The biggest casualty of the lockdown will not be the closed pubs, restaurants and shops and the crippled airlines. It will not be our once-thriving musical, theatrical and sporting culture. It will not even be the wreckage of our economy. These are terrible things to behold. But the biggest casualty of all will be liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy is a remarkable but fragile achievement. It is an attempt to meet the challenge of making governments answerable to the people, while protecting personal freedom. This is hard to do. People crave security and look to the state to provide it. To do this, the state needs extensive powers over its citizens. This is why, in democracies across the world, the power of the state has continually increased. It is also why liberal democracy is the exception rather than the rule. Democracies are easily subverted and often fail.
What makes us a free society is that, although the state has vast powers, there are conventional limits on what it can do with them. The limits are conventional because they do not depend on our laws but on our attitudes. There are islands of human life which are our own, a personal space into which the state should not intrude without some altogether exceptional justification.
Liberal democracy breaks down when frightened majorities demand mass coercion of their fellow citizens, and call for our personal spaces to be invaded. These demands are invariably based on what people conceive to be the public good. They all assert that despotism is in the public interest.
The problem is perfectly encapsulated in a recent interview with Professor Neil Ferguson, whose projections were used to justify the first lockdown last March. Before that, as Prof Ferguson related in that interview, Sage had concluded that the Chinese lockdown had worked but was out of the question in Europe. “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 … If China had not done it, the year would have been very different.”
China is not a liberal democracy. It is a totalitarian state. It treats human beings as so many tools of state policy. There is no personal space which the state cannot invade at will. Liberal democracies have good reasons of political morality for not wishing to be like China. Considering this issue only in terms of whether lockdowns are effective against pandemics, and whether governments can “get away with it”, serves to reduce liberty from a major principle to a mere question of expediency.