wasn’t true. What’s more, all the evidence there was at the time made clear that it wasn’t true. The feared breakout never happened. But boosting AIDS paranoia helped boost funding. And a panicked public, Fauci must have reasoned, would be a more pliable public.
Even so, Fauci and his agency didn’t attain their full power until after 9/11. In the months after the Twin Towers fell, a series of still-mysterious anthrax attacks killed five Americans. Bush asked his vice president, Dick Cheney, to come up with a response. Cheney decided to put NIAID in charge of defending the U.S. from both bio-attacks and pandemics of natural origin. “With the stroke of Cheney’s pen, all United States biodefence efforts, classified or unclassified, were placed under the aegis of Anthony Fauci,” writes Ashley Rindsberg at Unherd. But, unlike, say, the director of the National Institutes of Health (Fauci’s nominal boss), the head of NIAID is not a political appointee. He can be fired only through a long, byzantine process. This situation is typical for mid-level bureaucrats, but it is highly unusual for the leader of such a powerful agency. (The head of the CDC—another agency whose powers have greatly expanded—also falls into this curious category.) Under Cheney’s plan, “Fauci now had a virtual carte blanche to not merely approve but design and run the kind of research projects he sought,” Rindsberg writes, “and could do so with no oversight structure above him.”
Looking back to those post-9/11 days, we can see why the Bush administration thought this was a good idea. In fact, any time the nation faces a grave threat, people tend to want a wise, incorruptible czar in charge—someone empowered to act decisively while floating above petty political concerns. But it is never a good idea to put government officials beyond the reach of political oversight, and Fauci’s career shows why. Over time, such officials accumulate too much power and become too accustomed to having the last word. Those who work in the political sphere need to grapple with trade-offs, acknowledge criticisms, and hammer out compromises. But an all-powerful czar can ignore skeptics and focus exclusively on the crisis at hand.
Fauci had a plan for dealing with pandemics and, when Covid-19 hit, he had the power to put that plan into action. The plan required keeping people as isolated as possible, even if that meant shutting down schools, businesses—virtually the whole economy. After some initial prevarication about the need for masks, Fauci also became an avid advocate for keeping everyone, even small children, masked up indefinitely.
Fauci’s approach to fighting the virus had a militaristic tone, which makes sense considering that his agency was organized to treat pandemics and biowarfare as two sides of the same coin. In the Fauci regime, the coronavirus would be given no quarter: He saw no reason to weigh trade-offs or seek compromises. And, given his freedom from political oversight, Fauci didn’t need to kowtow to any civilian authority. Even President Trump mostly let the willful doctor call his own shots. Meanwhile, the CDC and other public health institutions generally moved in lockstep with NIAID.
Most of the time Fauci barely acknowledged that there might be downsides to his draconian policies. But, as anyone could have predicted, the lockdowns delivered a body blow to the U.S. economy. Within weeks unemployment soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Whether wisely or not, Congress responded by pouring an unprecedented $5 trillion into various forms of Covid relief, which in turn spurred the inflation we’re living with today. Meanwhile, school shutdowns torpedoed the educational progress of most American schoolchildren. According to recent National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, math and reading scores for nine-year-olds plunged during the pandemic, erasing two decades of improvement. Experts say that, for disadvantaged children especially, the damage could be lifelong. And the U.S. kept its schools closed tighter and longer than almost any other nation.
In August, Neil Cavuto of Fox News asked Fauci whether he thought the school lockdowns had “forever damaged” some students. “I don’t think it’s forever irreparably damaged anyone,” Fauci responded testily. Dismissing evidence that challenges his chosen policies is something of a habit with him. In fact, from the start of the pandemic, Fauci and his colleagues at the CDC and other agencies disregarded and then denigrated experts who disagreed with them. For example, it quickly became obvious that children and healthy young adults almost never died from Covid, while the elderly and medically compromised were at vastly greater risk. Looking at these numbers, one group of medical experts concluded that the costs of the society-wide lockdowns greatly exceeded the benefits. Led by doctors Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, and Martin Kulldorff, then at Harvard, the group published an open letter called the Great Barrington Declaration. “Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” the letter said. Missed doctors appointments and social isolation would lead to “greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden. Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice.”
The Great Barrington group instead proposed “focused protection,” a policy that would isolate the most vulnerable while letting the rest of the public get on with their lives. Whether or not one agreed with their conclusions, the GBD backers were serious scientists weighing in on the primary public health debate of our time. But Fauci and his colleagues didn’t want to grapple with their recommendations. In a series of emails later released under the Freedom of Information Act, Fauci and Francis Collins, who was then head of the National Institutes of Health, discussed how to squash the troublesome critique. Collins called the letter writers “fringe epidemiologists” and wrote that “there needs to be a quick and devastating take down” of their arguments. Fauci agreed, sending Collins an article from Wired that he claimed “debunks this theory.” (In fact, the article was a limp political hit job that compared GBD supporters to “tobacco firms keen to delay action on smoking-related disease and climate change deniers.”)
The evidence is now in. The Great Barrington experts were right. Florida, Sweden, and other regions that took less restrictive approaches to Covid wound up with less economic devastation and similar or superior health outcomes. But Fauci and his allies won the debate when it came to elite opinion. The New York Times, CNN, and other media outlets covered Florida’s efforts to reopen its economy as if Governor DeSantis was personally pushing old ladies off the ends of fishing piers. The Atlantic called Florida’s policies an “experiment in human sacrifice.” Social-media companies did their part, suppressing any mention of the GBD recommendations as “misinformation.”
Fauci and his public health colleagues took the same scorched-earth approach to questions about Covid’s origins. Initially, many virologists wondered whether the pandemic’s emergence in Wuhan, China, might be linked to that city’s Institute of Virology. But almost overnight, Fauci and other officials began dismissing that notion as a “crackpot” conspiracy theory. Once again, the media played along. And once again, it took aggressive use of the Freedom of Information Act to drag out the truth—or bits of it at least. Between FOIA disclosures and dogged reporting (mostly from non-mainstream journalists), we eventually learned that Fauci’s agency was hip-deep in funding controversial “gain-of-function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Why was this information so hard to ferret out? The answer lies partly in NIAID’s stunning independence. For two decades, Fauci had been disbursing research grants without having to answer to any higher authority. When people—including Republicans in Congress—started asking questions, he responded with arrogance, anger, and evasion.
None of this proves that Covid-19 leaked from the lab. Given China’s intransigence, we may never know the truth about that. What we do know is that our country’s most powerful public health official did his damndest to keep anyone from investigating the question. If Fauci and the vast research establishment he runs did nothing wrong, why did they work so hard to keep their activities out of the public eye? It might be that Fauci and his cohorts are conspiratorial masterminds. More likely, they are just bureaucrats who have become convinced that their work is, by definition, synonymous with the public good. When criticized, they circled the wagons.
Indeed, Fauci seems to have concluded that he is synonymous with science itself. “It’s easy to criticize,” he complained on Face the Nation last year, “but they’re really criticizing science because I represent science.” Note to reader: No one “represents” science. Science is a radically transparent system of inquiry, debate, and a willingness to challenge received wisdom. As soon as any individual claims the authority to speak for science as a whole, that person is doing the opposite of science.
Today, there is reason to believe that Covid-19, as devastating as it was, did less damage to our society than our ham-fisted overreaction to the disease. Fauci and his public health colleagues were enthusiastic cheerleaders for the policies that inflicted this damage. The social, medical, and economic aftershocks will reverberate for decades to come. It’s tempting to lay the blame here all on Fauci, to assume that his personal moral shortcomings created this mess. I don’t think that’s right. By all accounts, Fauci is a well-meaning official who really believes he’s doing what’s best for the country. But so what? Well-intentioned people can do just as much damage as malevolent ones, sometimes more.
No. The real problem here is power. Fauci simply has had far too much of it for far too long. When the Good Saint Anthony retires in a few months, this administration (or, more likely, one that follows) would be smart to ensure that the next NIAID director operates on a much shorter leash. We would all do well to recognize that appointing “czars” in times of crisis always backfires in the end. And it’s fundamentally un-American.
This piece originally appeared on Commentary
James B. Meigs is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a City Journal contributing editor, cohost of the How Do We Fix It? podcast, and the former editor of Popular Mechanics.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images