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On coronavirus, socialism and libertarianism

The coronavirus has shown that health is not just a private matter, it’s public, and if it isn’t it needs to be made public. And people are expecting to be bailed out by the government. There are demands for government intervention. You can’t let the market decide when the market is collapsing around you.

So there are plenty of arguments for the left to be making.

During the Cold War people used to say that if we got attacked by aliens the people of earth would unite for once to fight their common enemy. Well, these viruses we’re now facing, that can kill more than any terrorist attack, more than many wars even, they’re like aliens. If the government is willing to pay out loads of money to the military in the name of national security, then shouldn’t pandemic attacks come under national security? Public health should be regarded as a national security issue.

But there are also plenty of arguments for the nationalists to make, hence Trump calling it “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus,” trying to rally support from those fearful of another kind of alien invasion.

Protecting public health could inform migration policy. But, if you were to say we shouldn’t be letting so many people into the country, you’d need to apply that to tourists as well as immigrants. A virus doesn’t care whether or not the body it infects belongs to someone who is on holiday or someone who is planning on moving to the country they’re entering.

Still, self-isolation could become national isolation, and that could make many Brexiters happy: the lesson of this virus is we shouldn’t be mingling so much with foreigners. When he was posted to Italy during the war, Spike Milligan’s mother warned him of the disease-ridden foreigners he might meet, saying

If you shake hands with them, try and wear gloves.

There’ll be plenty of that. So do we all end up with some kind of xenophobic national socialism, or is there a third way?

The third way might depend on how centrist globalists like Macron and Merkel perform relative to the populists such as Johnson and Trump. At the moment, Johnson and Trump aren’t looking so good, even if their approval ratings have gone up. But then so have the approval ratings of most leaders, as did the approval rating of Gordon Brown during the financial crash of 2008, but it didn’t win him the general election two years later. In a crisis, you want logical, thoughtful and maybe a little bit dull over the flashy but vacuous showman. The showmen may be fun when things seem to be going well. You can afford to shake things up a bit when they feel ever so stable. In a crisis, qualities such as honest and trustworthy seem more important than they did in the good old days, pre-CV.

And these are global problems we’re facing. We have a globalised economy. Just like national economies, the global economy needs to be governed, it needs to be directed in ways that serve the common good.

There are times when the market produces great benefits for society. It innovates and generates wealth and technology and it makes our lives better, but sometimes it doesn’t.

The White Lion, Warlingham

Suppose your local pub goes bankrupt and has to close. You didn’t go to the pub much, but you had a good time there when you did and you appreciate it’s there. It’s good for the community spirit and that. If someone said to you that if you chipped in £10 a month you could keep your local open, maybe you’d go for that, or maybe you’d just hope that enough of your neighbours coughed up to keep it going.

You could say that if someone wants to keep their local pub open they should frequent the place when it is open, not moan when it isn’t any more. But we don’t tend to think like that. We may like all the quirky little independent shops in our area, but it’s so much easier to get things online these days that we don’t ever buy anything in them, but they’re great for browsing, and if you go into an actual bookshop there are people in there who know about books and they’re recommend things for you, just like Amazon does, but they’re real people rather than algorithms.

If the people of a community were asked to vote on a monthly increase in their council tax in return for a subsidised high street with pub and quirky little shops nobody buys anything in, when the alternative is a high street that looks like a thousand other high streets, with chain stores, chain cafes, chain supermarkets, chain pubs.

There’s a kind of socialism there. The decisions we make as consumers aren’t always consistent with the decisions we make as voters, but as voters we ought to be the best possible version of ourselves, deciding not just for ourselves and our families but for everyone else too. We ought to see voting as a sacred responsibility, and whilst most of us probably don’t go that far, we generally think more deeply about how to cast our vote than we do about whether to go to McDonald’s or KFC. (Not always, but generally.) 

When I’m a consumer, I’m following my desires. Consumption is driven by emotion. A capitalist high street would be one totally shaped by people’s consumption habits. The most profitable establishments would flourish, the least profitable would be squeezed out, the loss-making would go bust. Capitalist chain stores versus socialist independent boutiques.

Though, if people voted for the council tax increase and the socialised high street, they could have been voting out of capitalistic self-interest as the improvement to their local area would almost certainly push up property prices so would be beneficial to any property owners.

In times of crisis, when people feel under threat, they’re more inclined to vote for authoritarianism. They don’t mind trading in their freedoms for safety, and they shouldn’t. There always have to be trade offs. Like capitalism and socialism. You don’t want a purely capitalist society and neither do you want a totally socialist society. Both would be horrible places to live. You want a mixture of the two, a mixed best of both worlds economy, which is what western liberal democracies have, though they differ in their mix, some more to the left and others more to the right.

It’s the same with trading freedoms. You have to get the price right. Don’t sell your freedoms cheap, but don’t undervalue your safety.

The value of safety has just increased. People are feeling far less safe. They’d been taking their safety for granted. When they asked themselves what had the British establishment ever done for them, they probably wouldn’t have said it had kept them safe. Not because they felt unsafe, but because they didn’t feel anything. You took it for granted that you’d most likely live a long life. That’s the norm these days.

There has to be some sense of organisation in a crisis. You can’t have everyone just acting in their own immediate self interest. There needs to be a coordinated approach, so you need a coordinator and they need the authority to coordinate. There needs to be some authority. But there needs to be freedom too, and the more the better. The more freedom a society has, the better it seems to do, though China is trying very hard to prove that false.

The libertarian idea that you can have minimal to virtually no government, a government stripped down to its bare essentials, appears to be under threat. The idea that government’s sole purpose is the defence of the nation and everything else is up to the people is popular in the US, understandably since in rural areas where your next-door neighbour was several miles away, you took the view that what you do on your land is up to you and there shouldn’t be no government busy bodies in suits coming by to tell you what to do. You just want to be left alone.

That idea may sound quite reasonable in a society where people are quite isolated from one another, and where the government’s a long way away. It’s not going to work though in a densely populated and highly inter-connected society where what one person does can have a big effect on many others. For instance, if you live in a flat in the city you probably can’t play your music too loudly or you’ll disturb the neighbours, whereas that’s not an issue if your neighbours are miles away. You have to be more social in a city, and the world is now like one big city. This is a highly entangled world we’re living in. We can now travel half way around the world in the time it would have taken a rural peasant from Dorset to reach London, and we can communicate with anyone in the world virtually instantaneously. It’s a small world. It’s not big enough for everyone to have their own plot of land to farm and shoot rabbits and brew moonshine whilst moaning about government busy bodies and the deep state. And if we all lived like that it would be a pretty sorry state of affairs, economically as well as emotionally.

Some societies are more socially-minded than others though. If people voluntarily act in ways that are for the social good, dutifully following government advice, it may be less necessary to go down the authoritarian route and force them to. This may be partly why South Korea as been so successful in its response to the coronavirus. Five years ago they responded very poorly to MERS, a similar epidemic, leading the country to overhaul its response to respiratory infections and making the population now more willing to follow government advice.

I guess the coronavirus must be devastating for libertarians. All these people calling for pubs to be shut down by the government in order to protect not just their own health but the health of the people they love and of society as a whole. That last one is the one that bothers libertarians (that is capitalist libertarians, the kind you find in the US). There is no society as a whole. Society has no rights. Only individuals have rights. Society therefore has no right to stop me going to the pub.

But you’re free to go to the pub, it just won’t be open.

OK, then society has no right to force pub owners to close. If they want to close voluntarily that’s up to them, but the state should not be forcing them to close. That’s tyranny.

The thing is, most people seem to think the government should be exercising some authority, not just trying to nudge people to do the right thing but forcing them to, making it law, punishing those who disobey. That desire to see wrongdoers punished is a part of human nature. Without some degree of authoritarianism you can’t make people do what they don’t want to do, unless you go back to the says of the wild west when people took the law into their own hands and wrongdoers often got their just desserts, though they often didn’t.

How do you solve a problem like corona?

When you’re a libertarian? How do you reconcile it with your libertarian principles? Do they work in a modern interconnected and highly entangled world where people’s rights clearly overlap with other people’s rights and often conflict with them? Or do they only work in the wild west? And they never really worked then. People longed for the rule of law and things got a lot better when the law arrived.

How do you deal with climate change when you’re a libertarian? That’s another wicked problem. The solution for many libertarians seems to be to deny it’s a problem, and some are doing the same with the coronavirus. We’re over-reacting. Not that many people have died, not when you compare it to other things that kill people, and all of them would have died sooner or later anyway so what’s the big deal? The government has no right to restrict my freedom just because some people are afraid of catching the flu. If they want to isolate themselves they can, and if I want to, I will.

If the libertarian solution is that we all just voluntarily do the right thing: washing our hands, not going out to pubs if they’re open and not opening them if we’re landlords. But what of those who don’t do the right thing? There are always going to be some. The one pub that stays open and makes a profit whilst its competitors are suffering as a result of being closed seems to be rewarding bad behaviour and that strikes most people as wrong.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it is wrong though. The majority aren’t always right. People could refuse to go to that pub. When this is all over they could choose to boycott it.

Libertarians, of the American variety, don’t think the majority have the right to tyrannise a minority. Democracy is the tyranny of the majority and that is no better than any other kind of tyranny.

So in a libertarian society, who decides? Who sets the rules, if there are to be any rules, and I think there are for most libertarians. If you’re depriving someone else of their liberty, then that would be against libertarian law.

South Korea, with a total of 8 million cameras watching the country at all times, is now one of the most surveilled countries in the world. Although this kind of surveillance was not initiated by the spread of the coronavirus, the country ascribed its success in containing the contagion to the level of monitoring the government has managed to pull over on its citizens for many years.

Colin Jones in The Post Millennial

Is putting someone’s life at risk a form of coercion, and therefore something a libertarian might oppose? If you have or may have the virus but you happen to be in a low risk group, you going out and socialising may make those without the virus who happen to be in high risk groups feel they have to stay in to protect themselves. If those of us in low risk groups decide that we’re the majority and we’re not going to be kept in to protect a minority then that’s starting to look like a tyranny of the majority, something libertarians oppose.

Though suppose the majority of us were in high risk groups, or suppose the virus were different. Suppose it was virtually 100% fatal to 80% of the population but the other 20% were immune. Would it then be acceptable to quarantine, by force if necessary, any carriers of that virus in order to prevent them spreading the infection to the 80% of us vulnerable to it?

Another example would be Britain during the second world war when blackouts were enforced. How would a libertarian Britain have dealt with that? Would it have been left up to individual choice as to whether or not people observed the blackout, even though one person showing a light could result in bombs raining down not just on them but also on their neighbours?

liberal democracy chokes on utopia-or-bust ideologies, such as radical libertarianism and radical socialism, which dream of an end to politics and refuse to accept the legitimacy of a democratic political system that facilitates the messy compromises that radicals invariably see as unacceptably unjust

Will Wilkinson | Niskanen Center

A strictly by the books libertarian society would be vulnerable to crises such as wars and pandemics when governments often have to introduce temporary authoritarian measures in order to protect their country. But how many such absolutist libertarians are there? Aren’t they an extreme fringe, no more significant than the socialist absolutists. Better perhaps to see libertarianism as a tendency, the desire to minimise restrictions on liberty whilst still accepting that sometimes such restrictions may be necessary.