What is happening now is effectively one of the largest experiments in totalitarianism the world has ever known. A third of the world’s population is under some degree of house arrest. It’s a singular moment in human history.
Many Europeans have generational awareness of living under fascistic government control of their everyday lives and the economy, but for Americans this will be entirely alien. This is, by some distance, the least free Americans have been since the birth of the nation that changed the blueprint for human societies. The Constitution, that rock solid foundation of individual liberty, has vanished without a trace. This may have some Americans blinking in disbelief.
The curious thing about this overnight tyranny is that it wasn’t forced upon populations who were resistant to the idea. The majority of the people of the western world asked, demanded even, to be placed under house arrest indefinitely by their own governments. So what we’re seeing is a multitude of tyrannies of the majority, spanning over 100 countries.
But from the perspective of moral responsibility, merely wanting to do something is not the same as doing it. People in government (lawmakers) did the doing part. They are the only ones with the power to do so. They could have chosen not to impose lock-downs, not to acquiesce to the majority’s demands, but they didn’t. Therefore, they can and should be held morally responsible for all deaths which may result from the global lock-down over the coming months; caused by their own authoritative government actions which deprived people of the freedoms required to sustain their own lives. Sadly, today’s political systems make it extremely unlikely that any government officials at any level will ever be held legally responsible for their actions.
The empty and abandoned streets of Paris, London, Madrid, Venice and New York are a melancholy and depressing sight. Most people will find it depressing to be at home for weeks on end and yet governments have found it easy to keep entire populations under house arrest because so few people are resisting. Most people are willing to suffer the psychological and physical ill-effects of being confined to their houses because they believe it is ‘saving lives’. Worst still, many are happily participating in this pop-up police state. It’s alarming to see how easily we’ve turned into a society of informants and little tyrants.
The only conflict that is arising between the public and the police is resulting from the fact that ‘essential’ has no objective definition and means different things to different people. This is perhaps why the police enforcement of the lock-down in the UK has been discretionary and arbitrary. The rule of law has basically broken down. People are being arrested and convicted in a matter of days for ‘crimes’ that don’t actually exist in UK law.
Worryingly, all it took for much of the world to abandon liberty and embrace totalitarianism was fear of a new airborne respiratory disease that is not significantly different to any other we’ve experienced before. Perhaps we will never fully understand why the world panicked so about COVID-19, but the psychological effect of real-time news coverage based on incomplete and misleading data coming from government agencies and government-funded organisations was surely a major factor.
Without lock-downs, the COVID-19 pandemic would have run its course in three or four weeks in more or less the same manner as previous pandemics. Yes, many people would have died. Yes, many cities around the world might have needed to erect field hospitals and temporary morgues to cope with the number of patients and deaths, but that is the grim reality of what must be done during a pandemic. We marvel at the beauty of nature, but we forget that it is brutal too. Pandemics are short, sharp reminders of this.
The wonderful thing is we are capable of coping and saving lives to an extent far greater than any previous generation. We can erect temporary hospitals big enough for thousands of patients in a matter of days. We can test large numbers of people in a very short space of time. We can develop vaccines and relatively quickly. These are all miracles of modern science, capitalism and technology. It’s all a miracle of the freedom that exists despite the giant obstructive and monopolising governments of today.
Despite all the absurd government hindrances, it’s amazing how quickly the private sector is reacting and voluntarily re-arranging itself in order to satisfy society’s most pressing needs. But instead of observing all this with a sense of gratitude and wonderment we’re all sitting at home in a permanent state of anxiety and obsessing over today’s death count.
The question is: how long will this global experiment in totalitarianism last? Hopefully, only as long as the pandemic lasts. However, the pandemic is now sure to last longer than it naturally would have done. Shutting schools has prevented children from developing immunity among themselves. Come winter, then, more people will die in a second wave of COVID-19 than would have otherwise been the case. Only time will tell how many ‘extra’ deaths will be caused by governments prolonging the pandemic, but a resurgence later in the year will be the direct consequence of social distancing, lock-downs and shutting schools.
This will be the future cost of governments acting so aggressively and myopically to flatten the curve now. But it won’t be the whole cost. Setting the world on fire and sending the world’s economy into a depression will also cost lives. Potentially, a great many more. Not in the western world, but in places like India where there are hundreds of millions of people living hand to mouth.
The Indian government has imposed a lock-down with the intention of preventing a natural humanitarian catastrophe resulting from a pandemic, but this draconian government action could easily result in a government-made humanitarian catastrophe if it’s maintained long enough. For many Indians on the margin of absolute poverty, death by government will be just as likely or even more likely than death by coronavirus. That’s the thing about lock-downs. To us wealthy folk in the western world they’re an inconvenience, but to swaths of humanity elsewhere on the planet, they’re a death sentence for you or a family member.
In a week or so, we’ll start to see governments claiming they have successfully flattened the curve and thanking the public for doing their moral duty by obeying government orders. However, there is a very real possibility that it will turn out to be a pyrrhic victory, one that, in the long-run, inflicted such a devastating toll on the welfare of humanity that it was tantamount to defeat.
Lock-downs are medieval medicine. They have no place in 21st century society and yet governments barely hesitated to impose them. But then, governments as we known them are founded on the archaic principle that ‘might equals right’ and have no place in the modern world either, so perhaps this is hardly surprising.
In years to come, when humanity can look back on the great coronavirus panic with the clarity of hindsight, let’s hope we recognise where we went wrong. When it came to the crunch, we lacked faith in human freedom, in voluntary human action and instead trusted far too much in government bureaucracy and in coercion. We lacked faith in human compassion and ultimately in ourselves.
Also, we must recognise the despicable role played by the despots in the Chinese government. Their total lack of regard for human life and their efforts to conceal the pandemic from the world gave the virus a head-start. The delay of a month or even two left our societies with much less time to ramp-up production of all the things needed to protect the vulnerable and care for the sick. The world was always two-steps behind because of sociopaths in state power in China.
Lastly, we must acknowledge how shamefully we behaved towards each other. Our fear got the better of us. We lost our civility and treated each other like criminals instead of like equal human beings trying to cope in exceptionally difficult times.
A common refrain you’ll hear these days is: ‘but is freedom more important than safety?’ The answer is, yes, and for one simple reason. You can have society without safety from viruses, but you can’t have society without liberty. Liberty is the foundation of society, of everything we value and of all progress. Safety from viruses is something we strive to achieve through liberty. That’s why liberty must always be held above safety. The chaotic and depressing state of the world right now shows what happens when we hold safety to be a higher political ideal than liberty.
The global lock-down must end now. We must avoid normalising our current state of existence, otherwise the present will imperceptibly morph into the future. If that happens, then our children will end up living their lives under tyranny born of our fears.
Over the last two centuries, humanity has managed to create a general standard of existence which would have been considered a literal heaven on earth by our deep ancestors. However, our fear of the pandemic is leading to an irrational hatred of liberty, which in turn is pushing us dangerously close to turning our heaven into a hell on earth and undoing much of the astounding human progress that has been achieved in terms of raising billions out of poverty. If that happens, it would be a man-made humanitarian catastrophe that would dwarf anything the coronavirus could inflict.