Crossing the Slippery Slope: Between Security and Freedom in COVID-19

On second thought, perhaps the world will not look so similar to the one we have known.

This article is an adapted and expanded version of my comments in the 6 April webinar “Politik und Gesellschaft zwischen Sicherheit und Freiheit” (Politics and Society between Security and Freedom). It also follows my previous piece on the ongoing covid-19 crisis.

The present lockdown has had the strange effect of almost reversing our conception of the private and public spheres and the movement of time. When things are normal and we walk around outside in the city we hear cars racing past, people moving to and fro, often talking on their mobile phones. Everything is in motion. πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει. Ideally, we come home to escape the chaos of the outside world and find order and solace in stillness. In reality we probably come home (God, this place is a mess) and need to make dinner (I knew I forgot something at the supermarket!), help the restless kids with their mountain of homework (we really need to have a word with the teacher about this), and finish up that report before the 9:30 AM meeting the next morning (or was it 8:30?).

Suffice it to say, it has become increasingly difficult to maintain that separation between the private and the public spheres, much to the detriment of our performance and sanity in both of those spheres. Under the lockdown, however, for those who can work remotely, the home has become by definition the place of chaos and business. Emails, messages, news items pop up on our phones and computer screens with relentless fury, reminiscent of a whack-a-mole. We are painfully aware of the all-too-hasty passage of time, the imminent deadlines, and our progress in fighting covid-19. Outside, where we actually stand to contract the virus, everything is still and silent. The quiet walk to the supermarket is our break.

Investigating abstract philosophical concepts, such as security and freedom, in light of the unfolding crisis – in light of the passage of time – is an interesting exercise. Where do we stand? Emergency measures clamping down on our freedom have been enacted in the interest of our security. Economic freedoms have been constrained, as have civil liberties to various degrees depending on the country. In many places freedom of association and freedom of movement have been severely limited; while in others, freedom of speech is even under threat. On the other hand, for those of us who have more time now, we have an opportunity to exercise greater philosophical freedom and reap the benefits of boredom. While some freedoms are constrained, we might realize other freedoms in this context – or at the very least necessity could force us to be creative. And for those of us who find the present state of affairs intolerable, there may be a glimmer of hope in that some countries are already planning gradually to relax the lockdown.

But has this security-freedom trade-off been worth it? We are willing to admit of constraints to our freedom during extenuating circumstances, as many believe this to be. Italy was the first Western democracy to go into lockdown on 9 March, a trend that spread across Europe as fast as the virus did. The individual countries of Europe decided there was little time to waste with the usual EU policy incoherence. Amidst great uncertainty, rising infection numbers and deaths, and an increasingly jittery sense that governments had to act now in order to save lives, who can blame politicians for swiftly following suit in order to spare their countries the fate of the bel paese? Who will blame politicians afterwards should it turn out that the crisis was exaggerated? If this is so, then Sweden’s still relaxed approach will no longer appear to be the wacky exception but an unmoved buoy in a turbulent sea of fear. Supporters of the lockdown will fall over themselves in self-congratulatory accolades for having averted the worst; opponents will retrospectively strengthen their originally timid suspicions of the lockdown’s effectiveness. If the anomaly turns out to have been Sweden’s misplaced stoicism, then social scientists will account for the biases that enable one (or an entire country) to ignore the truth that is right in front of them. But if the anomaly turns out to have been everyone else who went lockstep into quarantine, then social scientists will switch from talking about herd immunity to herd mentality.

The present lockdown’s effectiveness can ultimately be evaluated – and still imperfectly since we will never be able conclusively to prove how many people would have died due to covid-19 if the lockdown were not in place – only in the future. Perhaps it was necessary in the early stages but less so now; perhaps it is still necessary. I do not know, and for lack of knowledge I will continue to maintain the conventional wisdom about its seriousness. For the time being, the lockdown may have been effective in preventing deaths, buying time, and preventing the overcrowding of hospitals and further contagion. On the other hand, if its purpose were to keep us in a holding position until a vaccine is developed or everyone is cured, then we could be locked down indefinitely because of the logistical difficulties involved in testing everyone or because of the time it would take for a vaccine to be discovered and made widely available. Finally, it is too early to tell whether relaxing the lockdown will lead to more infections and deaths and convince politicians to reinstate the quarantine. In the last analysis we will be faced with a situation where people will begin to return to normal life and the virus will still be around. This implies a readiness on the part of governments and citizens to return to a way of life with a potentially increased danger of virus transmission and even death.

How long, then, until we move to that position of readiness? A month is one thing, but already we see compliance fatigue setting in due to impatience, boredom, or even desperation. Impatience and boredom could reinforce compliance fatigue especially if the situation improves over time and citizens start asking themselves why they are still holed up at home. If this is the case, then the UK and Sweden may be better off in having delayed compliance fatigue by locking down later or not at all. We shall have to see. Italy is an example of compliance fatigue due to desperation, as some households that have been unable to work and earn money find themselves unable to afford groceries, a failure in governance that criminality and the mafia are only too happy to correct. In Italy the economic crisis engendered by the lockdown could become more severe than the health crisis that led to the lockdown initially. As the crisis continues we might see that the security-freedom dichotomy is false: security can depend on freedom, particularly economic freedom.

The lockdown across countries has not been entirely uniform, particularly in some of the restrictions and penalties for violation. We might tentatively speak of different models, where the severity of the government’s measures could be a potential indicator of how rapidly governments believe social order would decay in their countries if such measures were not taken. Middle Eastern and African countries are more draconian on both counts despite the fewer fatalities, although it is worth pointing out that their health systems would be less able to cope with much larger outbreaks. China – whose authoritarianism and misinformation campaign I have touched on elsewhere – is rushing to restore the semblance of stability by lifting restrictions on Wuhan despite the population’s concerns and frustrations over the government’s bungled handling of the situation. The danger of second or third outbreaks looms everywhere. Meanwhile in the United States much of the debate is filtered through the merciless meat grinder of partisan politics. Europe has its outliers – Sweden, as already mentioned, and at the other end of the spectrum, Hungary, which I would have classified with the Middle Eastern and African countries above, had I less respect for the true spirit of liberty – the spirit of ’56. Every politician finds in a crisis the pretext he needs.

Perhaps most interesting for Europe though is democratic Asia: Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea, for example. The penalties can be stiffer than in Europe (e.g. the possibility of imprisonment). In order to return to normal life European countries might gradually decide to lift the lockdown for certain businesses or even certain groups of people – my co-panelist, Dr. Wolfgang Wein, suggests that everyone under 50 years of age return to work after Easter, followed by a later phase where those over 50 may also return, with our energies directed to caring for those in the more susceptible demographic, namely the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.

On the other hand, in our eagerness to crunch data, improve our understanding, diminish uncertainty, prevent further deaths, and return to normal life, we might do as some Asian countries have done and welcome tracking apps and mass testing. In Austria the legality of an obligatory tracking app is debatable. Whether Westerners would allow governments to infringe on their freedoms is questionable. Westerners are already divided on how much access and what use companies should have of their data. Between governments and corporations, which is the greater evil? Libertarians and socialists have always arrayed themselves in opposition.

In any case, presumably such a measure would be temporary, in effect for the duration of the emergency, which sometimes takes longer to end than we would hope (and how temporary will covid-19 be?). The trade-off would change: in exchange for security, economic freedom, and freedom of movement we would sacrifice some privacy, which for some people, despite their initial protestations, could be a worthwhile sacrifice. For others, it is not. It is a question of how much one values privacy and to what extent one deems his government incompetent, mendacious, or malicious.

If one distrusts his government then such an infringement would likely reinforce that distrust. A suspicious government, or one whose legitimacy is in question, might in future have to impose further draconian measures in order to maintain public order. A government may also be heavy-handed if it suspects that trust and civility amongst its citizens are low. How preferable it is that citizens in countries with a robust civil society be trusted to practice social distancing and take appropriate health precautions out of a simple sense of decency. Unfortunately we cannot necessarily be trusted to enumerate every single person we would encounter throughout the course of a day, and therefore we cannot necessarily identify every single person we may have infected or been exposed to.

The app is intended to solve this for us by immediately restoring our freedoms and our security at the cost of some privacy. The encroachment is small for the moment, but it could always be exploited for evil ends in the future. But we do not know this. Nor do we know if the government we trust today will become untrustworthy tomorrow. As some have observed, dictatorial power, based on statistical norms, would return in the name of health, one of our highest values today. Is health – life – worth more than liberty? Montesquieu wrote that “[p]olitical liberty consists in security or, at least, in the opinion one has of one’s security.” If this is true, then the security-freedom dichotomy is false again, but in the opposite direction: one needs security, or even just the sense of security, in order to be free. An obligatory tracking app will bolster or threaten this sense of security, depending on the individual’s prejudices and the trust between governments and citizens. In Belarus some citizens are critical of the government’s negligence with respect to what much of the rest of the world considers a grave crisis. In effect, citizens can behave similarly in Belarus and Sweden, but in the former a lack of transparency and distrust of government make some citizens feel less secure. In Sweden, citizens might have greater trust in each other to behave appropriately and respectfully to one another; they might also have greater trust that their government is doing what it can to deal with the situation. If this is the case, then many Swedes might have been indifferent in the first place to whether they be quarantined or not. Trust might have led them to accept either policy.

This does not necessarily mean we need to regard the choice between lockdown and freedom with indifference. Towards the end of the discussion the moderator Mr. Marco Weber asked me about totalitarianism, a state of affairs where the security-freedom dichotomy is meaningless because neither can exist in a regime actuated by fear. It is a phenomenon both nearer to and further from us than we would think, although, in my mind, not for the reasons commonly adduced. Totalitarianism is obviously a danger in the form of an excessively powerful state that crowds out private life and civil society. In this respect, i.e. in respect of the structure of a totalitarian state, I believe that while we are always on a slippery slope, in many European countries we are not dealing with the totalitarianism of Stalin’s Soviet Union. How would we know if we were heading down that path? Disturbing steps in that direction would include the establishment of a single party, whether de jure or de facto. In other words, the pluralistic and peaceful competition for power – the very hallmark of a liberal democratic regime – would no longer exist. This party would represent the official truth of the state. It would seek a monopoly of forms of communication to propagate this truth, thus cracking down on free speech. It would subordinate all areas of society, such as the economy, to itself. The state, the political realm, would consume civil society. Everything, right down to familial relations, would be politicized, and trust would evaporate.

But the spirit of totalitarianism also risks infecting us without the aforementioned structures. In this sense, we might be closer to totalitarianism than we appreciate. We already see in free societies the occasional tendency to politicize everything. The people may not be free even if the constitution is. If we politicize everything, are we nurturing a totalitarianism of the mind? I will not venture an answer, although I will say, as I said at the outset, that the lockdown can provide an opportunity to exercise philosophical freedom, temperance in our thinking, and to focus on the essential questions of politics and society amidst the constant barrage of commentary on the virus. I may very well be proven wrong, but I continue to maintain – contrary to much wiser voices – that the hysteria caused by this virus is ephemeral and that the world will look much as we left it.

On the other hand, we may see some changes in our work life, perhaps with employers permitting more home office and more telecommuting, to which we have quickly grown accustomed in the past few weeks. The massive amounts that some companies shell out on accommodation and airfare for their employees – business travellers account for 12% of airline seats but nearly 75% of annual profit – may come to look ridiculously wasteful. Our daily routine might change substantially.

On second thought, perhaps the world will not look so similar to the one we have known. New businesses may emerge as the demand for and possibilities of online networking, conferencing, and education grow. Old ways of life and work could be swept away in a gale of Schumpeterian creative destruction, leaving room for new industries that are eager to compete and succeed.

Except for the airline industry. They’ll need another bailout.


  • Scott B. Nelson

    Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institut. He lectures on politics and philosophy and publishes books, scholarly articles, and commentary. His last book is Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. His next book is on Cicero and prudence in politics.

The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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