How Can We Prevent A Future Government From Exploiting The Next Global Crisis to Curtail Citizens' Liberties?
The events of the past two years have been a wake-up call to those of us who naïvely believed our liberties were more or less secure under Western democracy. We discovered that a viral epidemic with an estimated Infection Fatality Rate somewhere in the range of 0.15-0.3%1 2 was sufficient for governments to claim the power to lock citizens up in their homes, prohibit citizens from taking walks in the park, tell citizens how many visitors they could have in their homes, shut down religious worship indefinitely, and order mass closures of businesses, all “for our own good.”
If all of this can happen once, it can surely happen again, especially if we are hit by another global crisis, be it global warming, terrorism, a global recession, an energy crisis, or a food shortage.
And if the crisis is not quite severe enough to convince citizens to renounce their liberties, governments can apparently count on the support of an uncritical media to stoke up people’s anxieties and fears, priming them for more “emergency” interventions and ever more illiberal restrictions on their property, life, and mobility.
Governments have restricted a wide range of civil liberties during the pandemic on the basis of unsubstantiated doomsday predictions, highly unorthodox methods of disease control, and hardly any serious consideration of the likely harms such restrictions would inflict on citizens and on our way of life. Future governments could exploit this dangerous precedent in a future crisis, whether real or manufactured, especially if the media jump on board to drum up some public hysteria.
I am not saying all of this will necessarily come to pass in the very near future. Indeed, I am not even saying this will definitely come to pass in the next two decades. But it is a distinct possibility, made even more realistic by the stark precedents set over the past two years. As former UK Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption so aptly put it, once we have broken the “spell” of the social conventions that protect us from abuses of political power, it becomes that much easier to flout these conventions in future.
Now that we have been sobered up to the potential for a public crisis to be seized upon by sensationalist media and exploited by governments to justify reckless, destructive and intrusive interventions in the social fabric, what steps might we take to anticipate this danger, and protect our communities from mistreatment at the hands of irresponsible politicians?
A few answers spring to mind:
First, all governments must commission well staffed public inquiries, led by impartial and highly competent public figures of impeccable moral standing, to review the manner in which pandemic measures were decided and implemented, and their consequences for the health and well-being of citizens. Only if the full truth is brought out into the open can the public as well as present and future governments take the full measure of past mistakes, as well as successes, in pandemic responses, and adjust their future decisions accordingly.
Second, it is critical that we lobby our governments with all our might to institutionalise robust controls that compel governments to publicly review the costs and benefits of any future large-scale societal intervention, in particular any that purports to address a public crisis.
Third, we must more carefully scrutinise and, if necessary revise, the legal conditions under which emergency legislation can be invoked, as well as the extent of those powers. Part of the reason Sweden’s response was less draconian was because of robust constitutional limitations on the sorts of government interventions that were permissible in response to a public health crisis.
Fourth, there must be a response from the level of civil society, not just from State-based institutions. Citizens must organise in a more conscious and pro-active way to create independent institutions that educate, support, and connect communities that understand that citizens are not simply pawns of the state, to be herded around at will, but equal members of a self-governing society.
Fifth, citizens must reconceive their role as going far beyond that of merely expressing an opinion about their governments from time to time at the polls. Citizens must begin to grasp the fact that their future depends intimately on their own capacity, in collaboration with their peers, of passing on a compelling ideal and way of life to their children and childrens’ children, and being prepared to engage in campaigns of civil disobedience and peaceful non-compliance in the face of efforts by governments to micromanage citizens’ lives and engage in unrealistic and destructive forms of social engineering.
All of this will take time, commitment, and motivation. But if there is anything we have learned from the lively anti-lockdown protests across Europe and the Freedom Convoy spearheaded by Canadian truckers, it is that there is a “sleeping giant” out there among ordinary citizens, that has already begun to stir out of its slumber.
The end of our old, naive trust in the political and scientific establishment may well be the beginning of something beautiful and inspiring.
Thanks for reading!
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In case you missed my interview with Trish Wood on the current state of pandemic restrictions in Canada and beyond, and what we can do to reclaim our freedoms, here it is:
Evidently, the IFR of Covid-19, as of any other disease, can vary a lot depending on the age and health of a population, the quality of medical treatment available, and the stage of a virus. For example, countries with high levels of obesity are much more affected by Covid-19 than countries with low levels of obesity. Similarly, Omicron has much lower fatality rates than earlier Covid variants.
One highly influential Imperial College model led by Prof. Neil Ferguson projected that up to 500,000 people in the UK would die of Covid-19 within a few months if the government did not intervene (here is one quick overview of the nature of that model and its influence on government policy) . This was based on very incomplete information about natural immunity and vulnerability to the virus and was not ultimately borne out by the actual estimated number of people who have died with a Covid-19 diagnosis during the pandemic. In Sweden, where there was no lockdown and barely any substantial government interventions in society at large, there were under 10,000 estimated Covid-related deaths in 2020, an estimated 13,000 Covid fatalities in 2020, a far cry from the 96,000 deaths projected by a team of scientists using the Imperial College model. According to official government numbers, a total of 139,839 people in England and Wales had Covid-19 listed as the primary cause of death on their death certificate in 2020-21 combined, as reported in this article for The Conversation.