“Give me liberty or give me death”
Patrick Henry (1736–1799) American politician
A group of influential backbench Conservative MPs calling themselves the ‘COVID Recovery Group’ have put pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to lift lockdown restrictions by April. They argue that if the vaccination programme continues as planned there would be
“no justification for legislative restrictions to remain.”
Their leader Mark Harper argued that ‘vaccine = immunity from lockdown and restrictions”. Once again there are arguments about ‘the cure being worse than the disease’
On an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show Harper claimed the CRG was following the science in their announcement. The government instead has pledged to follow the data, not dates in their own planned end to lockdown in England by 21st June 2021. The purpose of this blog is not to judge who is correct between the CRG and the government but instead to have a look at lockdown in the context of liberalism.
Elections cancelled, emergency legislation, movement restricted, schools closed and jobs furloughed. This has not been a great time for liberty. But is lockdown completely illiberal? Does being a liberal automatically mean opposing lockdown? If we explore the history of liberalism we find that, actually, following the evidence and placing restrictions to avoid harm is entirely within the scope of liberalism.
For some, ‘liberal’ is an insult aimed at the ‘woke’ and ‘cancel culture.’ Some wear the label proudly, marking them out as a supporter of ‘free speech’ and ‘common sense’ against the ‘woke cancel culture.’
A radical idea
Liberalism is a radical idea. Ian Dunt, author of ‘How to be a Liberal’ describes liberalism as an idea at the centre of which is the belief that people are individuals with their own freedom and should be treated as such. Therefore, pointing to ‘elites’, ‘us vs them’, class warfare or identity politics are, by definition, illiberal. A liberal would not presume to know you based on where you were born, what you looked like, what body parts you did or didn’t have, to whom you did or didn’t pray or whom you loved. It does not pretend that human-beings form homogenous blobs. It does not speak about ‘the will of the people’ or about putting one group or one country above another. In short, it is everything that populism is not. Trump, Brexit, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Andrzej Duda’s Poland, Modi’s India, China, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil and Putin’s Russia are all fine examples of how not to be a liberal.
In the United Kingdom, the torch of liberalism has been carried by several parties over several centuries. In its spirit, UK governments abolished slavery, traded freely, established universal suffrage and free education, introduced the welfare state, decriminalised homosexuality, legislated for reproductive rights for women, statuted against discrimination based on gender or race, removed the death penalty, joined the European Economic Community, devolved power to its member nations, created the minimum wage and brought about first civil ceremonies and then fully equal same-sex marriage. Truly a radical idea.
Circles to square
Of course, if you take the idea of individual freedom you can go off in many different directions. Classical liberalism in the UK was interested in increasing suffrage, the elimination of corruption in democracy and free trade. Social liberalism was born out of a desire to increase freedom from poverty. Neoliberalism, which for many now means liberalism, dominated from the financial deregulation of the 1980s and increased freedoms for business. There is now green liberalism, to provide freedom from climate change and to the project the environment.
Under the banner of freedom, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan felt liberalism meant rolling back the state and freeing up the markets. For John Maynard Keynes liberalism meant the state actively involving itself in the market to steady the boom-bust cycles. The Liberal Party of the United Kingdom would, within a century, encompass laissez-faire economics under William Gladstone, the beginnings of the welfare state under Herbert Asquith and David-Lloyd George and, through the famous report penned by Liberal peer William Beveridge, provide the inspiration for the socialist post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee.
All political factions are by nature a coalition and liberalism is perhaps the broadest of churches. This means contradictions. The founding fathers of the United States would enshrine the inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” yet have no problem with the idea of one human-being owning another. Sir Winston Churchill proclaimed “long live the cause for freedom” yet when it came to the idea of other country’s independence would say “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Margaret Thatcher’s government would seek to free people’s ability to make money yet passed Section 28 banning teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
If we take liberalism to its extreme we reject any form of government. This is where we find anarchism and libertarianism. And yet more contradictions. For the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon “all property is theft.” For the libertarian Ayn Rand “a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” It is the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party which makes up the CRG. They campaign for liberty against lockdown. Yet they also were the MPs most willing to support the absolute removal of the rights of UK citizens to live, work and trade without barriers with the European Union.
Essentially then when it comes to liberty clearly there are a lot of circles to square.
Liberalism and logic
Liberalism has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment. Also known as the Age of Reason, this period lasted from the late 17th to early 19th century. Following the English Civil War and execution of Charles I in 1649 the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles II saw a return to absolute rule. This prompted a rethink of how society should work. This was a time of Sir Isaac Newton, encyclopaedias and the scientific method. This focus on evidence and logic shaped philosophy.
John Locke (1632–1704), considered the father of liberalism, was a physician and empiricist. He believed that human-beings came to decisions based on observation and rationality, just as a scientist like Sir Issac Newton studied the world. In 1689 he published Two Treatises of Government in which he argued against the divine right of kings to rule without question, for religious tolerance and the separation of church and state and for the innate rights of the individual to life, liberty and property. The role of government was to respect those rights at the risk of being replaced if they did not.
Locke of course was not alone. His publication reflected the 1651 work Leviathan by philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) which called for a social contract between the state and the individual to unlock freedom for all. The Genevan Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) would similarly point to the role of government to ensure the innate freedoms of its citizens. In England through the Bill of Rights in 1689, the American Revolution of 1765–1783 and the French Revolution of 1789–1799 freedom and the rights of people to have a say in how they were governed were starting to take hold.
But Locke illustrates an important point when it comes to lockdown. For Locke, knowledge was not something divinely dispensed at birth but something gained through experience and, through acquiring knowledge, an individual became happier and freer. I very much doubt he would have any truck with a politician claiming to have ‘had enough of experts’. Locke would have supported looking at the evidence and using reason.
Freedom and the Harm Principle
Does being free mean having the ability to determine your own future and life? Or does it mean that there are no obstacles being placed in front of you? The first definition describes positive liberty. This is basically the foundation of a liberal democracy: individual citizens each avowed with the power to shape their shape. Neither Hobbes and Locke had any problem with a government having power over people. Hobbes argued that if completely free mankind would be cruel to each other with the strong dominating the weak and so a government was needed to prevent this. Locke however felt man was inherently good and that a government, with the consent of the people, should have the right to govern in the common good.
The second definition describes negative liberty. This is the creed of the libertarian: government is the problem and we should all be able to do what we want. If we accept that to be free is to be unconstrained then lockdown has to be illiberal. But let’s try to explore this thought process. Are drink-driving laws illiberal? If we removed that constraint and people had the right to drive whilst under the influence what about the freedom of a pedestrian they might hit? As much as lockdown impairs the right of a young, healthy person to carry on living their life, what about the rights of a vulnerable, older person to whom the younger person might pass on the virus? Liberalism, again, has an answer.
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) served as a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party from 1865–1868. He was a polymath raised from childhood on philosophy and travel. He supported the abolition of slavery in America and the equal rights of women. In 1859 he published On Liberty in which he explored the extent to which a government could restrict the right of the individual. In this essay he articulated a position known as the harm principle:
“The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection.
That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.
He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others,
to do so would be wise, or even right.…The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others.”
MIll did not see harm as something you do to yourself but to others. If you want to drink excessively, go do it. If, however, you decide to then get behind the wheel of a car and endanger others then the state should step in and intervene.
But what about a complex system such as the National Health Service where all healthcare is provided via the joint taxation of citizens? It could be argued that it is a form of harm to others if the decisions you made with regard to your health result in requiring healthcare resources that you might not otherwise need to use.
If, through risky actions, an individual is exposed to COVID-19 and becomes infected we could argue that that is their decision. If that individual then passes the disease to another, more vulnerable person then that is harm. If that individual then requires a hospital admission and thus helps stretch finite resources that will have an impact on others. If hospital capacity is reached what then of the rights of another patient who’s had a heart attack or who needs emergency surgery? This would prevent the positive liberty of others from being realised.
The UK government has faced criticism over an initial delay in lockdown and then early easing of which led to further restrictions being necessary. Of course, political debate and differences of opinions are a cornerstone of liberal democracy. Liberalism is about the right to differ. But to ignore evidence in favour of political principles at the risk of public health is not liberalism. Listening to evidence and reason and putting aside individual liberty to protect others is entirely within the liberal tradition.
In other words, when it comes to COVID-19 you don’t have to choose between liberty or death. A liberal would tell you that you can have both.