Temporary Government Programmes

24 January 2021. Updated 7 March 2021.

by Angus McIntosh

Economist Milton Friedman: “Nothing so permanent as a temporary government programme.”

Let us take a moment to look beyond the current turmoil of the pandemic and the ensuing policy chaos and to consider its possible legacy.

At this point we are struggling to cope with the tide of misery which Covid and the lockdowns have created. But eventually, through a combination of spring weather, natural immunity and the vaccine, the virus will subside to the point where we could start to live with it as a normal part of the disease landscape.

It may then take a decade or more to recover from its terrible toll of death, depression and poverty and this is tragedy enough. But potentially even more damaging for our long-term future are the lasting shifts in attitudes which the virus may leave behind.

These will be many and complex, but there are three which are particularly likely:

  1. Permanently lowered public tolerance for life’s normal risks and challenges.
  2. Increased popular willingness to sacrifice freedoms in pursuit of safety.
  3. Greater tendency for authorities of all kinds to exploit the above.

The first two of these malign legacies represent acceleration of existing trends, rather than completely new phenomena. But the third is undergoing more of a revolution.

Anyone who doubts that we have taught certain policymakers an unexpected but welcome lesson need only look at Professor Neil Ferguson’s now-infamous Times interview in which he said, referring to China:

It’s a communist one-party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.

This insight has allowed Ferguson and other advisors to promote control of the virus above every other consideration and to keep it there.

When governments take control of a new aspect of our lives, they assume permanent accountability for it in the public and media mind. They know that they are far more likely to be called to account for any negative consequences of later relaxation than they are to be praised for its benefits. That’s why new interventions are very rarely eased, even by those who opposed them in the first place.

For that reason, masks all year round, plus social distancing and travel restrictions every winter, are a real danger. It’s almost certain that vaccines with no proven impact on transmission will be compulsory for anyone who expects to travel, work, go out or send their children to school. And once the principle of adopting coercive health interventions has been established, we can expect it to be extended to other risks and conditions, with highly unwelcome implications for personal responsibility and control of our own bodies.

Worrying though all of that is, at least the Ferguson tendency is confined to the health sphere. But other voices are now emerging, apparently emboldened by the same insight, to go much further.

Two recent examples are Lindsay Hoyle, speaker of the House of Commons, and Karl Lauterbach, SPD member of the German Bundestag for Leverkusen.

The Daily Express reported that during the recent G7 Speakers Meeting, Sir Lindsay reflected on the public’s unexpected compliance as follows:

People were prepared to accept limitations on personal choice and lifestyle – for the good of their own family and friends. No-one could ever imagine that we would be wearing masks so readily and that we would all be so compliant. Perhaps we ought not to underestimate the ability of people and communities to work together for the common good, if there is united and clear leadership.

He doesn’t specify what the “common good” is, but it’s a safe bet that if he weren’t restricted by his politically neutral role, he would be prepared to define it for us, along with whatever “limitations on personal choice and lifestyle” he thought were necessary, and all to be robustly enforced by “united and clear leadership”.

Lauterbach is even less timid, saying recently with undisguised relish:

We need measures for tackling climate change that are similar to the restrictions of personal freedom in the pandemic

Until now, policy responses to issues like climate change have been mostly confined to topics like emissions standards, green energy, carbon pricing and other broad measures.

What is different about Covid-style restrictions is that they reach into the very heart of our personal being, including where we may go, who we may see, what we must wear, with whom (and even how) we can have sex and many others, all backed up with excessive force and intolerance for responsible dissent.

We have all made decisions that have to balance individual freedom with collective rules, but we each approach that compromise with our own biases, to which our thinking defaults in the absence of balancing considerations.

Some politicians are instinctively liberal and only reluctantly authoritarian. But for many others like Hoyle and Lauterbach the converse is true. For them Covid has opened up new and unexpected possibilities. What deeper, longer and more intrusive limitations on our personal liberty might we be willing to endure if they can control us as successfully on other issues as they have during the pandemic?

To take a few hypothetical examples, why not maintain the principle that only those with a ‘valid’ reason should be allowed to travel? Holidays might be allowed, but who needs more than one a year? And shouldn’t long-haul flying be restricted to essential business, humanitarian or diplomatic reasons?

What about limiting your right to private transport, the size of your family, the size of your home, what you eat or what you buy?

If you think measures like these are unthinkable in a Western democracy, then ask yourself whether you would have believed a year ago that we’d be willing to give up our right to leave our homes without a reasonable excuse to manage a disease that >99% of those it infects recover from.

Those of us who have argued for much of the past year that curtailment of personal liberty sets a dangerous precedent have been dismissed by some who sincerely don’t see the danger and others who secretly welcome it.

It is that second group we now need to recognise and challenge. A feature of this authoritarian tendency is that more we feed it, the hungrier it gets. That’s why how we choose to emerge from this crisis is just as critical as how we deal with it now.

Angus McIntosh is an independent social and political commentator, on Twitter as @AngusJMcIntosh

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