On Liberty and Lockdown: Or…CovidDiary Day 365 (March 20th 2021)

A signpost in central Cambridge promising “changed priorities” around the corner…

It’s been a while since I wrote a CovidDiary.

346 days to be precise.

But we’re now almost a year on from the announcement of the first lockdown in the UK. And it was a year ago to the day that I started this diary. I therefore thought it a good moment to reflect personally on where I find myself.

To that end, I want to write about how lockdown has taught me the value of liberty, “rightly ordered”. My launching pad for doing so has been a series of conversations with friends and guests on the Politics at the Cross+Roads podcast (the issue has cropped up in a number of places, but one place to start is this solo episode). I partly started the video series to figure out a few things about myself, a bit like trying to map out my own corner of the sky against a set of constellation points. It’s therefore not surprising to me that convictions have taken shape, with some becoming stronger and others falling away. Even still, I have been surprised at how strong some of those convictions have become. And one of these has concerned the value of liberty.

A second prompt for me to dedicate this post to the issue of liberty, was reading an article in the National Review, by Michael Brendan Dougherty. As I explain below, the piece is essentially a mild-mannered, small-c conservative plea to remember that liberty, when it takes its right place, is an indispensable part of the common good. While the piece reflects American concerns and American debates, I’ve found that it clearly and succinctly captures some of my own thoughts in this Spring of Discontent. And we Brits have a lot to learn in this respect.

Some readers may be thinking: Why register your discontent with lockdown at this late stage, indeed even as we seem to be moving out of restrictions? Let me explain very briefly why.

  1. I write first of all to embolden others who might want to speak out, in the event that we are faced with further delays, as this very week the media are reporting. The reversibility of some of the unlocking of measures worries me. We could be facing a situation where freedoms are offered and then retracted, much like someone extending an elastic five-pound note one moment only for it to boomerang back in to their pocket in the next. All of this can breed something akin to a collective Stockholm syndrome where, after over a year of restrictions, the gradual return of basic freedoms is accepted and taken as a sign that further restrictions are in society’s interests. In light of this, I write with the present and very near future in mind. My own scepticism and dissent has grown over time. I can see glimmers of it here, as early as April 8th 2020 and certainly by May it was encouraged by the coverage over at Unherd. With the second lockdown, I was drawn to communitarian opposition, as well as those making arguments for churches to remain open, to which I added my own. I write now to embolden others who might have concerns but are either afraid to voice them or have not considered all of the arguments.
  2. I also write with the longer term future in view. We will no doubt face epidemics and viruses in the future. Freedoms might need to be clawed back, and community spirit might need to find its voice again. Throughout, I draw attention to some of the constructive solutions where public intellectuals have offered alternatives to full-scale lockdown.

With these reasons in mind, I offer here my reflections, as a Christian living in lockdown in the UK, on liberty, safety, inequality and patience. I conclude with some thoughts on how individual freedom, rightly understood, is key to the common good.

On Liberty

The title of the aforementioned article by Dougherty,”The COVID Libertarian Moment”, will no doubt elicit mixed responses. Some readers won’t mind this at all, and be positively encouraged by it. To them, I’d say read on. This piece is not a libertarian manifesto. Other readers will have their anger aroused, finding the mention of libertarian in the title a massive turn-off. To them, I would also say read on. This piece is about liberty, not libertarianism.

I’ve provided my own critical thoughts on libertarianism—the ruthless pursuit of individual freedom at the expense of all else—elsewhere on this blog (here, for instance) and on the podcast.

However, Dougherty’s piece is not that. The title is, in this respect, something of a misnomer, an error, common these days, when editors try to grab our attention and provoke us to read with a title that bears no resemblance to the carefully constructed content in the body of the piece. Knowing a bit about the author’s writing (here, for instance), it is pretty clear that he is implacably opposed to libertarianism. He mentions as much at the end of this particular piece.

He is, however, positively for liberty, “rightly ordered” as he puts it.

What does it mean, though, for liberty to be “rightly ordered”? Part of what it means for individual liberty to be rightly ordered is surely to recognise that personal freedoms are not absolute and are not wholly unconstrained. Liberty is, in part, contingent upon a number of natural factors: nation, family, and biology, being the most obvious. It can also be constrained in what we might call unnatural or exceptional ways—government intervention, for instance. I believe that there are times for such action.

Crucially, however, these exceptional constraints must be warranted and discussed. To me, they aren’t and they haven’t been. Let me explain. I was prepared to say such severe constraints—which, let us remember, amount to the criminalisation of no less than family relations—might have been warranted in the case of the first UK lockdown, when there was fear and a sense of unknown about the virus. But for a variety of reasons, I don’t believe that this argument holds anymore. In part, this is due to (1) the high survival rates from Covid and (2) the clear effect of the virus on certain parts of the population such that a blanket ban on movement appears, to me, to be inhumane.

There are various pushbacks to this, I know. There’s the argument about NHS capacity. “Any other measure apart from lockdown would lead to the NHS being overwhelmed”. This appeal to inevitability has worried me, as if there was no other strategy that could have prevented the ravaging of social bonds, as well as afforded the elderly and vulnerable the care we owe them. But there have been other strategies, such as Freddie Sayers’ traffic lanes system or Sweden’s set of looser restrictions. It is also clear that bed capacity has been higher at certain parts of the lockdown than at points when covid was not on the scene (as the Telegraph’s anonymous NHS source, “George”, has pointed out). Or there’s the argument about solidarity, encapsulated in the statement, “We must suffer together”. I agree with Lord Sumption that this is a false kind of solidarity, “the solidarity of intolerant conformism” that parodies true forms of solidarity which prioritise “mutual sympathy & support”. Finally, there’s the related point that a policy of allowing society to continue in some sort of unrestricted fashion while shielding the vulnerable creates a set of second-class citizens or, as I have even read, amounts to euthanasia (never mind the illogicality of such an argument, given that this policy would be patently protecting the vulnerable). I don’t therefore believe that any of these counter-arguments stick. But at the very least I wish that all of this had been discussed.

And so, this where I find myself. I realise that I am in the minority among my compatriots, both in terms of lockdown as a strategy and the pace of unlocking. This is not a comfortable place to be, but life is not meant to be comfortable.

This brings me to a point I’ve mentioned, which is that Dougherty’s piece reflects “American concerns”. What I mean is that the article captures something of the American love for freedom—though, again, in a very mild-mannered and nuanced form. Now, I grew up as a teenager in the States. Whatever the reason, though I am almost certain that it was pride and teenage anxiety about being different, I was always proud to flash my British passport and wave my Northern Irish credentials. But now that I am back in the UK, I can see the strong influence of my time in the US and its love for freedom. Perhaps this love has always been there, latent and hidden. Ed West has written about how the English favour fairness over freedom. I recognise my countrymen and women in this description, but I do not recognise myself. Then and again, I am a British Celt, not an Englishman.

But saying that my scepticism is the result of being a contrarian Celt doesn’t quite work, I recognise, since it’s hardly stopped Holyrood from introducing and maintaining far harsher restrictions and rhetoric than south of the border. Perhaps, then, new psychological distinctions are emerging and being forged that transcend the older national ones.

On Safety

The conclusions that I’ve come to above are partly motivated by my moral taste receptors (to use Jonathan Haidt’s language). Progressives tend to appeal to the care/harm principle, underlying which is the basic moral impulse to cherish and protect others and one’s self from harm.

I think the importance of the care/harm principle is partly why safety has become paramount in our discussions. Clearly the progressive “care/harm” argument isn’t a total explanation, since restrictive policies are being promulgated by the Conservative party (though this might reflect the fact that the party really is conservative in name only). Moreover, the criminalisation of ordinary family relations are popular among the conservative demographic, particularly the elderly conservative part of the population, as well. I suspect that the reasons lockdown has proved so popular are complex and amount to a cocktail of factors, including fear, which the government and the media have played on throughout, but also, perhaps more cynically, the desire for some to break with the monotony of working life, whether that be the daily commute or grind of a job.

There may also be a sense of fairness or solidarity that has captured support for lockdowns. Again, I would note Sumption’s distinction between different types of solidarity and how the populace has been co-opted, I believe, by a parody of solidarity. I would also note that Haidt, to his credit, allows for different conceptions of fairness, with proportionality being particularly popular among conservatives. Relatedly, Nigel Biggar has written about how we need to move away from the simplistic language of discrimination in public health policy, given that discrimination, in the plain sense of “a decision or judgment” is simply par for the course. If discriminating, in this narrow sense, is what human beings do, then it’s certainly a core part of the job of public health. The more important question is whether the judgment or decision is unjustly or justly discriminatory—in other, words, whether it is proportionate. We would do well to try and recover this form of fairness in public discourse.

Returning to safety, I think it is important that we note that a particular kind of safety is constantly the subject of discussion, and persistently being advertised and fed to us as citizens. Namely, it is safety from the virus that has been elevated to the single most important virtue in public conversation. It is now held that to care for the community and for the common good is to care about safety from the virus. In my view, this is highly reductive. Not wrong. But reductive. Now, make no mistake about it. The virus is deadly and deadly serious. And yet safety from the virus has come to trump all other values or indeed all other forms of safety. These other forms of safety include mental health—safety from oneself, we could say—abusive domestic situations, others forms of disease and illness and gaining access to social care and aid like food banks and other charities. That the government can turn a blind eye to all of this is deeply disturbing to me. So I object to the fact that the institutions of power have employed this one type of safety to bat down ruthlessly any attempt to raise the spectre of other forms of harm that have been, ironically, perpetuated by the very instrument that was meant to keep us safe.

But I also find myself being disturbed at how, as a society and a nation, we have more broadly come to think about and relate to safety and risk. When we as the citizenry think about safety, and when the body politic attempts to enact policy that protects its people, we should always be in the mode of risk mitigation and not risk elimination. Risk is always with us. Death is always around us. The task of public health is, in large part, the task of ethically reasoning through the various options, none of which are one hundred and percent risk-free, or safe. I fear that Matthew Crawford is right when he says that a new culture of safteyism has come to dominate and define life in the late-modern West. Haidt and Lukanioff discuss safetyism or “the cult of safety” in the following way.

“Safety is good, of course, and keeping others safe from harm is virtuous, but virtues can become vices when carried to extremes… “Safetyism” refers to a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns” .

The Coddling of the American Mind, 32, 29-30

The point being made here is that we must be willing to embrace risk, reason through, discuss, carefully lay out and debate the trade-offs between different options. The great tragedy is that such a process of reasoning was sadly never proffered to the public in the UK government’s responses to Covid-19 (this was, I think, partly due to the technocratic assumption that we the people are too incompetent to have decisions explained to us).

And finally, to bring this point about safety into dialogue with my point about freedom, I take issue with the fact that safety from the virus has also been discussed and used to justify policies that run roughshod over liberty. Again, I’m not talking about the idea of “doing whatever I bloody well please”, but rather, the freedom to enjoy the many things in life that cannot be measured but that make it worth living—seeing family and friends and worshipping freely, being top of that list. I would want much more emphasis on individual responsibility to pursue these goods, in a responsible way. Instead, safety from the virus has been prioritised in policy and public discussion (to the extent that there has even been any) pretty much to the exclusion of all else, and any dissent or alternative viewpoints have been either ignored or silenced.

On Class and Inequality

Throughout the pandemic, we have been fed and have fed one another the lie that “we are all in this together”. The virus is a great leveller, so the logic goes. I think I even naively wrote lines to this effect back in April, when the PM contracted the virus and it all looked a bit touch and go.

The truth is much starker. Not only does the virus discriminate, mostly targeting the elderly and those who are extremely clinically vulnerable. So too does lockdown. The poor, and the working class as well as those with poor prospects have and will continue to suffer the brunt of lockdown. So too will the young. Suicide rates seem to have shot up, though the data are still being collected. And mental health problems are through the roof. UNICEF has listed the devastating impact of lockdowns on young children. The larger health impact, as other conditions are neglected or appointments and treatments delayed, is only beginning to appear. In the UK, some of the socio-economic force of lockdown has been lessened by the furlough scheme, which is probably doing much to stem the tide of public resentment and frustration. But as was noted by the owner of fast-food chain Leon, John Vincent, even with the furlough scheme big businesses like his face closure in a matter of months. How much worse the plight of smaller businesses, companies and shops, and the people who run them.

All of this is devastating and yet, to my mind, has been largely swept under the carpet in favour of safety from the virus. Perhaps in the end, as we look back at all that has happened with some hindsight, we’ll come to the view that lockdown was the right decision. Even now, I would dispute that very strongly. But at the very least, we should be talking about it much more than we have been. I think many have been afraid to do so. I know I have been.

On (Im)Patience

In drawing this piece to a close, I have, at a more personal level as a Christian, found myself reflecting on the virtue of patience as part of Christian life in the era of coronavirus. This is a challenge to me as we look to be moving out of lockdown with vaccinations in the UK. Isn’t patience needed precisely at the moment when we begin painstakingly unlocking as a society? Isn’t now the time to enact that British meme of “keep calm and carry on”?

I want to combine patience with wisdom. I worry that there is still some reversibility and room for the government to shift the goalposts (perhaps to something that resembles an elimination strategy) such that we remain in lockdown in all but name til’ the end of the year. I don’t think that this would be at all healthy for community and individual liberty alike. This is why I want to season my patience with prudence.

In fact, perhaps what we need more of is impatience. Folk often speak of a holy impatience within the context of actively protesting particular injustices in society. In the past few years, racial injustices and, especially just now, violence against women, have loomed large in the public consciousness, with many taking to the streets to demand action. And these things are worth discussing and looking for solutions on (I wish we’d think a bit more constructively about the solutions, frankly). But can there not also be a holy impatience for us to move out of and far away from the situation of lockdown and the criminalisation of basic family relations? Again, each of these issues matter. I just wish there was more opportunity and more of a hospitable environment for public outcry at the breaking of social bonds between kith and kin which lockdown is inflicting upon us.

On Moving Forward: What is the Common Good?

I want to end on a constructive note of challenge. There are, of course, plenty of constructive propositions that have been offered. I’ve mention above, the traffic lane alternative and Tegnel’s looser restrictions. Sumption has also raised questions that urgently need to be addressed around the relationship between the state and its institutions, on the one hand, and the populace, on the other, particularly in relation to media and state-sponsored messaging.

But I want to briefly conclude with some thoughts on the common good, and how I think liberty is central to it.

Conceptions of the common good are multitudinous and, quite often, vague and woolly. There are often appeals to community, communitarianism, solidarity and the “we”.

There are plenty of societies that would employ all of this language and perhaps even appeal to the common good in its decision making. China, for instance, might be one such example. And yet, theirs is a parody of the common good. It is almost exactly like those beehives where the queen bee reigns supreme and where the society forms one collective “hive-mind” in bonded servitude to the needs of the queen bee. There is something that is profoundly anti-human, anti-individual in all of this.

To me, this hive mentality seems to have lurked into our collective consciousness in the case of lockdown. The common good has, as can so often happen with laudable virtues, become a very vague sense of community spirit that, in reality, is simply a mindless conformism that justifies just about anything, but usually what is favourable to the will of the ruling group, which, in turn, assumes that by appealing to this vague sense of community spirit, everyone else will agree and go along with its desired programme for society. This was true in the BC (Before Covid) era, it is true now and it probably will be, til’ the eschaton.

I end by asking, what would it look like for a true, and a truly Christian notion of the common good to recapture our collective imaginations once again? Part of the answer, I believe, will mean drawing once more on the significance of the individual, about which the Christian tradition has much to say. Christ was anti-individualism, but not anti-individual.

In the end, just as there is no “I” without a “We”, so there is no “We” without an “I”. There is no common good, without rightly ordered, individual liberty.

Images: Title image, photo by author; Haidt and Lukanioff book from Blackwell’s Bookshop.

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