Could Liberty Rise Again?
By Duncan Whitmore
“I would feel safer if the coronavirus held a press conference telling us how it is going to protect us from the government”
– Anonymous meme
For those with a passion for liberty and freedom from the state, it has been difficult not to feel a sense of despair at the COVID-19 hysteria. A mere nine months ago it seemed as though Britain was at the dawn of a bright new era as it adjusted to life outside of the European Union. Now, however, our fellow Britons seem to have sacrificed, with little resistance, whatever vestiges of freedom remained in this country all so the state can keep us “safe” from dangers that are no more serious than what we are used to.
Such despair is likely to be intensified when stumbling across something like the following pair of tweets by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins:
Needless to say, such an opinion represents an appalling display of ignorance for an eminent scientist, completely oblivious, for one thing, to the fact that risk is subjective and needs to be weighed against other factors. Indeed, many of the replies ridiculed Dawkins by asking him whether he would drive a car given that, regardless of the benefits, it too puts lives in danger. But Dawkins – like fellow atheist, leftist, Remainers A C Grayling and the physicist Brian Cox – often seems happy to play the role of court intellectual, springing up as an official clever clogs dispensing acceptable “wisdom” on any matter far from his area of expertise (although, in fairness, some of his views on Islam stray far from the PC mould). So it is no surprise that, true to the form of any leftist, he presumes, rather than proves, the right of the state to decide which “considerations” are important, papered over by a splurge of superficial plausibility in the place of rigorous logic.1
However, once one’s initial frustration recedes, Dawkins’ tweets are rather revealing for they inadvertently betray an interesting change in the nature of the conversation. Most of the time, mainstream debate consists solely of what the state should choose to do out of an array of options. So when it comes to mask wearing, for instance, we could – as Dawkins indicates – argue about the effectiveness of masks in reducing the spread of contagious diseases, with the government deciding its course of action accordingly. The question of whether the state has the right to force people to wear masks in the first place – or to comply with whatever else it decides – is seldom considered, with those of us who do draw attention to this matter either ignored or greeted with minimal acknowledgment. Now, however, a high profile statist clearly feels the need to address the question of liberty directly. In other words, something must have rattled him to the extent that he couldn’t just ignore challenges to the principle of the state’s authority. Of course, the best he can muster is to assert that liberty is a priority only for the “right wing” – the leftist go-to for any value they abhor but which happens to be difficult to refute with an actual argument. This is all the more daft given that, in contrast to other issues such as immigration control and nationalism, equating champions of freedom with Hitler is hardly a plausible comparison.
It is, of course, too much to extrapolate anything from a single opinion by a single individual. But it is not too outlandish for us to wonder further whether the coronavirus restrictions, in the long run, will arouse a deeper questioning of the state’s legitimacy. This is particularly likely if the government becomes more draconian with its enforcement and/or the fallout from the lockdown measures – severe economic contraction, high unemployment, and the backlog of other, untreated life threatening illnesses – eventually prove the government’s response to have been a public policy disaster. And, worse than that, a disaster that they have been willing to inflict not just once in the form of the initial lockdown but twice as the winter now draws nearer.
In a number of posts last year in which we analysed the wider implications of Brexit, we suggested that, in spite of the doors to greater freedom that could be opened by Britain’s departure from the EU, it was premature to assume that the divide between Remainers and Leavers was equivalent to a division between statists and libertarians. In particular, the desire for any further, serious reform to our domestic system of government was unlikely to have been widespread among those who voted to leave – a fact reflected by election results during 2019 where the Brexit Party’s single, clear objective soared in popularity above UKIP’s platform which muddied the waters with other issues. In other words, Brexiteers may have wanted freedom from the EU, but it doesn’t necessarily follow from such a desire that they wanted our own government in Westminster to be endowed with any less power than it already has.
It is possible, however, that COVID-19 will end up sharpening this division. For one thing, the iron fist of the state has slammed itself down on the table much more visibly and much more suddenly than the prior, insidious and hidden growth of state power justified by, for example, Islamic terrorism. The most that the state has come up with as justification for this is that each of us might be carrying an infectious virus which might infect another person which might cause the latter an illness. As the only people who seem to bear any actual, significant risk are those of an advanced age (in common with most other medical afflictions), anyone who wishes to carry on life with some semblance of normality has to be guilted into thinking of himself as a wanton granny killer. Of course no one has actually bothered to ask Granny if she is happy for her grandchildren to be locked down for her sake – or whether, like my own grandmother, she is content to be consigned to a care home without visitors for the best part of a year.
The risk to the state’s authority comes not just from the flimsiness of this argument, nor from any frustration at the lack of consistency and constant u-turning – it comes also from the moral confusion that the state has sown. As we have pointed out before, the government’s attitude to this particular virus has been to assume that transmission via human contact translates into the enforceable, individual responsibility of a (possible) carrier to avoid infecting others. But as we cannot identify and prove who has infected who in any particular situation (and as any infection is an incidental, unintended by-product of socialising) then it isn’t helpful to think in this way. Rather, it is more sensible to regard a virus as a phenomenon of nature which happens to use general human interaction in order to proliferate – just as we always have done with colds, coughs and the flu, and against which we each take our own precautions based upon our individual risk profiles.2 Because of this inherently general nature of viral transmission, the government, in contrast to previous crises, has no bogeyman on which to focus public ire. Communists, terrorists, “the rich”, Russians, Saddam Hussein, etc. have all served as whipping boys used to justify increased state predation as a result of the collective hatred directed against their apparently evil intentions. But with COVID-19, everyone is the threat, everyone is dangerous, and everyone is guilty – but if everyone is guilty then it soon becomes obvious that no one is. Thus, the state’s COVID narrative may end up being as ineffective as the attempt to convince white people that they are all inherently racist: people will refuse to see why they should be punished merely for their existence. The more invasive the restrictions become in doing nothing more than penalise the everyday lives of everyday people then the more perceptible state overreach will become also.
Compounding this is the fact that opposition from within the state to the government’s measures, as well as to the way they have been implemented without parliamentary scrutiny, has been vanishingly small. All of the loudmouths amongst Parliament, the official opposition, elder statesmen, the judiciary, and the plethora of human rights lawyers (in tandem with, of course, the mainstream media) happily invoked lofty constitutional principles while preaching the importance of democracy and accountability if it gave them a chance to hinder Brexit. But they have been utterly silent when it comes to the very real loss of our rights, freedoms and constitutional safeguards as a result of COVID restrictions being imposed by ministerial decree. The only legal action against the government’s measures that I know of – that initiated by entrepreneur Simon Dolan – was recently delayed by a month because one of the eleven-strong team of government lawyers decided to holiday on the original date. Moreover, it has received little attention in the mainstream press, in complete contrast to the speed, urgency and publicity of the cases brought against the government by Gina Miller over Brexit. Highlighting this contrast is the fact that all of the usual suspects broke their silence recently in opposition to the government’s Internal Market Bill – again invoking supposedly cherished principles, such as the sanctity of international law, when it is obvious that their only fear is of the possibility of a harder Brexit.
Thus, through their shameless selectivity, all of our institutions and the people who pollute them have revealed that their real dedication – one that goes hand in hand with a desire to Remain in the EU – is to the state and to increased state control, and that whatever paeans they make to rights and freedoms are purely self-serving platitudes used to consolidate, rather than constrain, state power. On the other hand, everyone else who has to suffer the consequences of COVID lockdowns will – we can hope – realise that the state has been a complete disaster, inflicting upon them avoidable and completely unnecessary destruction and destitution. This will be exacerbated if, as is likely, the economic hardship hits the private sector harder than the public sector. Indeed, few people are likely to believe that we would be facing the same kind of restrictions if MPs and civil servants had to face the same kinds of job losses or income cuts as everyone else.
There is room, therefore, for at least a degree of cautious optimism in one significant respect: COVID-19 may serve to show that the real division that exists in society is between those who work with, in, and for the state and those who do not. Should this division become more perceptible we could see the kinds of criticism directed against the EU soon being directed against the British state itself. Who are our institutions really serving? What benefit is the state to the average person? What right should the state have to make decisions that affect me? Who are our constitutional structures actually protecting? Such a conversation may be amplified now that relatively heavy hitters initially unwilling to challenge the lockdown narrative – such as Nigel Farage, who already harbours an ambition for achieving greater constitutional reform post-Brexit – are becoming staunch critics.
It is, of course, much too early to tell precisely where we are heading in the near future. On the one hand, the forthcoming six months of restrictions announced on Tuesday of this week have in no way been welcomed with the chorus of approval that greeted the first lockdown back in March. On the other hand, neither are we approaching anything like a critical mass of opposition. Moreover, as we explained recently, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of much broader trends. But it should be remembered that the bigger the state gets then so too do its failures increase in magnitude. The state may plan and plot, for good or ill, as many grand schemes as it likes, but we, as Austro-libertarians, know that in the long run it can benefit only some people by inflicting harm on everybody else. There comes a point when the disaffection of the latter ceases to be insignificant if the state continues to grow – and we have reached that point within the last decade or so. Since the financial crisis of 2008 followed by the Brexit vote and the ascendance of Donald Trump in 2016, the corporatist, globalising, inflation fuelled state has been on the back foot. It cannot produce general prosperity; its values are questioned; its institutions are suspect; its primary figurehead, the US President, is an outsider; its torch bearer is a low-Wattage Washington veteran with barely a grasp of lucidity. Thus, recent increases in state power have not been made from a position of strength, but have, instead, doubled down after failure and cracked down on dissent. If a continuance on this trajectory results in people simply talking in terms liberty and addressing the kinds of questions we just raised – as Richard Dawkins clearly felt he had to – then this alone will be a tremendous step forward.
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1For those interested in how a libertarian should respond to the notion that liberty must be “balanced” with other “considerations”, the question of liberty is logically antecedent to these other values that Dawkins may have in mind. Liberty concerns not which values are important, but whether a person should be able to realise, with his own person or property, values that are important to him – whether, in other words, a person is an end in himself. Thus, if you decide that a person’s liberty may be curtailed to achieve some end, you are not “balancing” that person’s liberty with other values – rather, you are simply forcing him to adhere to values that are important to you, treating him as a means to your ends rather than as an end in himself. Another way of putting it is that the question of liberty concerns who gets to decide which values are important. Dawkins simply presupposes that the latter is the legitimate purview of the state.
Alternatively, a simple analogy is that, in a competitive sport such as football, the rules of the game are separate from whichever skill or tactic you may choose to deploy in order to get the ball into the net. You do not “weigh” adherence to the rules against the suitability of these other tactics, choosing to ignore them when it is advantageous to do so. Rather, you have to obey the rules throughout the entire game. Similarly, the liberty of other people is not one of many options that you can choose to respect when it suits you; rather it is a permanent, overarching constraint on the choices that you may make.
2Incidentally, the same argument could be advanced with regards to anthropogenic climate change. Any effect which results from human activity as a whole should be treated as a phenomenon of nature rather than as a matter of individual culpability warranting a forceful response. So in other words, even if climate change is being caused by humanity there is no justification for the state to force people to curtail their activities.