September 14th, 2021
Democracy and Civil Liberties in Danger
Dan Denning argues that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated restrictions on individual liberties and economic freedom all over the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated restrictions on individual liberties and economic freedom all over the world. While some of these may have been necessary at the beginning of the pandemic as a short-term precaution, the actions taken by governments in the last twelve months pose a long-term threat to civil liberties, democratic accountability, as well as entrepreneurship, and small business. Unless emergency powers are revoked, and the rule of law is vigorously defended, western countries risk a permanent shift toward more authoritarian limits on small business and civil liberties. We will become more like China every single day.
The time is now for defenders of individual liberty and entrepreneurial freedom to ensure these temporary infringements do not become permanent. As vaccinations roll out across this spring and summer, there will be no reason left to maintain illegal or unconstitutional limits on civil liberties and small business. Maximum pressure needs to be exerted at the political level and through the media to end emergency declarations that infringe on civil liberties and small business and ensure that they never happen again, at least without robust democratic accountability.
First, what civil liberties are we talking about? The five freedoms outlined in the first amendment into the US constitution and the four freedoms in the treaty of Lisbon or in the Schengen Agreement. In summary, those are Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government for a redress of your grievances. With the Schengen freedoms, we are talking about the free movement of goods, the free movement of capital, the freedom to establish and provide services, and most importantly the free movement of people.
Unfortunately, it does not take a great deal of imagination to see the ubiquitous mask or face covering as a kind of muzzle of democracy or to see mask mandates as a form of suppression of free speech. But masks are not just symbols. They have a valid and legitimate public health purpose. But beyond the symbolism of the mask, the real threat right now to freedom of speech is the enforcement of de facto speech codes created by governments and enforced by multinational technology corporations. It is a dangerous collaboration between silicon valley and big government.
In China, it is the Chinese Communist Party that does the censorship. But in the last twelve months, and in the post-pandemic world if we are not careful, it’s going to be Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon. The trend toward punishing or criminalizing political speech with which you disagree strikes at the very heart of the first amendment. We need to be absolutists in our defense of free speech, now more than ever.
The second freedom is the freedom of the press and here I’m talking about the de-platforming of independent and alternative media and the pursuit or the illegal detention of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange who exposed the illegal activities of various and numerous governments. Often this de-platforming is done on the grounds that what’s been deleted or censored is fake news that is not factual or that its propaganda sponsored by a foreign government, usually Russia, China, or Iran, or simply its conspiracy theories that are the product of potentially violent domestic extremists. The result is what author George Orwell might call a kind of private-sector ministry of truth run by major corporate media working hand in glove with local governments.
In the post-pandemic world, the press is no longer speaking truth to power or holding public officials accountable. It is working with them in many cases to advance a specific narrative that supports government policy and is both anti-liberty and anti-entrepreneurial.
The third freedom is freedom of religion. In February, the US supreme court struck down the state of California’s total ban on religious services. Justice Neil Gorsuch said it simply didn’t make sense that retail establishments could safely operate at 25% of capacity but churches, synagogues, and mosques could not. The court did maintain a ban on singing and chanting deferring to California public health experts that said this behavior could increase the transmission of COVID19. But we have a similar situation in New York City where the state’s COVID-19 restrictions were also struck down. Those restrictions took on a distinctly anti-religious character, particularly anti-Jewish. The bottom line is that the court reiterated that even public health emergencies do not unequivocally justify the free exercise of religion which is guaranteed by the first amendment.
The fourth freedom of the first amendment is the freedom of assembly. Nothing prevents organized political opposition or descent like preventing people from peacefully assemble. Yet, that is what we’ve seen all over the world, in Australia, in New Zealand, in Europe, and even here in parts of the US. The stated reason was to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus by preventing large public gatherings.
But the public health orders have been applied inconsistently. Organized protests against lockdowns have been broken up by police, while political protests for social or other justice matters have been permitted to continue. So the lack of consistency in the application of the public health orders reveals to me they are inherently political nature, which is to suppress descent. The law is the law. People are constitutionally allowed to gather and peacefully protest public policies they feel are unfair or illegal.
The fight for freedom is the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and there are a lot of people who have justifiable grievances against lockdown policies. These policies have limited their ability to make a living and provide for their family, perhaps none more so that small business they have been shut down, while big retail outlets and chain food stores have been allowed to remain open. Public officials at the federal, state and local levels have said they need to defer to the authority of public health experts. At the beginning of the pandemic, most reasonable people had no problem with this.
We know that lockdowns affect all aspects of civilized society and that it’s probably a mistake to give emergency powers to unelected public health officials for an indefinite period of time. The emergency becomes permanent and there is no longer any democratic means for addressing the total cost on the wider community including the suppression of constitutionally protected liberties. We end up becoming governed by technocrats who are singularly focused on one issue to the determined of everything else, not least are which civil liberties and entrepreneurial freedom.
Now, let’s move to the four freedoms covered in the Schengen agreement. The first is the free movement of goods and capital. COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities and the global supply chains and just in time logistics. It is going to be up to businesses to figure out how to become more resilient and more antifragile in the case of future pandemics.
Capital on the other hand continues to move around the globe at a lightning pace. The big danger is that some 24 trillion dollars in stimulus-response have been spent or promised by governments and central banks all over the world. Not only to deal with the pandemic but the cost of the lockdowns that were imposed by the same governments. This has led to a big increase in government liabilities and central bank balance sheets and could lead to much higher inflation in 2021, and eventually because of that higher interest rates. That itself will create a large worldwide financial shock, similar to the crisis of 2008-09, but this time with the epicenter in government bonds.
Another of the four freedom of Schengen is the freedom to establish and provide services. Entrepreneurs are natural risk-takers. They embrace uncertainty. Indeed, many of them see uncertainty as an opportunity. But given the precedent set in the last year around the world that your business can be summarily closed or that new operating conditions can be imposed at will by unelected officials, there is a real risk that small businesses and the creation and formation of them will take a big hit in the post-pandemic world unless there is an explicit rollback of those pandemic limitations.
Some government programs have been created to provide loans to enterprises that are the most affected by the lockdown policies. But if you talk to any small business owner, they don’t want government help. What they want is the freedom to provide goods and services in their communities to manage the risk of doing so safely for those customers who are also taking the responsibility of managing their own personal health risks during the pandemic.
The last freedom that we need to talk about that has been impacted by the pandemic is probably the biggest one and that’s the freedom of the movement of people. It is important to remember one thing here -the very term lockdown comes from the management of prisons and correctional facilities. It is an inherently authoritarian term that treats all free people as if they were prisoners of the state. The big danger in the post-COVID-19 world is that the free movement of people across national borders, or even within those borders, can be revoked with the stroke of an executive pan or require the permission of the so-called green passport which proves that you’ve been vaccinated.
The precedent that you need permission to exercise your natural rights and liberties has been set with the government response to COVID-19. What’s astonishing is that hundreds of millions of people have willingly accepted what amounts to involuntary indefinite house arrest. Again, I don’t want to be unreasonable. You can’t really argue with people trying to do the right thing and slow the spread of a deadly virus. Most of us would agree that is the responsible thing to do as a good citizen. But there is no doubt that some public officials, at all levels of government, have less interest in doing the right thing, and more interest in controlling small businesses and individual liberties. They are now willing and eager to restrict the free movement of people for any publicly declared emergency, which could be another virus, a natural virus, or because domestic terrorism, which is a term we are suddenly hearing here in the US.
So to review, the pandemic has accelerated the restrictions on civil liberties all across the world. It has become a concerted attached to freedom of speech, religion, the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of movement. The social moot which is driven at the moment by fear seems to have switched in favor of safety over liberty. Unless this trend is reversed we can face permanent new restrictions on civil liberties which took hundreds of years to establish and protect through our laws and institutions. This will shift the balance of power in civil society from individuals, small businesses, and voluntary organizations to centralized government and big corporations, acting together to protect their interests at the expense of our freedoms.
As Lenin infamously asked, what is to be done?
First, we should follow the Swiss model and embrace the idea of subsidiarity. That principle is enshrined in article five of the Lisbon treaty. The principle is this – political power, when it is used at all, is most legitimate when it’s closest to the power. Power is more accountable to the people when applied at the local and state level. National emergency policy making is an alarming trend that is inherently undemocratic and hostile to civil liberties and free enterprise. We should fight it and reject it.
Second, we should embrace anti-trust action against big tech’s censorship of free speech. Most of us who believe in the free market resist government intervention. We understand that the consumer is smart enough to decide what business to patronage and the government shouldn’t pick winners. The research shows that antitrust regulations can backfire and establish or perpetuate monopolies by creating competitive moats that small businesses cant cross. But a collaboration between Silicon Valley and big government to determine what speech is permissible and what is canceled would by one name be called corporatism and by any other name fascism. We simply cannot let big tech become the arbiter of free speech on behalf of the government. Remember, controlling speech isn’t about the speech. It is about controlling the action that follows from the speech. More importantly, it is about controlling thought. If you control the speech then you teach people to self-censor. This is the most effective form of authoritarian control and it is why we must resist it so variously.
And finally, we need to reject the false narrative that the pandemic response and lockdowns value human lives over human rights. This is not a case of putting people over profits. Supporting your family and providing goods and services to your community is neither greedy nor selfish. Asking for all of civil society to be shut down so you feel safe is selfish. Particularly when we are talking about small businesses, we are talking about freedom individuals have to pursue their passions and apply their talents, not only for their enrichment and betterment but for the betterment of the community they are part of. To deny them this right is to deny them the means to support themselves and their family. It is also a denial of the right to pursue happiness and flourishing of your individual potential, or what Aristotle calls eudemonia. Public health and welfare can only best be served if we recognize that destroying the livelihoods of millions of people is not bad public policy, but also undemocratic and immoral.
Dan Denning is the Executive Publisher at Southbank Investment Research in London and the co-author of The Bill Bonner Letter.
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
Do you like the article?
We are glad you do! Please consider donating if you want to read more articles like this one.