A year of woe

This was originally published on 1st March, 2021, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.

Emergency rule gets people used to subordination. It nurtures voluntary servitude. It is the mother of despotism and … strangely resembles the virus it claims to combat. — John Keane, 10 April 2020

It has now been around a year since governments around the world started taking drastic measures with their people to deal with what was, at the time, an unknown virus. As they did so, we were assured that these measures wouldn’t last too long. “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” went the saying.


Those two weeks have long since passed, but many across the world are just as restricted by their governments as they were last March, and some even more so. Much could be said about the necessity of such actions given the nature of the virus — which, while certainly serious in its first season among us, is not a terror — but what interests me more is the way the public has responded in these countries to the suspension of their liberties.


While there have been some complaints and even protests (normally small scale), most citizens seem to hold the view that the actions of their governments have been necessary and will only be temporary, and therefore once this indeterminate period comes to a close, we can all return back to the liberal democracy we had before, with the same freedoms and rights we’ve come to enjoy.


It’s a lovely thought. What a shame, then, that as things stand today it will never be anything more than that, as it is impossible for a liberal democracy to take upon its shoulders the yoke of authoritarianism and come out the other side unscathed, unless serious effort is taken to remove that yoke first.


(Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

There are two categories of liberal democracies. The first is the larger and younger of the two, found most consistently on the European continent, and dominated by Napoleonic political/legal systems, where the state has the ultimate authority and decides which rights its citizens do and do not have, with that authority most visibly enforced by gendarmes (military police) and/or national identity cards.


The second category, smaller and older, consists almost entirely of the Anglosphere. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all owe a great debt to Britain for their political and legal system, reflect in their historical emphasis on freedoms, rather than rights, and a civilian police force. The distinction between freedoms (also known as civil liberties, and also what many older ‘rights’ referred to) and (modern, often prefixed with ‘human’) rights is often overlooked, but is important: rights can be granted or revoked for citizens at any time by the authority with that power —usually the state — whereas freedoms are a restriction on authorities to prevent them from interfering with citizens.


In practice, these two things usually appear so similar as to be irrelevant to the man on the street — at least in a free society. But when a society becomes unfree, the distinction becomes more clear…or at least, it should.


If you and I are given the right of public assembly by the state, that means that we have a certain privilege that may or may not be enjoyed by our fellow citizens. That privilege is contingent on the continued support of the state, and may come with certain caveats, such as the presentation of identification or the creation of an attendance list to be presented to the state.


If, by contrast, we have the freedom of assembly, that freedom is much more absolute. The state is restricted from being able to have any hand in stopping you and I from assembling together. There is no requirement for the state to give us the nod of approval, or for us to tell them who exactly is meeting. We are free people meeting together under our own auspices, and the police will not do anything to stop them because they don’t operate on the orders of government ministers.


In the Anglosphere, the language and principles of freedoms and civil liberties have been the dominant way of approaching this issue, as the main concern has been that of government overreach, whereas on the European continent, the concern was more often in bringing order to chaos, which often required the state to be heavily involved (such as the Napoleonic era following the French Revolution). In the past 25 years, though, that has changed, and the absolute nature of the Anglosphere’s inherited freedoms has begun to look much like sandstone cliffs facing the raging oceans of government: seemingly immovable, yet slowly disintegrating.


Eventually, these will all be eroded into nothing, even though we cannot see it coming.

If you have travelled by plane in the last two decades, you will have seen this in action. Only in prison is one less free than they are when in airport security. Like many of these erosions, the now-permanent presence of invasive security procedures at airports has been done in the name of safety, in order to combat the threat of ‘terrorism’.


While undoubtedly having a significant impact on the ability of violent actors to, say, hijack a plane, it has also had the downside of forcing everyone to be treated as a potential criminal and asked to prove that they are not one (and preventing passengers from stopping a violent actor that’s already in the cockpit, as in the case of MH370).

In fact, airports have generally been the first port of call for new, invasive technologies.


Want to get through the stringent security quicker? Just step this way and you can instead use our new system of iris and/or facial recognition, or scan your digital identity card from your mobile, or from the microchip you’ve inserted in your wrist. Oh, and please make sure to step in front of our thermal cameras and CT lung scanner — for your health, of course.


It is only a recent phenomenon that we treat airports as some kind of island unto themselves, completely detached from how we run the rest of our society. In truth, they have become the breeding ground of a complacent population — especially in the Anglosphere countries. After all, 9/11 and 7/7 took place in two of those countries, so surely that meant that a curtailing of freedoms was necessary to deal with this new threat to our safety?


Please prove to us that you do not have criminal intent. (Image: Getty Images)

And so, we now face an apparent threat that is literally unstoppable, with Pfizer’s CEO saying that a Covid vaccine will be conceptually the same as a flu shot — get it once a year to inoculate you from the most recent strain. The difference being, of course, that the flu shot has always been optional, yet now there is pressure (beginning with travel companies, of course) to make this new vaccine mandatory, either by legal force or by coercion.


A legal requirement to put a foreign object in your body would come as only the latest in a string of freedoms being cut away, or suggested for (‘temporary’) removal across the past year, which has included when we can leave our house, for what purpose we can leave it, where we can go, who we can gather together with, how long we can do that, what we wear when we are with others, and even what we do inside our own houses. And this is only including Anglosphere nations, the very countries that are meant to have more stringent guarantees on freedoms.


As with terrorism, this has all been done in the name of safety and security, which is often what questions of rights and freedoms boil down to. Life is, after all, fundamentally risky. Any number of things could, in theory, kill us at any moment, but we choose to use them anyway because we gain enough from using them that they are worth the risk. But some restrictions on freedom are necessary, in order to ensure that people do not come to unnecessary harm. The question is, how do we decide where the limits should lie?


The most common way within liberal thought to approach this issue is John Stuart Mill’s ‘harm principle’, who stated in On Liberty (1859) that:

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

The problems with this principle have been laid bare across these recent months and years. Who is it that ultimately gets to define ‘harm prevention’? Those who can exercise power over any member of a community. In our case, this is the state. This means that the state is free to define ‘harmful activity’ in whatever way it wishes.


In theory, the ability of governments to exercise excessive power under the excuse of ‘harm prevention’ is held in check by the populace via elections, which can be called at any time. In reality, many governments now have fixed terms that are nearly impossible to break through, and even if they don’t, the larger problem is that much of the populace seems thoroughly uninterested in holding their governments to account as long as they get the right message across.


That message being, naturally, that their actions are for your safety.


This is the real genie being taken out of the bottle: not the limitations on freedoms and rights in themselves, but the unwillingness of so many people to complain, reject, question and identify issues with the limitations, let alone to vote out governments on this issue. Good luck finding many (or any) governments that have been voted out of office at any level over the last year. I can only think of one off the top of my head, and that was through some…unusual circumstances. For the most part, the last 12 months have been a shot in the arm for governments, many of whom have found their polling numbers going through the roof. On the rare chance they haven’t, it will usually be an opposition calling for tougher restrictions that has benefited instead.


Once populations show that they have no interest in standing up for their own freedoms, governments will more than happily continue to wield the enormous power granted to them via apathy, and will wield them tighter and tighter, heavier and heavier, until a revolution comes. The whole point of conserving our freedoms and rights is so that future generations won’t have to go through the same fight to be free that our ancestors have done and that we have enjoyed the benefits of.


Letting go of these things now in the name of safety will inevitably mean that our descendants will be both less safe and less free, and will have to take much more unsafe actions to return to some level of freedom. All it requires to protect you and them is to ask some questions, publicly, openly, even if you agree to some extent with what your governments have been doing.


As Britain’s Lord Jonathon Sumption has said recently, “we cannot switch in and out of totalitarianism at will. Because a free society is a question of attitude, it is dead once the attitude changes.” Perhaps you think ‘totalitarianism’ is too harsh, but that is what has been introduced, no matter how temporary the practices are. Having the state interfere with your life to the point where no-one can leave their house without a permit and a mask, and with the police free to ram down your front door if they think you’ve broken the rules —what other word could be more appropriate?


And if our attitude towards their actions is to just blandly go along with the government’s wishes, without question or argument, and without even thinking about voting out that government? That’s the end of liberal democracy.

Liberal democracy breaks down when frightened majorities demand mass coercion of their fellow citizens, and call for our personal spaces to be invaded. These demands are invariably based on what people conceive to be the public good. They all assert that despotism is in the public interest. — Jonathan Sumption, 16th February, 2021