11 January 2021

Welcome to illiberal democracy


Owen Jones used his first Guardian column of the year to complain about the BBC giving airtime to Karol Sikora, the oncologist and medical entrepreneur, on the topic of Covid-19. 

Jones doesn’t mind that Sikora is not a virologist or epidemiologist. He reassured readers that it is OK in a democracy to hear non-specialists on the radio and television. “What matters”, according to Jones, “is that [Sikora] dissents from the medical consensus on how the virus should be defeated.” As Chairman Mao said, “Let a hundred flowers bloom!”, provided they all look the same.

I do not mean to make yet another plea for a more tolerant attitude towards those you disagree with. That’s important. But it’s also getting boring, and I have nothing to add to the standard points in favour of it. Instead, I want to offer a hypothesis about why so many people now share Owen Jones’s desire not only to correct what they take to be errors, but to stop those errors being heard. 

I blame democracy. This may sound like an odd thing to say. After all, many think liberalism and democracy go together naturally. But they don’t. “Liberal democracy” involves no redundancy. On the contrary, democracy is inherently inclined towards illiberalism.

To see why, start not with what people say but with what they eat. Normally, I wouldn’t give a damn what other people eat. It’s your body – do to it what you will. But the NHS, which is funded through taxation rather than private insurance, gives me a reason to care. If you eat yourself into ill-health, I pick up the tab as a taxpayer. “The cost to the NHS” – that is, to taxpayers – is the standard justification for illiberal interventions in what people eat, such as the sugar tax.

If the cost of feeding poor children were removed from their parents and shifted to taxpayers, as many besides Marcus Rashford call for, then taxpayers would have a financial interest in who has children. The logic that justifies governmental interventions in what we eat would apply to who reproduces. I don’t give a damn who has how many children, unless I am forced to pay for them.

In these cases, illiberal impulses arise from the collectivisation of costs. Democracy creates an impulse to censor opinions for the same reason. Consider Remainers: most believe Brexit will harm them. Brexit came about because a slight majority of Brits voted for it, encouraged at least a little by things they heard people saying about its benefits. Many Remainers believe, therefore, that they were harmed by these claims. If only voters had not heard them, the harm might have been avoided.

The point has nothing especially to do with Brexit. Where decisions are made collectively and applied to everyone, we are all liable to end up regretting the opinions of others. Voters might choose a government that imposes high taxes on the rich. Many among the rich would then regret the ideas that led to this outcome. They might wish that voters had never heard them. Or voters might choose a government that removes tariffs on agricultural imports, and farmers might wish that the voices supporting this policy had been silenced. 

Where decisions are made democratically – that is, where decision-making is collectivised – people have an interest in “controlling the narrative”. That’s why many Brits are so concerned by what their compatriots hear but wholly uninterested in what goes into the minds of Papua New Guinea tribesmen or Iraqi Shepherds. We don’t care what they think or hear because their thoughts don’t affect us; they have no say in what happens to us. 

Similarly, we don’t care what our compatriots think when decisions are not collectivised. People have all sorts of crazy religious ideas about the history of the cosmos and how we should live. But I don’t care because religion has long been a matter of individual choice, and nothing they think affects me. Same with fashion. Many people dress appallingly. That doesn’t matter to me because their choices don’t force me to follow suit. But if there were a national wardrobe set by a government elected by the people, I would desperately want to control the narrative about fashion.

The more decisions are made by the elected government, the more reason we have to worry about the opinions of our fellow voters and the more reason to try and control the narrative. Or, to put it the other way around, the more reason we have to be intolerant of those who express opinions we dislike. 

Owen Jones wants to extend the scope of collective decision making. And he wants the state broadcaster to exercise tighter control over which opinions are heard. This is an unsurprising combination. But it is not unique to the political left. The kind of right-wing democratic collectivism towards which our Conservative government seems to be moving gives just as much reason to fear opinions that would harm you if adopted by the collective. And just as much reason, therefore, to be intolerant of them.

Welcome to illiberal democracy.

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Jamie Whyte is a writer who is a former leader of ACT New Zealand, a free market political party.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.