Starting at 4:00pm EDT on August 19th the Cato Institute will host a live on-line policy forum titled “Pandemic Policy Postmortem: Lessons from Sweden.” The scheduled speakers are Jay Bhattacharya, Jeanne Lenzer, Johan Norberg, Vinay Prasad, and Jeff Singer.
I’ve had two big worries during the pandemic, starting from the very beginning and still ongoing. Both relate to my sense that ‘coronaphobia’ has taken over as the basis of government policy in so many countries, with a complete loss of perspective that life is a balance of risks pretty much on a daily basis.
First, the extent to which dominant majorities of peoples in countries with universal literacy can be successfully terrified into surrendering their civil liberties and individual freedoms has come as a frightening shock. There is this truly confronting video of the police in Melbourne assaulting a small young woman – for not wearing a mask!
On the one hand, the evidence base for the scale and gravity of the Covid-19 pandemic is surprisingly thin in comparison to the myriad other threats to our health that we face every year. We don’t ban cars on the reasoning that every life counts and even one traffic death is one too many lives lost. Instead, we trade a level of convenience for a level of risk to life and limb.
On the other hand, the restrictions imposed on everyday life as we know it have been far more draconian than anything previously done, even during World War II or the great 1918-19 flu. In present circumstances, the argument for the crucial importance of liberties has been made most eloquently by former UK Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption in a BBC interview on March 31st, and repeated several times since.
But it’s also an argument that Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America (and therefore suspect in the post-Black Lives Matter and statues-toppling environment), made back in the 18thcentury: ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety’.
Yet, the evidence for the effectiveness of draconian lockdowns is less than convincing. As one Lancet study concluded, ‘Rapid border closures, full lockdowns, and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people’.
I confess I still don’t understand the global outbreak of collective panic and hysteria, the shelving of all existing pandemic management plans, the failure of medical professions to speak out, and the astonishing public compliance with authoritarian policies.
I can’t believe “lockdown skepticism” was promoted as the fringe anti-science position. Like lockdown is a regular occurrence and we’re the strange ones for questioning it. Or imprisoning people and shutting down the world is a completely normal reaction to a pandemic!
Liberalism sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not as a means of seeking the good life as defined by religion, but rather as a way of ensuring life itself, that is, peace and security. Thomas Hobbes, writing in the middle of the English civil war, was a monarchist, but he saw a strong state primarily as a guarantee that mankind would not return to the war of “every man against every man.” The fear of violent death was, according to him, the most powerful passion, one that was universally shared by human beings in a way that religious beliefs were not. Therefore the first duty of the state was to protect the right to life. This was the distant origin of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the US Declaration of Independence. Building on this foundation, John Locke observed that life could also be threatened by a tyrannical state, and that the state itself needed to be constrained by the “consent of the governed.”
Classical liberalism can therefore be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity, or, to put it in slightly different terms, of peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: you do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what they are without interference from you or from the state. Liberalism lowers the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table: you can believe what you want, but you must do so in private life and not seek to impose your views on your fellow citizens.
The connection between classical liberalism and economic growth is not a trivial one. Between 1800 and the present, output per person in the liberal world grew nearly 3,000 percent. These gains were felt up and down the economic ladder, with ordinary workers enjoying levels of health, longevity, and consumption unavailable to the most privileged elites in earlier ages.
(DBx: In this essay, Fukuyama makes two errors, neither of which substantially detracts from this essay’s excellence. One error is Fukuyama’s claim that strong property rights in Europe first emerged in the Netherlands and England during the early modern era. In fact, there was no significant change in property-rights protection there and then. The second error is Fukuyama’s too-simplistic history of U.S. trade policy. I recommend that Fukuyama read Doug Irwin’s Clashing Over Commerce.)
In a short epilogue, Ms. Arcenas recalls staying in a rented apartment in Montana. The place had a Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”) displayed on the front porch. Inside was a small library. At eye level, “sandwiched between volumes on the history of the pistol and the US Constitution, stood John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government.” Ms. Arcenas tells this story with a hint of derision and takes the image as one more sign that Locke is used as a “partisan pawn in debates over the political heritage of the United States and its commitment (or not) to minimal government and individual rights.”
I’m not sure. The trans-Atlantic liberal order Locke helped to bring about finds itself under assault from all sides by people determined to replace it with tyranny of one kind or another. A guy who keeps a copy of the “Two Treatises” next to the Constitution and a history of firearms may well understand the greatness of John Locke and the value of liberalism better than anybody.
Peter Wallison applauds the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in West Virginia v. EPA. Here’s his conclusion:
In sum, we may now have entered a new era; one where a conservative Supreme Court majority seems ready to take back from administrative agencies the power to define what Congress has or has not said in legislation. To most observers this might seem logical; the judiciary was always intended to interpret the laws made by Congress. But in fact, for many years Congress has passed the difficult policy questions to administrative agencies, and these non-elected officials have made the policy decisions. This is not what the Framers intended or what is appropriate for a democratic republic.
Although many will see West Va. v. EPA as the Court flexing its conservative muscles, it is better seen as an attempt by the Court to restore the original constitutional structure in which Congress makes the policy decisions that underlie the laws. In doing so, it will end a century of judicial support for a form of progressivism that has driven the growth of the administrative state.