The night overtaketh the day, the four horsemen draw near, and pestilence approacheth. The apocalypse is at hand, and the state, in shining armour, riding a white stallion, quickly and silently moveth to seize all the power it can to save people from plague… and from themselves. And the citizen sloucheth idly and watcheth only Netflix as power is seizéd. This is, after all, the only way… Right?
Humankind is at present going through what the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, describes as “the most challenging crisis since World War II” and what Gita Gopinath, Chief Economist at the IMF, calls a “crisis like no other”. In light of this, governments around the world have responded with sweeping draconian measures unlike anything we – in the Western and liberal world – have witnessed or experienced in our living memories. These measures – which include restrictions to the freedom of movement and assembly, increased police power, and enhanced surveillance – are disconcerting, and have something of a sinister aftertaste, despite their immediate necessity.
At some level, it is certainly true that a trade-off between liberty and security exists. It is also true that times of crisis – such as that which we at present find ourselves in – justify the curtailment of certain civil liberties in the name of promoting security and saving lives. It is not, however, the case that times such as these justify a blanket surrender of power and total handover of liberty to the government. Indeed, a government’s exercise of power is legitimate and justifiable only insofar as it is consented to by the nation’s constituents. And whilst people would, for the most part, consent to the temporary sacrifice of a limited number of liberties in the name of protecting themselves and their loved ones, they would not consent to giving up any more freedoms than they must, nor for any longer than they must. Thus – as John Henry Newman, the Oriel theologian, argued – “those political institutions are the best, which subtract as little as possible from a people’s natural independence as the price of their protection”.
Yet historically, during – and after – crises, governments have tended to stray from such political ideals of balance, instead pursuing only security at the expense of our natural independence. In light of the crisis we find ourselves in, we now stand before the same historical threat. Yet, as this crisis is more severe than those we have gone through in the past, the threat to our natural independence is direr than ever.
This threat to our liberty can be broken up into two principal components. The first is that those curtailments to liberty that we accept temporarily lurk, persist, and outstay their welcome. The second, and arguably more worrying, is that the crisis may present power-hungry leaders an irresistible opportunity to sweep in and grow authoritarian powers that they will hold onto long after the end of the crisis.
Laws and measures enacted in response to specific crises have a nasty habit of remaining in place long after they are intended to have ceased – and often, in fact, long after they are necessary for any other reason than empowering the state.
Consider, for example, the Patriot Act: legislation enacted to prevent the recurrence of the tragedies of September 11th. Originally, it intended to serve as a temporary four-year-long measure. Yet, as provisions of the Act have been constantly renewed, the NSA, to this day, maintains the right to monitor communications without a court order and to compile – and share with the FBI – data on citizens. Is the current carryout of these surveillance practices, which the 2015 Snowden leak shed light on, really what people in 2001 agreed to – and what people would now consent to?
Alternatively, consider the “temporary” measures instituted by Israel after it declared a state of emergency during its War of Independence. In spite of the fact that the war ended over 70 years ago, some measures – including press censorship and land confiscation rights – remain implemented to this day. Did the Israeli people of 1948 who accepted these measures at the time really consent to their continuation to this day?
Those powers and those liberties we forego in the present crisis – in the name of protecting ourselves and our loved ones – will, in a similar fashion, persist and linger if we are not vigilant. They are sinking deep into the belly of the Leviathan – and soon they’ll be at a depth we can no longer reach.
While in ordinary times acquiring power – at least in democracies – involves the arduous process of succumbing to the desires and wills of the electorate, the current crisis provides an opportunity like no-other for a swift and effortless power grab by leaders who have long coveted it.
We have already witnessed Hungary suffer this fate after their leader, Viktor Orbán, appropriated the right to rule by decree indefinitely – making the nation, in effect, a dictatorship. This ought to act as a precautionary tale of what could be to come in other fragile democracies that, like Hungary, have weak, if at all existent, democratic safeguards in place.
It is not only fragile democracies for whom we ought to worry, however. Liberalism is at grave risk, and facing its hour of reckoning, even in nations that supposedly embody and even exemplify it, such as Britain and the United States. These nations find themselves at a tipping point in history where people have, amidst the immediate and temporary pains of the pandemic, lost hope in liberalism and saw it instead in the – mind you, very dangerous – notion of collectivism. This is demonstrated no better than by the fact that few, if any, of us – judges, politicians, civilians – expressed dissent or attempted to challenge what would normally be considered despotic measures. Thus spake the Leviathan, and we accepted.
And while this is fine, as it is true that the temporary loss of our liberties is necessary to fight the pandemic, we must ensure that we do not allow governments to abuse the precedent that has been set. Going forwards, if we do not remain vigilant, who is to stop them exercising arbitrary power over us, and curtailing our freedoms, in the name of some other ‘emergency’?
Defending our liberty:
To defend ourselves from the grave threat against liberty we face, it is perhaps first useful to remember that – as Aristotle pointed out –we are, by nature, zoon politikon – that is, political animals. We are capable of speech and of moral reasoning – of lógos. And it is necessary – especially, at times like these – that we exercise these capabilities. Specifically, we must actively engage in scrutiny of the policies enacted in haste, and in expressing political dissent with those we do not agree with. We ought, by similar virtue, to scrutinise and express dissent with any future appeals to the ‘emergency’ precedent set by this crisis which our leaders may invoke.
You might, however, quite rightly, suggest that devoting a significant portion of your life to political activism is not viable. After all, life is already hectic enough. Well, fear not, for there is a solution. And that is strengthening the constitutional mechanisms that check power in government. Through such measures, that would, of course, include provisions for legitimate emergencies, we would be able to ensure that not only is the state prevented from arbitrarily interfering in our liberties today or tomorrow, but that it is prevented from doing so ad infinitum.
Brethren, be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary – the Leviathan – as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.
You might, in the background, be thinking – why is this ‘liberty’ at all desirable? Why do we ought to promote and protect it in the first place? Such thoughts are indeed tempting. Liberalism has, after all, failed us at our hour of need. Yet we must remember that the upholding of liberal values has brought us much virtue and much good. It has enriched us, given us equal voices, and protected us from evils of tyranny. These virtues and these goods, ultimately, far outweigh the shortcomings of it that this crisis has made us aware of.
We, therefore, cannot allow ourselves to fall for the trap – the forbidden fruit – of handing over our power to the Leviathan, as tempting as it may be. For once we do, we can never take it back. And while the Leviathan, at this time, may well be benevolent, he needn’t remain such. By handing over our power, and accepting the Leviathan into our lives, we set ourselves onto a one-way path to despotism and destitution – onto the ‘Road to Serfdom’.
In 1683, although for a very different set of reasons, Hobbes’ books, including the Leviathan, were publicly burnt in the quadrangle of the Bodleian. To stand up for and defend our liberal principles, we must, metaphorically, do the same. We must burn the Hobbesian Leviathan out of our minds, out of our souls, and out of our constitutions. For whilst it is true that during times like these, life would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ without the heavy hand of the Leviathan, we seldom live in such times. And during ordinary times, it is hard to deny that liberalism, absent the heavy hand, has done us well.