A word of clarification: I don’t believe that Coronavirus is some sort of One World Government plot to take over the planet by stealth and institute a permanent dictatorship. Nor do I believe that our democratically elected governments will decide, once the virus is contained, to go full fascist – or communist – because they have enjoyed all their new found power too much to let it go. I do believe, however, that extraordinary periods of crisis and upheaval, like the one we are going through at the moment, are dangerous not simply on the account of their underlying reality (war, depression, pandemic, etc.) but also because the psychological impact they have: the rulers (and the people who think they are rulers, like the bureaucrats) do indeed acquire even more taste for ruling over everyone and everything and the ruled get used to surrendering their liberty and living as serfs rather than free people. The former learn how intoxicating the power without usual restraint really is, the latter realise how easy it is to adjust themselves to a different reality.
A long long time ago, in a blog far far away, I wrote about what I called the Post Totalitarian Stress Disorder, or how living under a totalitarian system corrupts everyone’s soul and why this in turn means that transitioning to a liberal democracy and free market is almost invariably a long and fraught process of mental transformation by the population and not merely a matter of instituting free elections and constructing new institutions. Yahweh knew that well; the reason why the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for forty years was not because they were lost on the journey to the nearby Promised Land but so that the old generation, brought up under the Egyptian bondage and mind slave to its habits, would die off and only those born free would conquer and make their kingdom. We have been rediscovering these lessons for the past few decades, from the post-colonial Third World, through the post-communist Europe, to the post-war Afghanistan and Iraq.
While all these are extreme examples, where the respective populations have learned to survive in unfreedom for decades or longer, I strongly believe that even much shorter stints under unusual conditions can leave a lasting mark on the collective and individual psyche – see the world wars or the Great Depression. Let us hope that the current pandemic crisis ends sooner rather than later, before it splinters societies and destroys economies on a scale we have not seen in a long time.
Here are the five ways in which the current pandemic and the governmental responses to it are already conditioning us to be more accepting of the big state and the loss of freedoms:
1. Restrictions on individuals – our behaviour is being micromanaged and microregulated. Freedom of movement and action are the most circumscribed as we are told to generally stay at home and for our outings to be an exception rather than a rule. We are told where we can and cannot go, what we can and cannot do and who we can and cannot see, with the authorities making constant (and often inconsistent) judgments about what is essential and reasonable for us in our situation (examples are myriads, including a couple fined for sitting together in a car parked on a suburban street with no reasonable excuse not to be at home). Needless to say, this is all justified for our good and that of the community, and no doubt most can be so justified according to one of many different epidemiological approaches practiced in various jurisdictions around the world. Once you make the psychological shift from the presumption that people can do what they want unless it’s illegal to one where people need to justify themselves over each and every action there are many other public policy reasons apart from public health to actively restrain and circumscribe people’s actions.
2. Restrictions on businesses – government increasingly decides what businesses can operate and the circumstances under which they can operate. Again, there is a distinction between essential and non-essential good and services and again it is quite often fluid and uncertain. Carrying on business now carries and extra element of risk.
3. The state as the provider – when the market operates under more or less normal conditions, the expectation is that most people will derive their livelihood from the private sector and the government assists only at the edges and as a last resort for businesses and individuals in need. Conditions of crisis, where the workings of the economy are both objectively affected by the crisis and – much more importantly – by the official response to the crisis (shutting down businesses, restricting people’s choices, restricting movement of goods) strongly shift the onus and the expectation onto the authorities to ensure corporate and individual survival, either through subsidies or income support. We become the wards of the state. As the old saying goes, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
4. The culture of snitching – all societies rely on the community helping the authorities by reporting unlawful behaviour, but when the range and the scope of what constitutes unlawful expands exponentially it gives scope for the busy-bodies of all kinds to channel their righteousness, envy and petty-mindedness into official processes with real and damaging consequences for their targets. Reporting the quarantine breakers, the not so self-isolators and the insufficient social distancers has become a passion for an increasing numbers of people. In New Zealand, the police website set up to receive tips from the public initially crashed under the wave of people trying to report on their neighbours and strangers misbehaving in the lock-down. But it’s not an exclusively Antipodean phenomenon.
5. Atomising the society – big government, whether it’s democratic or authoritarian or totalitarian, aims to displace or downgrade any institutions that stand and mediate between an individual and the state, whether it’s the private sector, the civil society or the family because it can’t tolerate any competition for the population’s loyalty or their spiritual and material dependence. Individual who is isolated from others and mistrustful of others stands naked before the authority and has no choice but to surrender to it and its demands.
All or most of the strategies above might be useful in fighting a pandemic, at least under some circumstances and after a genuine consideration of costs and benefits. But whether effective or ineffective at their main task, they all produce a dangerous side-effect of normalising the not-normal and conditioning us to think differently and react differently than we usually do in life. The crisis not only objectively changes the relationship between the states and its citizens and institutions but it also affects the psychological understanding by the people of their place in the hierarchies and webs of life. The longer the current state of emergency continues the more ingrained our new mental and physical habits will become. Statism is a virus too. Once acquired it makes us more vulnerable to future infections.