COVID-19 and the Liberal Dilemma
State action to combat COVID-19, as in the case of foreign aggression, fits within the right (and duty) of the State to use violence to ensure the protection of people's lives
Spanish – By Juan Ángel Soto
I pointed out in my last article that the COVID-19 may be stirring up nationalist sentiments all over the world. However, understood as a political doctrine that claims the right of a nationality to assert its own personality through political self-determination, nationalism may merely be a by-product of the current crisis, and limited to certain countries and contexts. On the other hand, we can certainly say that what is reasserting itself is statism. I am talking about the current political situation.
As I also pointed out, this happens for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is because the international (and European) architecture in which many had placed their hopes is once again breaking down when confronted with an adverse situation, highlighting its fragility, inefficiency, or pure and simple ineffectiveness. On the other hand, it is because of the effectiveness of each country’s response in terms of adopting ad hoc measures aimed at confronting and defeating the pandemic.
This resurgence of the nation-state has been greeted spectacularly by a very large majority of the population, regardless of their political persuasion or ideological bias. Broadly speaking, the embrace of interventionist measures to close borders, etc., by the left has been seen as very normal, and so have the measures by the right, as it is written in their DNA. However, the support of well-known liberal thinkers and politicians has been harshly criticized. Some want to condemn the incongruence of the classical liberal argument, which usually advocates relegating the state to minimal levels and, instead, when circumstances are urgent, calls for state aid. However, I say “want to,” given that the only thing they have shown so far is their ignorance of what they wanted to condemn.
The fact is that we can draw some conclusions from classical liberal thinking (not from the ideas of other liberal tribes) to deal with a pandemic like the one that is devastating us. It does not seem evident, perhaps, and that speaks to the problem of focusing almost always on economic freedom, leaving aside many other aspects of this very rich theoretical-political legacy. Thus, from the classical liberal perspective, the state must exist, mainly, (some will say exclusively), to defend the life, freedom, and private property of its citizens, in that strict order.
Thus, state action to combat COVID-19, as in the case of foreign aggression, fits within the right (and duty) of the State to use violence to ensure the protection of people’s lives.
Because if it is not even capable of this, what good is the state? This does not mean, however, that it is not advisable to go deeper into the specific issue of managing a crisis, such as the current one from a liberal perspective- both in theory and public policy. A priori, it does not seem that the invading virus is activating an anti-liberal state response per se. Democracy or dictatorship? There are superlative differences. There is no doubt. But at the end of the day, the state is the state.
However, there is cause for concern insofar as such actions harm (de facto or in their legitimacy) the liberal democracies of which we are so proud. Not surprisingly, the draconian measures implemented in many countries are not far from those adopted by the always reviled China. What is more, they are sometimes identical. Perhaps the best example is found in the confinement to which many countries have called (or forced by law) their citizens. This is not only individual confinement, but also national confinement since it has been complemented by widespread border closures to prevent the movement of people and goods. Not to mention the famous European solidarity, which also seems to be in quarantine. And the latter, which bears witness to the anarchic international response to which I referred at the outset, denotes that, if anything is in crisis, it is a liberal order that was not so much global as a globalist, controlled by an elitist minority that is now taking refuge in their respective countries, calling for help. In that sense, the coronavirus may constitute the endpoint of the international liberal order as we know it. A structure which, as the famous Scottish historian Niall Ferguson points out, is not, and has never been, either disciplined or liberal or international. Or at least, not fully. Will it be the one that emerges from this crisis?
Juan Ángel Soto is the director of the Fundación Civismo.