Liberty in the Wake of Coronavirus
By Aris Trantidis
Never before has ‘freedom from’ so worryingly related to ‘freedom to.’ Nearly three billion people currently live under lockdowns enacted by governments. In these uncertain times, most of us remain confined to our homes and accept these unprecedented restrictions as a temporary but necessary sacrifice in the fight against a deadly virus. We understand that lockdowns are part of a short-lived trade-off between liberty and safety. But how comfortable are we with the idea that this state of emergency could last long enough to leave a permanent imprint on the social, economic and political fabric of our communities? What could be the institutional aftermath of this pandemic?
History tells us that a crisis could become a critical juncture opening the possibility for radical change in the institutions governing society.1 During a pandemic, societies are more likely to accept heavy restrictions on their freedom to act. The risk is that societies may become habituated to some of these restrictions. As the fear of mass-scale death and morbidity from the virus will ebb and flow in the coming months, people may ask that these restrictions be prolonged. But the gravest risk, in my view, is that recurrent crises such as this one can lead to indiscriminate criticisms of the status quo and open the way for changes that will turn out to be negative for liberty and democracy.
The moment a mass quarantine is imposed, societies move deeper into the sphere of biopolitics, where surveillance mechanisms become regularized and rationalized as ways of monitoring public health. The management of an epidemic inverts the arrow of accountability: citizens are accountable to the government for their decisions, not the other way around. In addition, in this current state of emergency, many have cast doubt on the effectiveness of democratic governments in tackling the crisis and praise the imagined decisiveness of authoritarian governments to act promptly and decisively. While this is factually false, as South Korea and Taiwan show, this discussion accentuates the risk that, in times of crisis, governments may claim extraordinary powers for much longer.
In Immunitas,2 a book by Roberto Esposito, the intensive effort to protect society from risks gives rise to forms of ‘collective immunization’ that politicize medicine and medicalize politics. Governments can introduce forms of control over social and economic life that could persevere long after the crisis is over. The biopolitics of state control can have a permanent impact on society as the public health crisis becomes a situation to be managed. The fear is that this situation could lead to what Carl Schmitt described as ‘a state of exception’ in which the protections of the law are suspended. Taking on this idea, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben warns that a society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society.3
The technology to restrict freedom has never been so effective.
Today’s technology allows the deployment of a system of invasive surveillance and management of human activities whose capacity by far exceeds the tools which 20th century authoritarian regimes had at their disposal. The state is capable of monitoring each of us literally by following our steps and listening to our private conversations. To be able to manage collective behavior, a government acts as the central node in the social network, seeking to reshape our web of interactions so information will feed back to the center about what we think, say and do. As Hilton Root writes in the Network Origins of the Global Economy,4 authoritarian regimes such as China maintain a vertical structure of control in which the flow of information passes through central administration.
Authoritarian regimes have already developed such capacity without the pretext of a public health crisis. In those regimes, citizens are already accountable to government, not the other way around. What is unique with contemporary authoritarianism is that today’s technology allows them to not only to repress protests and opposition but also, by supervising each node in the social network, to pre-empt the very genesis of dissent and repress its original source: a video by a medical doctor, a posted comment by a student, even the private expression of dissatisfaction by a member of the ruling party can be identified and neutralized before it can spread and have an effect on others. Capable of supervising and disciplining each individual agent, authoritarian governments can now arrest subversive activities before their escalation thanks to advanced technology. As each agent can be monitored individually, unelicited information cannot flow to trigger a collective response. If this accidentally happens, any interactions necessary for the flow of subversive information can be successfully blocked.
In democracies, a similar infrastructure of control can be expanded in times of crisis and kept in place afterwards. In a prolonged state of emergency, democracies are susceptible to mass surveillance. The nature of lockdowns could be so restrictive that society would voluntarily opt for surveillance mechanisms. Eighty years ago, Erich Fromm wrote in Escape from Freedom that psychological and social conditions can push, in the face of uncertainty, society to almost voluntarily submit itself to fascism.5 People will be willing to give up their freedoms for the sense of security promised and later imposed on them by an authoritarian government. Take the case of Hungary. In 2015, the Orban government declared a state of emergency in response to increasing migratory flows and has now passed legislation to allow the Prime Minister to rule by decree until further notice and to jail people who, in its judgment, spread information deemed to be fake news.
Constitutional protections of liberty are not enough.
What prevents this dystopian scenario from happening in liberal democracies is, at the first level of analysis, the presence of constitutional checks and balances. Liberal democracy mediates the tension between political power and society’s relative freedom. In a recent article in The Guardian, David Runciman writes that the lockdowns make it clear what the essence of politics has always been: some people get to tell others what to do. Democracy is a system that partially restores some balance in the relationship between the governing and the governed. A political organization must win elections and must act within the constitutionally protected boundaries that delineate a set of freedoms for its citizens. In a democratic polity, constitutional provisions protect basic liberties and delineate limits to what governments can do both in normal times and in periods of crisis.
Liberal democracy allows us to hope that these restrictions will be temporary. We put faith in democracy’s checks and balances to be effective restrictions of arbitrary power. Once the crisis is over, our society will claim back its rights and freedoms. Even during the present crisis, we can recognize how liberal democracy favors knowledge generation and communication. Both scientists and the public can freely say what they believe, and societies can ask questions and learn from mistakes. The epistemic qualities of democracy may seem to generate a cacophony of views, but they safeguard transparency and accountability.
However, institutional checks on political power are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the preservation of a relatively free society, particularly when the response to recurrent crises threatens to undermine their socioeconomic foundation: pluralism. In our contemporary societies. democratic resilience to autocratisation depends on the actual state of civil society. I have argued that the foundation of democracy is the capacity of societal actors to contest the government, adding that political contestability depends on how autonomous and empowered society remains against the government.6
Liberal democracies are entangled economic and political systems. In that system, multiple nodes are able to hold political power accountable thanks to their relative autonomy from government, which stems primarily from their capacity to autonomously obtain resources and achieve social status. Our socioeconomic autonomy bestows some bargaining power against the state. In that landscape, some agents have more resources than others. A realistic view of liberal democracy is that of relative and asymmetrical pluralism. Asymmetrical pluralism has historically sustained liberal democracies. It developed into a system of ‘societal checks and balances’ that keeps sustaining the formal checks we identify as bills of rights and constitutions. Contemporary democracies are an extension of the medieval systems in which barons had the resources to be able to constrain the power of the monarch and institutionalize their right to a parliament. In that environment, the monarchs had to listen to those who had the collective capacity to bargain, and, in need for their resources, allowed them a sphere of freedom under the rule of law. This settlement later included commercial and industrial actors as well as the collective organizations that emerged with growing commercialization and industrialization, and eventually covered the whole adult population.
We may chastise this system as far from representative and equal, but we must appreciate the delicate balance between governing and the governed based on interest interdependencies and relative bargaining power. This balance of power is epitomized in what Robert Dahl described as a polyarchy. In a network of social relations some social and economic actors are more influential than others. These social actors are relatively empowered and have bargaining power against the central government. Governments need to strike alliances and pacts with them rather than subordinate them to their direct orders. Institutions that embed such ongoing bargaining balance sustain our right to criticize, protest and try to influence political decisions. Liberal democracies are delicately asymmetrical polyarchies. Our freedoms are not given to us by a piece of paper, but they are essentially an externality of the bargaining position of stronger nodes in the system against political power. The fact that nobody can dominate preserves the institutions that give everyone a relative sphere of freedom.
This structure of relations is threatened if institutional responses to a crisis change this balance of power and become permanent. The seeds for this transformation are already manifest. The biopolitics of state control is just an extreme manifestation of a tendency that characterized the 20th century: radical state interventionism, the belief that a central authority should interfere in societal activities—and that it is well placed to do so. Government is expected to macro-manage a complex reality to restore order. Throughout the 20th century societies have been habituated to several forms of interventionism, ranging from trade protectionism to interventionist macroeconomic policies. In those situations, the state is imagined as a deus ex machina, a powerful actor that is both benevolent and knowledgeable enough to fix things.
A wave of radical interventions to manage an emergency economy can usher in a structural transformation of state-society relations. The risk to liberty comes from a perpetual state of economic management under a simmering perception of recurrent crisis. Justified as benevolent interventions for the economy of perpetual emergency, the state can put in place a structure of incentives ripe for political exploitation. With massive and recurrent bailouts, government can co-opt actors, including the ones occupying key positions in institutional checks and balances or in civil society organizations, and can elicit the loyalty of business and collective organizations which, in a competitive democracy, could bargain with political authority rather than succumb to it.
A change of economic structure is the gravest threat to liberty.
How state-society economic relations will develop in the coming years will determine the extent to which society can keep a relatively independent status against political power. I am apprehensive of those who see the crisis as an opportunity to strengthen the economic power of the state. Several prominent public figures call for a paradigm shift towards a more activist role for the state in the economy, claiming that the status quo simply could not continue. Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at University of Washington recently wrote:
- As we tune in to daily briefings from public health officials, listen for guidance from our governors, and seek help and hope from our national leaders, we are seeing the critical role that “big government” plays in our lives and our health. We also see the deadly consequences of four decades of disinvestment in public infrastructure and dismissal of public expertise. Not only will America need a massive dose of big government to get out of this crisis—as Washington’s swift passage of a giant economic bailout package reflects—but we will need big, and wise, government more than ever in its aftermath.7
Classical liberalism warns against the universal assumption of government benevolence and omniscience. It is risky to presume that government power will be used to promote a version of public interest. Increasing the power of the state to distribute sizable benefits to selected social and economic actors will increase the degree of their dependency on government. The discretionary powers of the state to choose winners could undermine the relative autonomy of those key actors who thus far acted as important checks on authoritative power, even at the moments in which some of them were colluding with them. A citizen co-opted by the government will not protest, contest, and dissent.
This is what Nick Cowen and I argued in our article “Hayek versus Trump.”8 Friedrich Hayek’s popular book The Road to Serfdom has been interpreted as a general warning against state intervention in the economy.9 But our addendum makes a distinction between forms of state intervention that could threaten personal and political freedom and those less likely to do so. Partial-discriminatory interventions are coercive in the sense described by Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty,10 by giving the state the power to force others to serve one’s will by the threat of inflicting harm. By contrast, impartial distributions and regulations, such as healthcare provisions, can work under generally applicable rules. This mitigates the risk of coercion.
With partial-discriminatory allocations such as bailouts and other protectionist measures, governments gain the capacity to allocate resources and elicit loyalty and complacency in return. A politicized economy changes the network of government-society relations to a pyramid-shaped structure where the central node submits all other nodes to relationships of dependency. Without exit to spheres of economic activity relatively autonomous from government, the socio-economic foundation of political contestability could vanish, and the formal structure of checks and balances could be equally eroded. A new authoritarianism can emerge, one that nominally respects the formal structures of democratic politics but succeeds in curtailing the autonomy of its agents through a command-and-control management of the post-crisis economy.
I am less afraid of the management of the epidemic itself. Societies will restore freedom insofar as society is able to demand it and will be free to push for it. I am deeply apprehensive of the institutional impact on the economy. Modern monetary theory tells us that the government can print out money to be distributed to business in a vast program of subsidies and investment. Populists praise strong government and attack the role of institutions, combining ad hoc ostracization with ad hoc protectionism. Business asks for protectionist measures to survive the fiscal pressure of the crisis. At the same time, the technology of surveillance is more sophisticated than ever due to progress in cybernetics and genetics. The lockdown can be harsh enough to push us to accept unprecedented levels of biometric surveillance just to get out of our quarantines. The economic pains will be heavy enough to turn many of us to governments for assistance. We will accept being monitored and made dependent on the discretion of central authority to allocate resources to us.
This mixture raises the risk that governments could grasp this opportunity to monitor activity, dictate outcomes, select winners, and signal their strength to reduce their exposure to political contestation. In dictating who gets what, political elites reassert a form of control that trespasses formal checks on power. It neutralizes political contestation in the electoral process and erodes the autonomy of formal institutions that are supposed to check its authority. Coupled with an unprecedented mechanism of surveillance, the current system of checks and balances on power will be ineffective to prevent further autocratization.
The constitutional protection of economic autonomy is imperative.
Now is the right time to think more deeply about our fundamental premises before offering any prescriptions about the future. Liberal democracies were designed for 19th century societies to protect citizens from a domineering government. In this age of recurrent crises, biotechnology, and mass-surveillance, this constitutional panoply might prove to be inadequate. Updating and strengthening the tradition of classical liberalism is an urgent and long-overdue task.
The 21st century will either be the age of biodemocracy or the age of biodictatorship. The institutions of biodemocracy will be what protects civil society from arbitrary exercises of government power in the face of recurrent crises.
I see biodemocracy as a neo-Madisonian project that responds to the contemporary challenges of biopolitics through constitutional reforms that safeguard the socioeconomic underpinnings of liberal democracy. Its underlying premise shall be the acknowledgment there can be no liberal democracy without a pluralist society and economy. A pluralist socioeconomic structure sustains democracy’s structure of checks and balances and government contestability. Change the former and the latter collapses.
In the age of growing complexity and biopolitics, a neo-Madisonian institutional thinking must consider the type of reforms that can sustain society’s relative economic autonomy from government discretion. This may mean an economic constitution that places non-discrimination as an additional condition applicable to the role of the state in the economy and the nature of its interventions in society. Reforms should only allow impersonal and impartial interventions under independent checks of proportionality and must prohibit government actions that could discriminate and create identifiable winners. Institutions must protect the fundamentals of an economic system that allows economic actors the autonomy to act. Instead of interventions that uncritically concentrate discretionary powers in the hands of a political elite, societies should be able to manage risks in ways that safeguard liberty at its very source: our relative autonomy from government discrimination.
 Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan (25th Anniversary Edition): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. The Independent Institute.
 Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life. (Polity, 2011).
 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception. (University of Chicago Press, 2005).
 Hilton L. Root, Network Origins of the Global Economy: East vs. West in a Complex Systems Perspective, Cambridge Core, March 2020.
 Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (Open Road Media, 2013).
 Aris Trantidis, “Is Government Contestability an Integral Part of the Definition of Democracy?” 2017. Accessed 30 March 2020.
 “Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently. Here’s How”. Politico. Accessed 30 March 2020.
 Aris Trantidis and Nick Cowen, “Hayek versus Trump: The Radical Right’s Road to Serfdom,” Polity, 5 March 2020.
*Aris Trantidis is a Lecturer in International Relations and Politics at the University of Lincoln, the School of Social and Political Sciences. He was previously a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute (EUI), a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Economics at George Mason University and a Visiting Lecturer and Teaching Fellow at the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. Aris is the author of the book Clientelism and Economic Policy: Greece and the Crisis (Routledge, 2016). Aris holds degrees from King’s College London, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the Universities of Surrey, Thessaloniki and Athens.