Beating the COVID Statists
By Duncan Whitmore
It has been a while since I have written anything directly on the current COVID-induced nightmare, if only because we are all saturated with plenty of it from other sources, and much of what I could write has been written better elsewhere. But with the recent announcements that vaccination will be made mandatory for care home staff, and that proof of vaccination will be required to enter a nightclub and other “large gatherings” in the autumn, I thought I would try to arrest any despair this may have induced with a few words of optimism.
Of course, any such optimism is for the long term rather than for the short. It would be foolish to deny that the near future is going to be very a difficult one for a great many people, even if some semblance of liberty ends up prevailing in the end. Indeed, if I had to summarise the change in my own attitude that has taken place in the last eighteen months, it is from having previously regarded the British government as something of a nuisance to now being actively fearful of the kind of life that it will be able to impose upon us. We do not have the option of drowning ourselves in the false hope that it will all just go away. We do, though, have the tools of Austrian economics and libertarian theory to help us better understand what is going on – and it is understanding that is the first step towards overcoming fear.
One of the things that we can understand is the relative weakness of the Western mode of governance based on social democracy, paper money and welfare statism. As I have written about at length before, these socialised elements of our societies are beginning to collapse in just the same way as more explicitly socialist systems collapsed at the end of the Cold War. It has merely been a question of time. Increasing state power and control, using whatever means necessary, is the logical reaction of those desperate to ensure that the inevitable transition will preserve the existing structure of wealth and power. Such preservation has recently been threatened by the rise of populism and the rejection of globalist technocracy, hence the desperate scramble to quash all opposition. The kinds of despotism that could be in store for us – “stakeholder capitalism”, the rampant greening of the economy, state controlled digital currencies, social credit systems, complete loss of privacy – are not really a revolution as such. Rather, all of these things represent a morphing of the existing system of crony corporatism from its present, offline, haphazard model into a much more robust, digital prison. In other words, all that they are giving us is more of what we already have, which will eventually be subject to the same kinds of ideological rejection and failure that we are experiencing now. COVID itself is not the first nor will it be the last distinct episode in this saga. Although we cannot expect any imminent awakening of the people to the true reason why state power increases, we have entered a very turbulent era in which many of the paradigms that underpin the consensus for the liberal-democratic state will be questioned and probably abandoned. But once we realise the weakness of those wishing to control us then it helps us to overcome any notion that we are up against an all-powerful, omnipotent foe that is crushing us from a position of strength. Instead, we are dealing with a dying animal. Thus, we have less to fear from the possibility that it will survive and more to fear from how much it will lash out in trying to do so.
Turning now to COVID specifically, I, for one, find it encouraging that the draconian lockdowns and restrictions have been met by the active discussion of “liberty”, “freedom” and even “libertarianism” in the mainstream, with the question of state overreach being referred to in those terms. In fact, this is the first time in my adult life in which I can remember this happening significantly beyond the circles of those pre-committed to liberty.1 While the recent “Freedom Day”, which was supposed to mark the lifting of all COVID restrictions, sounds more like the cynically named anniversary of a communist revolution, it does, at least, tell us the obvious – that lockdowns, and the associated theatre of masking, distancing, quarantining etc., are all anti-freedom, and it is freedom that the government has robbed from us. This is not something that we have experienced much before when it comes to normal government operations. Very few, for instance, refer to general taxation as a curb on your liberty, or believe the NHS to be an assault on your rights, even though both the worth and the extent of these institutions are contested. But now, acquaintances of mine who have previously regarded me as something of a crackpot at least recognise that my arguments are relevant for discussion, even if they still ultimately disagree with me.
The reasons for this are not difficult to understand. In spite of the ease with which governments have managed to impose lockdowns and restrictions, it should be remembered that they were only able to do so for the relatively specific purpose of combating an apparent viral threat. In March of last year, viruses, their spread, and the diseases that they can cause were not something which many people had previously considered as political and ethical problems, and so it isn’t altogether surprising that they acquiesced to what they were being told was necessary. In contrast, had governments tried to lockdown for any other reason – climate change, terrorism, or any other well worn problem to which we are accustomed to thinking about – they would have been given short shrift.
As naïve as it was for populations around the world to have assented to lockdown measures, this factor deserves more attention from those who think that people simply rolled over at the bidding of their governments. My preference is to see March 2020 not as the death of liberty but as the beginning of a process of learning that has involved a more explicit consideration of the role of the state in managing these kinds of problem. If so, the state may have inadvertently opened a can of worms which (to mix metaphors) risks tearing down the facades of legitimacy upon which its power rests.
This process of learning has been exacerbated by a number of factors, chief among which is the remarkable pace at which the goalposts have shifted and how quickly the types of control that states are imposing on their citizens in order to supposedly combat COVID-19 have become ever more draconian. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that liberties which took centuries to win are being undone in a little over a year. Moreover, all of this has been in the face of a threat which – relatively speaking – has turned out be something of a damp squib and hardly the kind of “once-in-a-century” resurgence of the plague that we were led to expect.
The reason for this speed is, partly, because of the nature of a virus itself. Unlike terrorism, which, in principle, can strike at any time, viral epidemics have a lifespan of one to two years, and so it was always going to be the case that, if governments were going to attempt a power grab, it would have to be condensed into that relatively short time frame. Moreover, speed is a feature of a crisis situation anyway – states know that they are living on borrowed time with only a limited window of opportunity in which to manage the collapse of the existing economic order in their favour. But also, the ease of communication lent to us by digital technology has to have made a difference. In spite of censorship and the scramble to control the flow of “misinformation”, it is still the case that policies and their consequences can be disseminated and scrutinised in real time, and, thus, for any opposition to be fomented and rallied much more quickly.
But whatever the reason, the changes that are now taking place have not been slow or gradual enough for people to simply absorb them without question. Earlier warnings of compulsory vaccination and our transformation into a “papers please” society are now proving to have been prescient, yet people can still remember these being shrugged off as “conspiracy theories” a mere year ago. There is only so far that one can go in being continually dismissive before it amounts to burying your head in the sand.
This has been compounded by the fact that states – and the British government in particular – have behaved with a shameless lack of good faith in their spreading of fear, deployment of threats, breaking of promises and u-turning at every available opportunity, not to mention the fact that it seems to be one rule for us and one rule for them. This, in turn, is likely underpinned by a noticeable change in attitude that seems to have taken hold in the corridors of power: that liberty is no longer the default position into which governments would have to explicitly justify any incursion; rather, it is now a product of express, government permission which can be revoked at any time. Although, from Brexit, we are already well aware of the disdain that political elites have for much of the people whom they are supposed to serve, we appear to have unleashed an additional degree of government licentiousness that treats people as little more than cattle to be herded and controlled at will.
The present incarnation of this lack of good faith is the frenzied effort to vaccinate the entire world bar none.2 In order to persuade people to take the vaccine, states have had to sell them as a path to freedom and the lifting of restrictions. But it seems clear that they do not want to let go of the restrictions entirely, at least not without introducing “vaccine passports” or some other more permanent method to regulate the movement of people. So, not only has the reach of the vaccine programme prior to any unlocking been extended gradually from “the vulnerable” to absolutely everybody, but the effectiveness of the vaccines themselves has had to be played down with mandates for the vaccinated to socially distance, wear masks and isolate after travel remaining in place. At the same time, however, those unvaccinated still have to be “nudged” into getting their shot, and so the risk of refusing vaccination has to be simultaneously talked up in order to encourage more vaccination. As a result, the state – without blushing – is peddling a contradictory narrative in which, on the one hand, taking the vaccine accomplishes very little, while, on the other, it is the unvaccinated – now increasingly demonised as selfish refuseniks – who continue to present the greatest threat.
Although there are still people – lockdown sceptics included – making feverish attempts to rationalise these kinds of nonsensical detail, the panicked departure from clear, coherent and persuasive “public health” rationales is beginning to convince people that the state has another agenda3. Thus, in spite of everything they have gotten away with thus far, there seem to be at least two red lines over which governments are now struggling to cross without inciting fury: the vaccination of children (to whom COVID presents a negligible threat), and “vaccine passports” (which serve no convincing public health purpose). The latter, in particular, have caused waves of protest in countries in which they have been announced, notably France and Greece, and probably in the UK if the government makes good on its promise to make them compulsory. Although the direct effect of protests can be doubted, not only should we be elated by the fact that there are significant numbers of people willing to stand up against such an odious, authoritarian measure, but it is also clear that the opposition runs very deeply and is unlikely to relent at the first sign of difficulty. Thus, if states continue to press ahead with these measures, they risk not only widespread civil disobedience, but may be even a breaking of the so-called “social contract”.
A reflection of this increasing resistance is that states are starting to falter in their ability to deploy favourable terminology. One of the ways in which the state manages narratives is to bury its predations with euphemisms which, if they don’t sound innocuous, are at least incomprehensible. For instance, “extraordinary rendition”, far from describing an especially enjoyable night at the theatre, means kidnapping and delivering you to some grotty regime for the purposes of “enhanced interrogation” – itself a euphemism for what was once referred to as “torture”. “Printing money” is now “quantitative easing” – as if the Bank of England is relieving the economy of a nasty bout of constipation rather than showering its cronies with cash out of thin air. I’m still waiting for the day in which taxes might be called “British Service Charges”, although I suppose “National Insurance” has already managed to redefine a part of our tax burden into something sounding patriotically useful. Anyhow, I, for one, was worried that so-called “vaccine passports” would be eased in under a similar cloak of dishonesty such as “health certificates” or “virus visas”, possibly with an image of Boris Johnson raising his thumbs in congratulation to you for having “done your bit” by getting your shot. And yet the phrase “vaccine passports” has managed to stick, not only linking this abhorrent idea to the threat of mandatory vaccination itself but more vividly conjuring up images of a checkpoint society reminiscent of East Germany. Moreover, given that the government proposes to rule out a negative COVID test as an alternative to vaccination for access to certain venues, “vaccine passport” is now more of a literal description.
The latest ingenious label to have stuck is “pingdemic”, used to refer to the fact that significant numbers of people are self-isolating after having been instructed to do so by the NHS COVID App. Such widespread absence from work is apparently leading to disruption of supply chains and shortages of various goods in shops and supermarkets. It is remarkable how easily the word “pingdemic” sums up the obvious: that perfectly healthy people are quarantining themselves not because of any sickness but because they are being told to by a government IT system, and that the crisis is of the government’s own making. Moreover, such a disaster probably bodes well for the idea that “vaccine passports” could ever be made to work. Indeed, since the dawn of the computer age, British governments seem to have had an extraordinary string of bad luck when it comes to IT projects, particularly with those related to medical care. Only a few years ago, the NHS patient record system was written off as an expensive waste.
More work does, of course, need to be done. One especially critical matter is to stop the dishonest reporting of statistics such as the classification of positive COVID tests as medical cases – an early “accomplishment” of the state’s management of the narrative. Not only is such testing utterly irrelevant if it isn’t accompanied by the manifestation of disease in need of treatment, but this fraudulent labelling has helped to foster the notion that millions of us are walking, biological weapons poisoning everybody else with each exhalation. Moreover, when it comes to “vaccine passports”, there needs to be greater emphasis on the fact that this would create a segregationist society divided between “clean” and “unclean” – not unlike racial segregation which, incidentally, was also often justified by reference to hygiene. To this end, the phrase “medical apartheid” has been gaining some traction.
Happily, however, one God-awful phrase that is struggling to catch on is “new normal” – another state-sponsored euphemism designed to anaesthetise the extraordinary regime of lockdown and restrictions into being something natural, desirable and welcome. Instead, there seems to be a consistent recognition that all of this is not normal, and that getting back to what is really normal is still yearned for as the ultimate goal. Similarly, attempts last autumn to euphemise lockdowns as “circuit breakers” or “firewalls” failed to gain much traction – everyone seems to realise that a spade is a spade.
Finally, we have to hope that this whole saga may lead to a loss of public trust in the kinds of scientism that have been determining government policy. At the very least, there is likely to be a call for greater emphasis on actual data and historical experience rather than on modelling – the lack of accuracy of which has placed epidemiologists such as Neil Ferguson on a par with astrologers or clairvoyants rather than Einstein. This is crucial because modelling has had an equally important but also equally abysmal track record in driving the climate change narrative, with many green-aholics hoping to continue the lockdown model in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It would be good to kill that bird with the same stone.
More widely, there is a chance that the enormous economic and social cost of lockdowns will eventually put an end to the culture of safety-ism, or at least prompt a reassessment of whether material preservation should always be regarded as the highest value. Of course, a catastrophic error – such as the rush for mass vaccination turning out to be a health disaster in its own right – is likely to fuel a much wider rebellion against the role of the state and the pharmaceutical industry in responding to and managing medical problems. But hopefully it will not have to get that far for people to now start questioning what is the relevant cause of diseases that require treatment, and whether we would be better off concentrating on improving general levels of sanitation, hygiene and nutrition so as to boost immune systems rather than targeting specific germs with prophylactics or laboratory concocted medicines. Unfortunately, however, humans have a persistent habit of recoiling from errors with a reaction to the opposite extreme instead of settling for moderation. Thus, we have to ensure that any rejection of state sponsored scientism does not lead to a loss of trust in real scientific endeavours and the rational understanding of nature.
All in all, therefore, while it is difficult to get past the myopia of the state’s immediate predations, there are at least some reasons for optimism as to what they future may hold.
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1At the age of thirty-something, I am too young to remember the terms in which the ideological battles of the Cold War and “capitalism vs. socialism” were discussed; instead, my living memory is dominated by the post-1990 liberal-democracy consensus and the kind of political centrism spawned by the Blair era, all of which muted or camouflaged the growth of state power.
2Indeed, the potency of this effort leads one to question just how well the vaccine rollout is really going. It wouldn’t be surprising if actual uptake falls much shorter of reported numbers.
3Indeed, we suggested previously that states could probably persuade people to accept either mass restrictions or mass vaccination, but it would have a tough time achieving both.