For many like myself, who rank firmly within the bottom-right corner on a conventional political compass, the times we live in can be particularly challenging. The coronavirus pandemic not only represents an existentialist test to public health strategy and community resolve, but also to the ideology of a great many people. In recent weeks we have seen an unprecedented strengthening of the state. Those twenty-thousand police officers we had been promised last year have been put to work fining second-walkers, two of those forty new promised hospitals are emergency, impromptu builds, and freedom of movement is no longer a border issue but one of our basic civil liberties. Like many self-titled libertarians, I too felt a great discomfort when the lockdown was announced. It was anathema to what I expected from the Conservative Party, the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to its record on individual freedoms. In short, I had strongly considered withdrawing my membership.
After all, even during the dark, ashamed days of British socialism did the government not think once to curtail our civil liberties in such an overt way. Then again, we were not living through a pandemic. The right to go out, simply put, is a big deal. Only when we establish that no ideology, save for the most extreme, would voluntarily extinguish that right under normal conditions, can a mature conversation be had on this issue.
Some contemporaries, namely Peter Hitchens, are rightly concerned about the size of government during this time. After all, the average world government is generally more inclined to revoke individual liberties than bestow them, potentially when this imperils its own position of strength. A healthy scepticism is important during this time. We must hold government to account as soon as the virus passes. Yet the position held by some, that the measures introduced by world governments are too draconian in proportion to the capabilities of their citizens, is a misapplication of the libertarian position. To universalise in such as way is more in apropos of a Republican Party position: in short: one’s own freedoms matter, but the freedoms of others do not. That is not the libertarian position.
We live in an age where most people deem themselves wiser than the government or its laws. Many are, but most are not. A proportion of the population do not need overweening laws to correctly follow the two-metre rule. A proportion of the population would not be super-spreaders in the making or need a lockdown. These people could act rationally in the interests of, not just themselves, but others too. The achievement of political rationality thus requires at least an acceptance of interdependence, and the community that it entails. Most, however, if left unrestricted, would not act rationally. Acts of panic buying and the sheer spread of the disease that occurred between social-distancing advice being proliferated, and the implementation of lockdown measures, prove this. The UK government was, in strict medical terms, actually slow to lockdown compared to Europe. Apparent dither was borne out of a sincere conflict of values. The classical liberal position eventually had to cave to the dreaded word which (normally) sees many a bad policy implemented – ‘pragmatism’.
What, then, is the true libertarian’s position? Why is an acceptance of these measures not licking the boot in a submissive act of statism? The answer is simple – it’s not just your freedoms that matter. You may be rational and adhere to good public health measures even in the absence of regulation, but not everyone will. You may still be a carrier. You may endanger the lives of many more others. No person is completely independent, and so not infecting others matters. The ‘liberty or death’ quandary becomes a false dichotomy during a pandemic. Freedom exists to protect life and its quality. Life – all life – must be preserved over one’s individual liberty, when death is the larger threat than restraint. There are other reasons, too, why we must protect ourselves and our public services by staying at home. To take a more cynical libertarian position: if one believes our NHS is intrinsically flawed, then why subsidise its flaws further by imperilling the health of others? Such an approach is selfish (note, not self-interested), and would waste further taxpayer money that was already immorally acquired.
To stay at home and adopt a collective war mentality against the virus is the true libertarian position on this issue. That is, if one truly cares about the freedoms of others and not just their own. It is also the conservative position. Conservatism exists to preserve order and stability first, before worrying about national finances. In this sense, the more undivided ideology of conservatism bears its advantages against libertarianism. Nonetheless, misunderstanding libertarians should follow conservatives on this issue and follow, begrudgingly, the government’s advice during these trying times. Nobody, truly, is a libertarian during a pandemic.
Robert Jones, Deputy Chairman Political and Campaigning 2019-20