Saturday, November 21, 2020

Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis of democracy

A Crisis of Democracy

by George J. Dance

It is no exaggeration to call the coronavirus pandemic a crisis. While the virus itself has turned out to be less dangerous than Covid Cultists believe – not one country has experienced the "millions of deaths" they have been prophesying since March – governments' responses to it throughout the democratic world have spawned numerous other crises, from mass unemployment to civil unrest, that have been progressively tearing away at the social fabric. The very idea of a democratic state, as a viable form of government, is being called into serious question. 

"Democracy" (rule by all the people) has always been not one concept, but a bundle of coexisting ones. Two of those concepts of democracy have always been in conflict. The coronavirus crisis has exposed those hidden conflicts as never before.   

One vision of democracy, which we can call liberal or libertarian democracy, was summed up by economist (and armchair sociologist) Ludwig von Mises this way:

For the sake of domestic peace liberalism aims at democratic government. Democracy is therefore not a revolutionary institution. On the contrary; it is the very means of preventing revolutions and civil wars. It provides a method for the peaceful adjustment of government to the will of the majority. When the men in office and their policies no longer please the majority of the nation, they will – in the next election – be eliminated and replaced by other men espousing different policies. 

Democracy, in other words, served a libertarian end: as a means of eliminating force from politics, it was a major step toward the libertarian ideal of eliminating force from social relations. So it was good in itself. As well, as many libertarian ideas do, it brought other significant benefits. 

One benefit was to instantiate what sociologist Vilfredo Pareto called the "circulation of elites". Every human society of record has been divided into an elite, which lives the good life and calls the shots, and the riffraff underneath; perhaps, given how humans live in groups, that division is a necessary part of society. In precapitalist societies, that division was fixed: if you were born a lord you could expect to be a lord all your life; if you were born a peasant, you could expect to always be a peasant. The rise of capitalism, though, abolished that fixed order, making it possible for individuals to move into and out of the elite; the lowest floor sweeper in a factory could theoretically become the factory owner, and vice versa. Democracy extended the 'circulation' principle into government: in America any native-born child could grow up to be President. 

As a further benefit of adopting the 'circulation' principle, members of the governing elite now had to consider the point of view of the non-elite as well. A Prime Minister might be able to pile high taxes on the private citizens; but now he had to face the real possibility of becoming a private citizen and having to pay those taxes himself. That brought about a common interest, on the part of governors and citizens alike, in limiting what government could do to its citizens. Thus democracy led to the idea of limiting government power constitutionally, through formal checks and balances that restricted how governments could make law – the Rule of Law not men – and through bills of human rights, which limited what governments were allowed to make laws about. 

To libertarians, then, democracy was seen as a good because it was a means to achieving good ends. However, there were other democratic thinkers, to whom "pleas[ing] the majority of the nation" was not a means to an end, but the very end itself. In their view, a democratic government was the expression and will of the people – achieving the will of the people was the supreme political good –and therefore whatever a democratic government did (unless, of course, it were taken over by bad people) was always good. It followed that restrictions on government like bills of rights were bad things, encumbrances that prevented governments from doing as much good as possible.  

This second view can be called the totalitarian view of democracy. The word 'totalitarian' is no stretch; at the limit, it implies that government may do whatever it wants to any individual it wants, so long as a majority wants it to; in short, it contradicts the very idea of human rights. Novelist (and armchair philosopher) Ayn Rand called it:

a social system in which one’s work, one’s property, one’s mind, and one’s life are at the mercy of any gang that may muster the vote of a majority at any moment for any purpose.... 

If we discard morality and substitute for it the Collectivist doctrine of unlimited majority rule [Rand also wrote], if we accept the idea that a majority may do anything it pleases, and that anything done by a majority is right because it’s done by a majority (this being the only standard of right and wrong) – how are men to apply this in practice to their actual lives? Who is the majority? In relation to each particular man, all other men are potential members of that majority which may destroy him at its pleasure at any moment. Then each man and all men become enemies; each has to fear and suspect all; each must try to rob and murder first, before he is robbed and murdered.

Those two visions of democracy have always co-existed in precarious balance in democratic states; but the Covid pandemic has utterly destroyed that balance. 

Democratic governments' interventions in the pandemic have been paradigm examples of totalitarian democracy. Contrary to what some may believe, lockdowns (and their component  measures) are enormously popular. The Covid Cult that swept the world convinced millions that they were going to die of this new plague, and that only governments could save them. Since then, massive majorities throughout the world have been demanding that their governments save them, rewarding those who acted quickly to close down society, and punishing those who held back. It is wrong for libertarians to call the result 'tyranny,' for it is the very opposite: it is the government carrying out the popular will.

Meanwhile, the rights of the people are being trampled. People have seen their livelihoods taken away. They are routinely arrested, and even roughed up, by the police, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They are being arrested for their social media posts. They are being shot for breaking curfew. Life under lockdown is becoming a human rights nightmare. 

Even the Rule of Law has vanished; for this Covid totalitarianism has been happening, for the most part without any opposition, as if the constitution and the normal laws do not exist. Those have not been amended but are simply ignored, with the executive branch of government dictating whatever it wants done by executive order. Opposition parties, with their eyes on the same polls the government is reading, simply play along. A few courts have stood up for the Rule of Law by striking down some government actions; but those too have been demonized by the Covid Cult as "endanger[ing] thousands of lives," and in some cases their decisions have been ignored and the laws they struck down have still been enforced.  

In short, totalitarian democracy has become the official program of most democratic nations, while libertarian democracy has been discarded. This is an example of 'spontaneous order': No one planned for their country to become totalitarian; democratic governments have simply stumbled into totalitarianism, or been pushed into it by their citizens.

The silver lining to that cloud is that, while democratic majorities still support Covid totalitarianism, they have never approved of totalitarian democracy. As they gain experience of life in a totalitarian state, they cannot be counted on to support its continuance. Its tenets are being challenged by a growing number of scientists, philosophers, thinkers and even politicians. Official protests against Covid totalitarianism, though small and sporadic, are each week growing in number; while noncompliance (euphemistically referred to by governments as 'pandemic fatigue') is soaring, as the soaring case rates of Covid in America and Europe make clear. The liberal or libertarian ideal of people running their own lives, including assessing their own risks, may be down but it is certainly not out.  

I believe that in a straightforward conflict between totalitarian democracy versus liberal or libertarian democracy, the latter would win. However, that can and will happen only if enough people understand the nature of the underlying conflict.  

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