by Elle Seybold
on Monday, December 28th, 2020 at 2:36pm.
No doubt we are all weary of the COVID catastrophe. As time has progressed it has been dismaying to witness the deterioration of our society and economy. In some ways I feel as if our very humanity is being lost. The way people look at “others” with suspicion and anger, as if they may be a harbinger of disease. The way neighbours are tattling on neighbours and local businesses. The way our Western governments have assumed totalitarian-esque powers and citizens have quietly tolerated it. I am concerned these parasitic ideas will fester and grow, and our sense of community and brotherhood will be lost. But I digress, last month I wrote about the disregarded victims of our government’s actions – the children, the poor, the small business owners, the developing countries, and many more. This month I want to explore the fundamental rule of law and liberty.
Per usual, I am a voracious consumer of information and I came across the writing of a British legal scholar, Lord Sumption, who served as a Senior Judge on the U.K.’s Supreme Court. I will paraphrase his thoughts here and adapt them to include the American experience. I found his thoughts not only chilling, but deeply insightful. I hope you will too…
… So remarkable a departure from our liberal traditions surely calls for some consideration of its legal and constitutional basis. In the long run the principles on which we are governed matter more than the way that we deal with any particular crisis. Today, governments have deemed anything justifiable in the interest of hindering the transmission of this disease. I reject that claim.
There are few more fundamental rights than personal liberty. Yet we are witnessing the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our countries.
Humanity craves security. Four centuries ago Thomas Hobbes formulated his notorious apology for absolute government. The basis of human society, he argued, is that people have no right to be free, for they completely and irrevocably surrender their liberty to an overpowering state in return for security.
To that end, Western peoples have given their full confidence in the benign power of the state to protect them against an ever-wider range of risks (wholly in Europe, a bit more sceptically in the U.S.). The lockdowns have often been followed by periods in which the government’s approval ratings shoot up. This is how freedom dies. When societies lose their liberty, it is not usually because some despot has crushed it under his boot. It is because people voluntarily surrendered their liberty out of fear of some external threat.
Historically, fear has always been the most potent instrument of the authoritarian state. Is it not what we are witnessing today? Fear promotes intolerant conformism. It encourages abuse directed against anyone who steps out of line, including many responsible opponents of the government’s measures and some notable scientists who have questioned their empirical basis. This is the foundation of a totalitarian society.
So is the propaganda by which the government has been able to create its own public opinion. Fear was deliberately stoked by: the language of impending doom; the daily press conferences; the alarmist projections of the mathematical modellers; the manipulative use of selected statistics; the presentation of exceptional tragedies as if they were the normal effects of COVID-19; above all the attempt to suggest that that COVID-19 was an indiscriminate killer, when the truth was that it killed identifiable groups, notably those with serious underlying conditions and the old, who could and arguably should have been sheltered without coercing the entire population.
The ease with which people could be terrorised into surrendering basic freedoms which are fundamental to our existence as social beings came as a shock to me in March 2020. So has much of the subsequent debate. I certainly never expected to hear the word libertarian, which only means a believer in freedom, used as a term of abuse.
I am also called to recall Lord Acton’s famous dictum that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Ministers do not readily surrender coercive powers when the need has passed.
Government by decree is not only constitutionally objectionable, it is usually bad government.
There is a common delusion that authoritarian government is efficient. It does not waste time in argument or debate. Strongmen get things done. Historical experience should warn us that this idea is usually wrong.
Within the government’s own ranks, it promotes loyalty at the expense of wisdom, flattery at the expense of objective advice. The want of criticism encourages self-confidence, and self-confidence banishes moderation and restraint. Authoritarian rulers sustain themselves in power by appealing to the emotional and the irrational in collective opinion. The present government’s mishandling of COVID-19 exemplifies all of these vices.
The Western public has not even begun to understand the seriousness of what is happening to our countries.
Many, perhaps most of them don’t care, and won’t care until it is too late. They instinctively feel that the end justifies the means, the motto of every totalitarian government which has ever been. Yet what holds us together as a society is precisely the means by which we do things. The next few years is likely to see a radical and lasting transformation of the relationship between the state and the citizen. With it will come an equally fundamental change in our relations with each other, a change characterised by distrust, resentment and mutual hostility. In the nature of things, authoritarian governments fracture the societies which they govern. The use of political power as an instrument of mass coercion is corrosive. It divides and it embitters. In this case, it is aggravated by the sustained assault on social interaction which will sooner or later loosen the glue that helped us to deal with earlier crises.
The unequal impact of the government’s measures is eroding any sense of national solidarity. The poor, the inadequately housed, the precariously employed and the socially isolated have suffered most from the government’s. Above all, the young, who are little affected by the disease itself, have been made to bear almost all the burden, in the form of blighted educational opportunities and employment prospects whose effects will last for years. Their resentment of democratic forms, which was already noticeable before the epidemic, is mounting, as recent polls have confirmed.
The government has discovered the power of public fear to let it get its way. It will not forget. Aristotle argued in his Politics that democracy was an inherently defective and unstable form of government. It was, he thought, too easily subverted by demagogues seeking to obtain or keep power by appeals to public emotion and fear.
What has saved us from this fate in the two centuries that democracy has subsisted in the West is a tradition of responsible government, based not just on law but on convention, deliberation and restraint, and on the effective exercise of Parliamentary (Legislative) as opposed to executive sovereignty. But like all principles which depend on a shared political culture, this is a fragile tradition. It may now founder after two centuries in which it has served us well. What will replace it is a nominal democracy, with a less deliberative and consensual style and an authoritarian reality which we will like a great deal less.