7 April 2020

We’ll all be libertarians by the end of this crisis

By John Macdonald

The last few weeks has seen a great deal of ideological navel-gazing; from the end of globalism to the cancellation of capitalism, pundits are convinced this time is different, everything has changed, and once the dust settles they’ll have been proven right all along. The strawman of their enemy, often called ‘neoliberalism’, finally reduced to nothing by the corona crisis.

First among these pundits is ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, ever humble in defeat, claiming that the response to this crisis proves his policy prescriptions were right all along, that now we have swallowed the pill of socialism and realised it’s not so bitter after all. There is chatter among leftists that coronavirus will present them a much sought ‘Overton Window’ through which they can make ideas such as Universal Basic Income and permanent renationalisation into reality. As ever, the folly of socialists is that they believe we are always in a state of emergency, failing to realise that accepting the radical measures necessary to defeat this virus requires only a temporary sacrifice of personal freedom and fiscal prudence.

Given the Conservatives are more popular in the polls than they’ve ever been while in government and the Labour Party remains nowhere to be seen, a socialist resurgence seems rather unlikely. But they are not the only ones to see the response to COVID-19 as a window of opportunity.

Nanny-state nudge theory fetishists believe that we won’t possibly be concerned about trivial matters like a sugar tax now we’ve accepted such deep incursions into our personal freedoms, and interventionists are touting this as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tip the balance of power from individuals and the private sector to the government. The left in particular appears confounded by this. State capitalism was supposed to be a panacea for our socio-economic ills — how can this be the case if the Tories are the ones orchestrating it?

Where we have reoriented away from traditional left/right divides, we are now faced with a new dilemma: what can the state be used for, and what should it be used for?

Some point to the inversion of the relationship between the government and rail operators as a harbinger of things to come, suggesting the Government become actively engaged in creating and shaping markets as a means of steering innovation towards the public good and away from profit.

As for individuals, there are fast emerging two competing hypotheses: some have decried the alleged readiness at which the British public has accepted safety in lockdown over our personal freedoms. They point to overzealous police enforcing arbitrary rules about what groceries can be bought, and dictating whether or not you can sit on a bench without breaching the new regulations. Others suggest that we are in fact a nation of selfish individualists, who threaten public safety (or “traitors”, as Piers Morgan calls them) by leaving their small city flats to sit a few metres apart in the local park.

Polling would suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between. The Government may have surged to an approval rating of 65% on the back of their response to the crisis, but they have since dropped back to 52%. Trust in Health Secretary Matt Hancock has also dropped from 33% to 22%. It is clear that the British public has increasing reservations about the Government’s lack of a clear lockdown exit strategy. They are sceptical about both the ethics and the enforcement of further restrictions on public parks and exercise. This is likely only to increase as greater social fatigue sets in, and will be exacerbated should councils begin closing green spaces en masse.

The crisis, far from nurturing statist solutions, has thrown their shortcomings into stark relief. This could not be clearer than in the dangerously cumbersome ‘command and control’ approach taken by the NHS and PHE to diagnostic testing, in which they have effectively side-lined cooperative and capable labs by needlessly insisting on centralised testing. Britain is now 26th out of the 34 OECD countries by percentage of population tested. By not embracing the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ of using all available resources, big, small, public and private, the Government and PHE has puts lives at risk, keeps us in lockdown and precipitates economic disaster. Meanwhile, diagnostic tests have surged in the US where the CDC quickly reversed its decision to centralise.

Private enterprise will not only be central in getting us out of lockdown, but also in returning to a state of normality post-crisis. The speed at which supermarket supply chains have rebounded is evidence of this already.

The Treasury estimates a possible 10% reduction in GDP this year, potentially 15% should the lockdown last longer than initially intended. Government expenditure is at its highest peacetime level while the economy is in suspended animation. People understand that it is only through enterprise that we will realise the jobs, growth and futures that have been put on hold due to the crisis. The Government has two choices. It could saddle the private sector with taxes as it gets back off the ground, stifling recovery and leaving the future uncertain. Or it could support a radical wealth-creating agenda, extending reliefs and scrapping regulation to reignite the economy.

It is worth noting that before the corona-crisis had reached our shores, the UK had just taken a momentous decision to endorse ‘Get[ting] Brexit Done’. As much as Brexit is ostensibly about diverging from the political, regulatory and monetary imbroglio of the European Union, some also see it as an opportunity to reclaim the nation’s entrepreneurial soul. The stakes for delivering this vision have moved beyond political legacy and into national necessity.

Far from embracing a police state, people want to get back to normal life as quickly as possible. They expect the Government to do whatever it can to lead us out of this surreal situation, and it needs the private sector to do so. Without believing in the capacity for individuals to act responsibly or for the market – even in this constrained form –  to solve problems, the Government runs the risk of unnecessarily undermining our freedoms, burdening the NHS and inviting a severe post-crisis recession.

Whatever many Conservatives’ liberal-leaning instincts, the party has found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to vastly expand the state, in an almost inconceivable amount of debt, and already facing pressure to raise wealth and business taxes come autumn. When we have returned to some kind of normality, the Government will have to judge whether voters want to embolden the state still further, or whether this experience has left them pining to for more freedom.

Covid-19 is neither a vindication nor an obituary for libertarianism. Nor is it purely a theoretical discussion for lovers of political thought. Personal liberty and the role of private enterprise are now issues that profoundly affect our daily lives in the most tangible of ways. The coming era will be defined by the battle between those for whom the crisis proves how essential a strong state is, and those who believe that it has only made the case for greater liberty and enterprise more urgent.

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John Macdonald is Head of Government Affairs at the Adam Smith Institute.

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