Pandemics and Liberty
By Alberto Mingardi
On our sister website, Law and Liberty, Theodore Dalrymple has a must-read article, “Pandemics is the Health of the State“.
The piece is focused on the French debate these days. On Libération, considered by Darlympe “now a journal of the domesticated left”, Gaël Giraud, a professor “at one of France’s elite colleges”, wrote:
“If there are French dying of coronavirus, it is because three decades of budgetary austerity have reduced the capacity of our public hospital service.” Most of the article is an attack on the bête noire of practically all French intellectuals, the so-called neoliberalism, that is to say the economic policies that have been followed (with variations) by all western countries in the last few decades
Now, neoliberalism – in France! In normal times, this stuff would look too comical to be taken seriously. As Darlymple points out it is amazing that a “highly-educated and almost certainly very decent man could write such an article as the above without reference to the fact that public expenditure in France already represents 55 per cent or more of GDP”.
But these are not normal times. Even more than with the inevitable exhortations for the state to “do more”, I am alarmed at the docility with which people accept being deprived of a large chunk of their liberties. I do not want to imply that these are not exceptional times and ought to be governed with exceptional measures. But alas, these measures are often implemented without the humanity and common sense that would be needed.
Let me take some examples from Italy.
Our total lockdown implies, among other things, the following:
1. Italians cannot leave their municipality, unless they live in very small ones and thus they need to go shop for groceries in a neighboring one.
2. If you need to walk your dog, you need to stay within 200 metres from your own domicile.
3. The same applies with running and doing some physical activity, even if you are doing that in isolation.
4. Of course you need to shut your shop and/or economic activity down, unless you can do it in smart-working or you can prove that somehow fits within the supply chain of “essential activities”.
5. You cannot go to church. Priests may say mess, but in streaming.
6. The government has passed a law to make takeovers basically impossible, upon the assumption that low stock prices would call for “predators”. Even acquiring a 10% stake in a listed business (in a bunch of strategic sectors (that include financial, credit and insurance companies; infrastructures and critical technologies—such as energy, transportation, water, healthcare—food, safety, access to sensitive information including personal data, artificial intelligence, robotics, semiconductors, cybersecurity, as well as nano- and bio-technologies) will be possible only upon government permission, even if the buyer is a European one.
Concerning (6), you can see that this is basically a power grab, unrelated to the epidemiological situation of the country.
Concerning (5), it ought to be reported that when a priest organized a one-man procession, he was fined, although he was the only participant in the procession, wielding a large crucifix, but—woe to him!—no shopping bag so he could not claim to be only out of his home to go to the grocery store (which is permitted). An Italian of Muslim faith took his car to go to the closest shop selling him halal meat, but that was not within the municipality where he lives, so he was fined, too. Now, nobody (beginning with Church authorities) want to make churches vehicles of contagion filling them on Easter. But why humiliate in this way somebody who, because of his faith, needs to shop in a particular store? Why humiliate a priest who is only trying to bring comfort to the faithful?
Concerning (3), there is absolutely no medical reason to tell people not to exercise alone. I’m no doctor, but I’ve been told my entire life to spend time in the sun, so that my body could produce Vitamin D. There are clearly downsides, from a medical standpoint, for closing people in their flats, but they are breezily ignored. I understand right at the beginning the authorities wanted to scare people. Now they are scared enough. Shouldn’t policies be adjusted, if for nothing else, to avoid a number of predictable outcomes of home isolation (ranging from depression to obesity)?
In Milan, we now can get out of our flats (to go to the grocery shop) but we need to wear a mask. That is sensible, but do you think that this is matched by releasing us from other obligations? Should not you ask more responsibility out of people, and reward it with more liberty? Evidently no.
“It is seldom, that liberty of any kind is lost all at once”. Or maybe not.