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Jonathan Sumption on Risks, Risk Aversion, and the (Further) Rise of the Authoritarian State

The past October, Jonathan Sumption delivered a remarkable address to the Robert Menzies Institute in Melbourne. (For alerting me to Sumption’s address, I thank my Mercatus Center colleague Mikayla Novak.) Below are six slices, but do read the whole thing.

Yet in 2020, Britain, in common with Australia and almost all Western countries, ordered an indiscriminate lockdown of the whole population, healthy or sick, old or young, something which had never been done before in response to any disease anywhere. These measures enjoyed substantial public support. In Melbourne, lockdown was enforced with a brutality unequalled in liberal countries, but a Lowy Institute poll conducted in 2021 found that 84 per cent of Australians thought that their governments had handled it very well or fairly well. Australians thought even better of New Zealand’s approach, with 91 per cent in favour.

It is clear that in the intervening century between the Spanish flu and Covid, something radically changed in our collective outlook. Two things in particular have changed. One is that we now expect more of the state, and are less inclined to accept that there are limits to what it can or should do. The other is that we are no longer willing to accept risks that have always been inherent in life itself.

Human beings have lived with epidemic disease from the beginning of time. Covid is a relatively serious epidemic, but historically it is well within the range of health risks which are inseparable from ordinary existence, risks which human beings have always had to live with. In Europe, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera and tuberculosis were all worse in their time. Worldwide, the list of comparable or worse epidemics is substantially longer, even if they did not happen to strike Europe or North America. Covid is certainly within the broad range of diseases with which we must expect to live in future. The change is in ourselves, not in the nature or scale of the risks we face.


In modern conditions, risk aversion, and the fear that goes with it, are a standing invitation to authoritarian government. If we hold governments responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our autonomy so that nothing can go wrong. If we demand state protection from risks which are inherent in life itself, these measures will necessarily involve the suppression of some part of life itself. The quest for security at the price of coercive state intervention is a feature of democratic politics which was pointed out in the 1830s by Alexis de Toqueville in his remarkable study of American democracy, a book whose uncanny relevance to modern dilemmas still takes one by surprise even after nearly two centuries. His description of the process cannot be bettered. The protecting power of the state, he wrote:

extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered. But it is softened, bent, and guided. Men are seldom forced to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes. It stupefies a people until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

By definition, legal regulation is designed to limit risk by limiting freedom. Governments do this to protect themselves from criticism. During the pandemic, regulations addressed the risk of infection by Covid, because governments identified that as the thing that they were most likely to be criticised for. Governments were willing to accept considerable collateral damage to mental health resulting from the lockdown, and large increases in deaths from cancer, ischaemic heart disease and dementia. Why? Because they knew that they were less likely to be criticised for those. They would not show up in television screens, with pictures of long lines of ambulances waiting outside hospitals. They would not appear in the daily casualty lists. But they are just as real.

A good deal of historical experience suggests that people who are sufficiently frightened will submit to an authoritarian regime which offers them security against some real or imagined threat. Historically, the threat has usually been war. In the two world wars of the twentieth century Britain transformed itself into a temporary despotism, with substantial public support. Wars, however, are rare. The countries of the West have not faced an existential threat from external enemies since 1940. Today, the real threat to democracy’s survival is not major disasters like war. It is comparatively minor perils which in the nature of things occur more frequently. The more routine the perils from which we demand protection, the more frequently will those demands arise. If we confer despotic powers on government to deal with perils which are an ordinary feature of human existence, we will end up doing it most or all of the time. It is because the perils against which we now demand protection from the state are so much more numerous and routine than they were, that they are likely to lead to a more fundamental and durable change in our attitudes to the state. This is a more serious problem for the future of democracy than war.


Until March 2020, it was unthinkable that liberal democracies should confine healthy people in their homes indefinitely, with limited exceptions at the discretion of government ministers. It was unthinkable that a whole population should be subject to criminal penalties for associating with other human beings, and answerable to the police for all the ordinary activities of daily life. When in early February 2020, the European Centre for Disease Control published the pandemic plans of all twenty-eight then members of the EU, including the UK, not one of these plans envisaged a general lockdown. Not one. The two principal plans were those prepared by the UK Department of Health and the Robert Koch Institute, the official epidemiological institute of Germany. They came to remarkably similar conclusions. The great object should be to enable ordinary life to continue as far as possible. The two main lessons were, first, to avoid indiscriminate measures and concentrate state interventions on the vulnerable categories; and, second, to treat people as grown-ups, go with the grain of human nature and avoid coercion. The published minutes of the committee of scientists advising the UK government show that their advice was on the same lines right up to the announcement of the first lockdown.


In the UK, the man mainly responsible for persuading the government to impose a lockdown was Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiological modeller based at Imperial College London. His work was influential in both the UK and elsewhere. In a press interview in February 2021, Ferguson explained what changed—it was the lockdown in China. “It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought … And then Italy did it. And we realised we could.”

It is worth pausing to reflect on what this means. It means that because a lockdown of the entire population appeared to work in a country which was notoriously indifferent to individual rights and traditionally treats human beings as mere instruments of state policy, they could “get away with” doing the same thing here. Entirely absent from Professor Ferguson’s analysis was any conception of the principled reasons why it had hitherto been unthinkable for Western countries to do such a thing. It was unthinkable because it was based on a conception of the state’s relationship with its citizens which was morally repellent even if it worked.

It is not simply the assault on the concept of liberty that matters. It is the particular liberty which has been most obviously discarded, namely the liberty to associate with other human beings. Association with other human beings is not just an optional extra. It is not just a leisure option. It is fundamental to our humanity. Our emotional relationships, our mental wellbeing, our economic fortunes, our entire social existence is built on the ability of people to come together. This is why I regard lockdowns as a sustained attack on our humanity.


All of this marks a radical change in the relationship between the citizen and the state. The change is summed up in the first question that was asked of the UK Prime Minister when Number 10 press conferences were opened up to the public. “Is it OK for me to hug my grand-daughter?” Something odd has happened to a society if people feel that they need to ask the Prime Minister if it is OK to hug their grand-daughter.

I would sum up the change in this way. What was previously a right inherent in a free people, has come to depend on government licence. We have come to regard the right to live normal lives as a gift of the state. It is an approach which treats all individuals as instruments of collective policy.

All of this was made possible by fear. Throughout history fear has been the principal instrument of the authoritarian state. Fear and insecurity were the basis on which Hobbes justified the absolute state. That is what we have been witnessing in the last two years. A senior figure in the UK government told me during the early stages of the pandemic that in his view the liberal state was an unsuitable set-up for a situation like this. What was needed, he said, was something more “Napoleonic”. That says it all. At least as serious as the implications for our relations with the state are the implications for our relations with each other. The use of political power as an instrument of mass coercion, fuelled by public fear, is corrosive. It is corrosive even, perhaps especially, when it enjoys majority support. For it tends to be accompanied, as it has been in Britain, by manipulative government propaganda and vociferous intolerance of the minority who disagree. Authoritarian governments fracture the societies in which they operate. The pandemic generated distrust, resentment and mutual hostility among citizens in most countries where lockdowns were imposed.


Governments have immense powers, not just in the field of public health but generally. These powers have existed for many years. Their existence has been tolerable in a liberal democracy only because of a culture of restraint, a sense of proportion and a respect for our humanity, which made it unthinkable that they should be used in a despotic manner. It has only ever been culture and convention which prevented governments from adopting a totalitarian model. But culture and convention are fragile. They take years to form but can be destroyed very quickly. Once you discard them, there is no barrier left. The spell is broken. If something is unthinkable until someone in authority thinks of it, the psychological barriers which were once our only protection against despotism have vanished.

There is no inevitability about the future course of any historical trend. But the changes in our political culture seem to me to reflect a profound change in the public mood, which has been many years in the making and may be many years in the unmaking. We are entering a Hobbesian world, the enormity of which has not yet dawned on our people.

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