The challenge COVID-19 has posed to liberalism

The week following that announcement saw the Ruby Princess cruise ship debacle, where thousands of people were allowed to disembark and disperse into the general community despite likely exposure to COVID.

It also saw the introduction of the first significant COVID restrictions, announced following the first meeting of the national cabinet, as the pandemic began in Australia in earnest. It is hard to understate just how much things have changed since that time. In particular, our relationship with government – and our understanding of the scope of its power – are radically different.

First, although Australia was relatively slow in responding initially, the response ramped up enormously quickly. In less than two weeks from the declaration of the pandemic, by March 23 and 24, huge swathes of the economy had been forcibly shuttered by the government.

And toilet paper had become a precious commodity. By March 29, you needed to have a valid excuse to leave your home. By early April, the police were issuing four-figure fines for those not complying, including a learner driver taking a lesson with her mother and a cyclist travelling alone to a mountain bike trail.

There was also a suggestion from the Victorian Premier that couples who lived apart should refrain from seeing each other until the lockdown ended (at that point expected to be at least six months away). But the focus on these relatively trivial or absurd examples meant the biggest point got missed.

Whole industries, many with minor COVID risks, were shut down. As the insightful Dr Christos Ballas once wrote “you’re being permitted to debate the consequences because you’ve unknowingly accepted the form of the argument.”

We accepted not just that government had extraordinary powers to effectively suspend daily life, but that the strict exercise of that power was actually the duty of government. Discretion could only be accepted where the consequences of the exercise of that power were embarrassing for those in power.

Those rules were not just enforced by the police, of course. Significant social pressure was applied to those perceived to be doing the wrong thing. “We’re all in this together” they would cry – but not in solidarity. You’re in all of this whether you want to be or not, and heaven help you if you didn’t “do the right thing”.

General lockdown orders, which were initially deployed when there were real fears of tens of thousands of cases overwhelming the health system, were subsequently issued for a handful of cases, and then just single cases.

The success of these measures from a health perspective cannot be denied. And yet, as a classical liberal it is hard to admit just how readily we accepted the premise that the government had the right to decide what was and wasn’t a legitimate purpose for leaving one’s home.

Not someone who was in quarantine, or under house arrest, but everyone. Even if they were doing something that bore little or no risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus. Even if there was no medical rationale for the restrictions in the first place, which was clearly the case with Melbourne’s night-time curfew.

The concession that police now have a right to stop you and force you to prove you aren’t breaking the law is a significant step towards tyranny, though there is little evidence the public understands the gravity of it.

Of course, supposed pragmatists will scoff at such language. After all, as the argument goes: if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.

History, old and new, is littered with examples of exactly what you have to fear despite innocence. You’d think by 2021 we’d know better than this. But apparently not. Of course this was not the only way the pandemic trampled over civil liberties and rights once thought sacrosanct.

The closure of the borders was a step so extraordinary that it threatens the unity of the Australian federation. People may once have thought of themselves as Australians first, and residents of their state second, but it is now clear that it’s the other way around.

And for those dismissive pragmatists mentioned above, we are already seeing a desire to extend these supposedly extraordinary emergency powers to close the border to more ordinary problems like drug smuggling.

These decisions may have been to Queensland and Western Australia’s benefit during the pandemic, but they had better hope this attitude doesn’t extend to fiscal transfers – from New South Wales in particular. Yet, as much as it pains me to admit it as an economist, this is far more serious than just money.

Who would have thought a state government could prevent a grieving daughter from seeing her dying father or attending his funeral? But this too perhaps lets the Queensland government off the hook, because even if they could do it how would anyone imagine that they should do so?

It is this that outlines perhaps the largest challenge to a liberal view of the world. It is one thing to accept that government has the responsibility to set state or national priorities, and that this may mean restrictions on what individuals can and can’t do.

It is quite another to accept that government can override all individual priorities, at the most fundamental level like farewelling your loved ones, simply because of a general crisis.

To put it another way: there are things important enough to people that they are willing to risk getting COVID for, and absent significant risks to others, government doesn’t just get to decide there aren’t. This is now the challenge to liberalism in the 21st century.

We’ve also seen first-hand how fear can undermine and challenge society’s commitment to its liberal ideals. The biggest question for the next 12 months is how we respond to that challenge.