HOW MODERN DEMOCRACY HAS GIVEN RISE TO LOCKDOWN TOTALITARIANISM
The expectation that an omniscient state can prevent every death has led us down a dark path.
When the police publicly threatens to invade people’s homes at Christmas to break up “illegal” family gatherings, you know that you have entered a new political landscape. How have we got here? That such a statement could be uttered let alone regarded as unsurprising, is an indication of some much larger phenomenon than a viral epidemic.
If we look back, we find evidence of virus threats that were previously more tragic than this one. The terrible polio epidemics of the 1950s killed or paralyzed millions of children and young adults. The Hong Kong flu in the 1960s claimed some 80,000 lives, most of them young, not old.
In none of these cases ever occur to governments to disrupt normal social and economic activity in a crude attempt to prevent human contact, simply because it was the only apparent means of combating a contagion that had no cure. Why is this so common now when it was seemingly unthinkable then?
Something in our political culture, and our view of ourselves, must have changed very drastically for the founding principles of liberty to be so readily discarded.
This epidemic may not be unique, but the response to it is, and the response has affected more lives than the virus. Many people feel that these extraordinary government interventions are a sign of progress: the logical conclusion of our enlightened concern for others. This is a plausible and perhaps admirable interpretation.
But it might not be a coincidence that these extraordinary acts of repression by governments – in many ways more severe and intrusive into private life than those imposed in wartime – seem to be consistent with quite significant shifts in popular assumptions (or, to put it more aggressively, changes in fashionable thinking). There are two (contradictory) trends that are worth noting here:
The first is the belief that the state is now morally responsible for the welfare of all. Every case of ill health or death is the direct fault of the government, even if those who die have reached the age when it is statistically normal for them to die. The state must promise not only the best health care it can provide, but a kind of immortality: every death must be preventable. Every death (at any age) is a political failure. Those who govern must not only be infinitely careful, but must be omnipotent.
The other trend is that no one can put himself in danger because any unnecessary risk would cause damage to society as a whole: if I am reckless enough to catch the virus, my health care will be a burden to the state and will put everyone else at a disadvantage. So I cannot expect to have any automatic right to do this. It's not just my business if I put myself at risk by breaking the rules of the blockade: it's everyone's business, and that justifies the government imposing controls on behaviour that would previously have been unconscionable.
Without realizing it, we are going step by step in the direction of totalitarianism, perhaps of the benign type, but once totalitarian forms of government are installed, they are difficult to eliminate when they are no longer benign.
Now, more than ever, this phrase makes sense for our lives:
When freedom is outlawed, only outlaws will be free.