by Jon Bigger
Today [July 19th] has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’ by the Prime Minister. Despite being urged to focus his pandemic response on data rather than dates, he set the 19th of July as the date by which the UK would remove most Covid restrictions – regardless of what the virus does. People are being instructed that they must use their common sense regarding mask-wearing, and the vulnerable have been told to avoid contact with people who have not been double vaccinated.
In March last year I wrote an article published by Freedom newspaper about my frustrations at Boris Johnson being described as a ‘libertarian’. The use of this word to describe politicians on the right irks me but I am also realistic enough to know that there isn’t much that can stop it. However, as a real libertarian, I’ve been thinking about what Freedom Day means and how it could mean something else.
What it means to Johnson is clear. It’s the economy. It’s the freedom to get out there and take risks in order to maximise profits. I’ve noticed a real change in the government’s tone since Matt Hancock was replaced with Sajid Javid as health secretary. Javid was asked in 2015 to pick his favourite film. He chose The Fountainhead, a 1949 adaptation of the Ayn Rand book of the same name. Rand is his favourite ‘philosopher’. He cited a quote, which he claimed to read several times a year, in which the protagonist states that ‘the “common good” of a collective – a race, a class, a state – was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men’. We can assume that he is deeply sceptical about the idea of lockdown instigated for the common good. We can assume that he considers individual freedom as the only way to avoid tyranny.
Rand took the view that conservatives should consider that capitalism is just, in and of itself, and should be promoted as a moral issue. I think of Rand each time I read a headline about backbench Conservative MPs urging the Prime Minister to open up the economy. They are literally doing what she has instructed them. Upon becoming health secretary, Javid was adamant that the focus of the Department for Health and Social Care would be on how we can all learn to live with the virus. Most of us have been doing just that, of course. Javid himself, it emerged over the weekend, has been living riskily enough to catch Covid and now, ironically, has to self-isolate on Freedom Day. Adding to the irony, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, and Johnson himself are also in self-isolation after coming into contact with the health secretary (abruptly abandoning their attempt to dodge self-isolation by claiming to be participating in a pilot testing scheme).
Indeed, risk is the key issue for these so-called ‘libertarians’. It stems from their own belief that capitalism is just and that those willing to take risks with their investments drive the economy (and, by extension, society) forward. However, when these people are in power and insist that Covid restrictions end, they enforce risk upon us all. Is that not a tyranny? It is the ultimate deployment of Rand’s promotion of capitalism as a moral issue – we are forced to play life by their rules, and it is simply irrelevant to them if we suffer when their risks aren’t mitigated.
Cases of Covid-19 are now rising rapidly in the UK (even before the lifting of restrictions on ‘Freedom Day’), with some predictions that the National Health Service (NHS) may become overwhelmed – this is the big risk Johnson hopes will not materialise. It is a risk related to an increase in Covid deaths. The government is hoping that deaths do not rise too much. ‘Too much’ is an odd phrase. In January we were subjected to an entirely predictable 1,000 deaths a day in the UK, now we have become used to between 30 and 70 deaths per day. What is ‘too much’? And does Johnson’s risk-taking include calculations on how many deaths the public will realistically accept? The fact that these questions need to be asked shows how much the idea of risk has become intertwined with public policy.
Real libertarians would instead be focused on how freedom cannot be combined with a pure individualism. Individual freedom that harms others is no freedom at all. Real libertarians can point to an entirely different scenario and way of doing things. We believe that freedom comes, not through the market, but through collective decision-making. We are free when we decide together how we can all go about our lives. Such arrangements would be voluntary and based on mutual aid. Let’s ask ourselves – what would a community running to real libertarian principles make of an Ayn Rand-supporting ideologue insisting on getting rid of social distancing rules and telling people that everyone needs to act according to their own common sense? I’m not sure any of us would accept the risk. I suspect that they would be pushed out of such a community to go and exercise their freedom elsewhere. Javid and Johnson would be so much of a risk to any collectively run community that they would need to either live alone away from the collective, or else forge their own community of similar sociopaths. (Note that they would still be free. Note too that the community would be safe from them.)
Our freedom would be based on mutual safety. We would work to ensure that any death would be seen as ‘too much’. It would be a mark of failure and an opportunity to consider how we could do things differently. Zero Covid deaths is obviously unachievable, but the sentiment is important. We would be left with no choice but to only embrace those who observed the collective decisions made by the community. Those who couldn’t observe the decisions made by the community would be free to move on. I have no doubt that such decision-making, based on science, would save lives and ensure the pandemic was kept under control.
Instead, we have people that we would exile from our communities making decisions on our behalf. Many of us also have bosses expecting us to be at work, and they will be looking to this government of risk takers for advice. The tyranny of capitalism will risk many more lives because of those in power. They are forcing us to live the kind of lives they believe necessary, for an economic system they place among the gods. It couldn’t be more dangerous, it couldn’t be more risky, and it couldn’t be less libertarian.