The speed with which the universal rights and liberties characteristic of the open society were suspended in deference to speculative, unorthodox, and unsubstantiated theories of disease control should serve as a stark warning to us that the hard-won achievements of the open society can be bartered away for the subjective experience of a little more safety.
That most of these liberties have been restored in many parts of the West does not remove the fact that we now have a dangerous precedent that most Western governments and opinion leaders have yet to condemn or repudiate; a precedent that may well be invoked during a future crisis, whether real or manufactured.
The architects of lockdowns, vaccine passports and vaccine mandates, which introduced the infrastructure of a “papers, please” society, appear to have a shallow understanding of the values that make Western societies places worth living in.
Those who oversaw the introduction of lockdowns and mandatory vaccine apartheid, in spite of their insistence that they were just emergency measures, helped accelerate the relentless erosion of civil rights during the pandemic, with very questionable, and at best speculative, public health benefits to be gleaned in return.
Basic civil rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of association, the right to protest, the privacy of the home, the right to access public venues and services, and even the right to informed consent to medical treatment, were set aside in the name of public health, with no clear evidence that such rights violations would make any substantial difference to the medium and long-term disease burden, and little or no serious public debate about the social and moral costs of such draconian measures.
Many of our political leaders, opinion leaders, and fellow citizens have forgotten who we are. We are, or certainly aspire to be, free and open societies, in which each citizen moves around at his or her own discretion and can, for the most part (barring cases of criminality, delinquency, and gross incivility), access the same public venues and amenities as his or her fellow citizens, without being confronted on a regular basis with raised eyebrows, insults, or systematic discrimination.
Until we understand what it means to live in a free and open society, and why it matters for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren, we are liable to continue putting the speculative projections and strategic goals of technocrats ahead of the liberties of citizens.
So what exactly does it mean to live in a free and open society?
Historical Precedents for a Free and Open Society
The notion of an “open society” has been developed by a number of twentieth century thinkers, including Henri Bergson and Karl Popper, and more recently recapitulated by Gerald Gaus.1 My interest here is not to recount the history of the concept, but to highlight some of its salient features, as an ideal that has been central to the way of life of modern constitutional democracies
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