Sen. Rand Paul doesn’t much care what Anthony Fauci has to say. The Kentucky Republican gets his public health advice from Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek, the Austrian-born economist and libertarian hero, died in 1992. But Paul, an ophthalmologist before he took up politics, still takes medical guidance from the 20th-century philosopher.

“Hayek had it right!” Paul proclaimed at Tuesday’s Senate health committee hearing on the coronavirus pandemic. “Only decentralized power and decision-making based on millions of individualized situations can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”

Paul focused his wrath on Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious-disease official. “Virtually every day we seem to hear from you things we can’t do,” Paul complained. “All I hear is, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, we can’t play baseball.”

Fauci assured Paul that “I never said we can’t play a certain sport.”

Unsatisfied, Paul demanded: “We just need more optimism.”

So that’s what we need. The United States is hitting new records for infection, largely because President Trump and allied governors across the South and Southwest ignored public health guidance. While other countries beat back the virus, we’re on course to have 100,000 new cases a day, Fauci said, and doing little about it. But we just need to be more upbeat!

Not for the first time, it feels as though 21st-century America is 14th-century Europe, reacting with all manner of useless countermeasures to the plague: balancing ill “humors” and dispelling evil “vapors” caused by planetary misalignment, religious marches and public self-flagellation, cures involving live chickens and unicorns, and the wearing of amulets and reciting of “abracadabra.”

Now, we have science to tell us how to beat the coronavirus — with face masks and social distancing. Yet our response is resolutely medieval.

The president ridicules mask wearing as politically correct and unmanly. His campaign staff tears down social distancing signs at his mass rally. Governors of hard-hit states tamper with data, sideline public health experts and blame the spread on Latino farmworkers, civil rights demonstrations and increased testing — anything but their reckless and premature relaxing of restrictions.

And then there’s Vice President Pence, head of the White House coronavirus task force. “I’d just encourage every American to continue to pray,” he said at Friday’s task force briefing.

I’m all for prayer. But prayer without face masks won’t defeat the virus.

“The attitude of pushing back from authority and pushing back on scientific data is very concerning,” Fauci told senators Tuesday, bemoaning a “lack of trust” in government. “We’re in the middle of a catastrophic outbreak and we really do need to be guided by scientific principles.”

A lack of urgency about the virus caused the testing debacle. A lack of regard for science caused the hydroxychloroquine debacle. A contempt for public health advice caused the reopening debacle. A president’s vanity caused the anti-face-mask debacle. An immunology debacle likely comes next: If Trump rushes out a vaccine before the election, would anybody believe it’s safe?

Belatedly, more than a dozen states have paused or scaled back their rash plans to reopen without heeding public health guidance. But we still have the White House proclaiming “remarkable progress” against the pandemic because the latest victims are younger — as though they won’t infect the old and the sick. Trump insists he wasn’t joking when he said he told health officials to “slow the testing down” to suppress the number of reported cases. He’s proceeding with plans for an in-person, mask-optional convention in Florida, now a virus hot spot.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blames street protests (even though New York, Washington and Minneapolis experienced no such surge in cases) and “overwhelmingly Hispanic” workers, and as cases spiked last week, he claimed that “nothing has changed.” Like other GOP governors and the Trump administration, he also blames an increase in testing — which doesn’t explain the higher rate of positive tests.

Pence, too, rejects the obvious conclusion that “the reopening has to do with what we’re seeing” in the viral spread. (It’s the evil vapors!) He said Sunday that it’s a “good idea” to wear face masks — just after attending a church event at which half the 2,200 people, including the choir, eschewed masks.

At Tuesday’s committee hearing, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is retiring, urged Trump to “occasionally wear a mask” so his admirers “would follow his lead and help end this political debate.”

But neither Alexander’s pleadings, nor those of the various health officials testifying, are likely to break down America’s medieval resistance to science. Paul, citing the successful reopening of schools in Europe, demanded U.S. schools reopen (ignoring that Europe has contained the virus). Invoking the superiority of Hayek’s theories to the findings of public health officials, Paul said “we shouldn’t presume that a group of experts somehow knows what’s best.”

Hayek must be right. After all, he never got covid-19.

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