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Netflix’s ‘Death to 2020’ Illustrates the Problem with Power

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By Hannah Cox

If ever a year required some retrospective comedic relief in its wake, it would be 2020. The infamous 366-day stretch (yep, it was a leap year) gave us a harrowing number of shocking headlines, bizarre plot twists, and tragic catastrophes.

So, Netflix’s new mockumentary Death to 2020 is a welcome pain reliever—delivering a detailed global timeline of all of the events with a side of humor and dark satire.

In its short runtime, Death to 2020 covers the Australia wildfires, Brexit, Greta Thunberg’s climate change speech at the G7 summit, impeachment, the pandemic, lockdowns, and PPE shortagesIn its short runtime, the movie covers the Australia wildfires, Brexit, Greta Thunberg’s climate change speech at the G7 summit, impeachment, the pandemic, lockdowns, and PPE shortages. That gets you to May.

It goes on to look at the police killing of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests and riots, police brutality, the tearing down of confederate monuments, the Karen phenomenon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the election, and the coronavirus vaccine. In its short runtime, Death to 2020 covers the Australia wildfires, Brexit, Greta Thunberg’s climate change speech at the G7 summit, impeachment, the pandemic, lockdowns, and PPE shortages

So much happened in 2020 you’ll be forgiven if you’ve forgotten some of these stories, or if you thought they happened prior to last year. But you should see Death to 2020 to remember them.

The film’s focus is on the events themselves, but the overarching story it tells is of humanity facing difficult and uncertain times. And while the commentary is quite funny, the behavior of some of the people it covers—the Karens and killer cops, the looters and lockdowners, etc.—is not. By the end of it all, viewers are left with a distaste in their mouths for everyone involved. “Maybe we really are the virus!”

What makes the mockumentary notable is that it refuses to take sides and leaves no spade uncalled. Government failure, abuse of power, corruption, state violence, and general incompetence are all fair game and recognized across the political spectrum. In a time when most commentators only spot wrong-doing when it’s done by “the other side,” I found this unflinching reckoning refreshing in its honesty and accuracy.

‘Death to 2020’: The mistake we should stop making

As the mockumentary puts on full display, humans are fallible – we’re prone to corruption, tribalism, envy, and error – and those failings transcend political parties and borders.

Too many make a fatal error and assume that we need only elect “better” people with “good intentions” to set the world right. They think if “their guy” were in power, all would be well, instead of acknowledging these fundamental truths about humanity. 2020 ought to forever dissolve that notion as both side’s bad behavior was on full display, and as even the best of intentions created devastating effects on people’s lives.

Due to the knowledge problem, leaders are not capable of centrally planning the lives of millions of people, and when they try to, citizens get hurt – even when those attempts are made with good intentions.

Take the lockdowns for example. We’ll give politicians the benefit of the doubt and assume that most of them intended to save lives with these actions. But the lockdowns ended up hurting people far more: jobs were lost, hunger increased, inequality grew, suicides and overdoses skyrocketed, and the lockdowns ultimately did not prevent the spread of disease.

So humans are imperfect, and they are incapable of making decisions for large numbers of people. That’s strike one and strike two. Add to this the nature of power – we know that power corrupts and it offers perverse incentives that cause even the “good guys” to go astray. That makes strike three.

For these reasons, it is imperative that we reduce the bad incentives the nature of power creates, and that we remove the capabilities for flawed politicians to inflict harm on society at large. We can only do this by limiting the size and scope of the government.

Return to the example of the lockdowns. Had state power been sufficiently constrained, governors would not have been positioned to infringe on individual freedom in the first place. It wouldn’t have mattered who was governor, at least not nearly as much.

It is with these inescapable realities in mind that our country was originally structured.

In The Federalist No. 51, James Madison, who is remembered as the Father of the Constitution, wrote:

“If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

Our government exists to govern flawed people, but it is also run by those same flawed people. That’s why the Framers designed our Constitution to place strict limits on the power of politicians. Our country is unique in the fact that our laws were first enshrined to primarily place limits on the government, more so than on us. Our Founders knew that any government put in place would always seek to enrich and entrench itself to the detriment of its citizens, and so they sought to restrain it. This is the essential principle that underlies a belief in a limited government.

The Odyssey and the problem with power

This principle is metaphorically illustrated well by an ancient myth.

In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is a war hero making his way back home. On his journey he is warned of the Sirens—monsters who pose as beautiful women and lure passing sailors to their deaths with an enchanting song. Odysseus tells his men to place wax in their ears, but he wants to hear the music, and so he orders his crew to tie him to the ship’s mast. Sure enough, the Sirens’ song reaches him as the ship sails by, promising him peace and happiness if he joins the monsters. Odysseus tears at his binds, desperate to follow the Sirens, but he is fortunately bound and survives.

James Buchanan, an American economist, used the story of Odysseus and the Sirens as an example of how we should approach our government in his book, The Reason of Rules. Knowing that men are fallible, and knowing that power is a siren song with the potential to lead us all to our deaths, it is imperative that we bind our politicians to the ship’s mast. We can’t expect them to resist the Sirens’ song on their own.

This understanding of the nature of politics, government, and human nature shaped Buchanan’s work pioneering “public choice theory,” which won him a Nobel Prize. Buchanan found that—like regular people—politicians act in their own self-interest according to incentives. And so, again, we must limit the opportunities they face that will bring harm to others.

Death to 2020 opens with the narrator saying, “We’re reliving the events of 2020,” to which Samuel L. Jackson’s character quips, “Why would you wanna do that?” But we should look back at the events of 2020, so we can learn from the important lessons they hold. 2020 is a tale of the government’s failures, and the moral of the story is we should never have given it so much power in the first place.

Foundation for Economic Education (FEE)

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