Has COVID shown us the dangers of freedom?
Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility — Eleanor Roosevelt
At a time of much uncertainty, it is human nature for us all to seek answers — normally from accountable individuals, organisations or in this case government and supranational administrations. Across the world, we have seen the trickle-down impact of the enforced closure of public events, spaces, and limitation of free physical movement — so much so that The Economists’ latest issue has reflected the world as a business with a closed doors sign.
Despite the dangers of COVID-19 across the UK, we have bared witness to large groups of members of the public ignoring the advice provided to protect the safety of the masses— thus, resulting in the UK set adopting Spain and many other nations’ ‘fine style’ which is set to be put through Parliament this week. This leads to the question of why is it that despite the visible effects that COVID-19 has bestowed on local and global communities, have people still ventured outside of their homes for frivolous activities? Yes, we are social creatures and perhaps the answer is as simple as selfish needs — but when taking into account we are part of a bigger system, I believe this to be a lazy conclusion to a few bigger questions around political, economic and societal structures. Democracy in itself breeds culture — so what have we bred through Neoliberal freedom?
Monsieur Constant et Tocqueville
As a concept, Neo-Liberalism proposes that “…human well-being can be best advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by private property rights, free markets and free trade.” (Harvey, 2005) but looking into its origins is of the utmost importance to ensure we understand how this and in turn we came to live. At this stage, it is necessary to introduce two cast members, Benjamin Constant and Alexis de Tocqueville — two of the thought-leaders on liberalism and democracy in 19th century France.
Tocqueville envisioned democracy to be the future of the world but had also observed that his home, France, wasn’t quite ready for this level of freedom and individualism yet. Two marquee French revolutions, one in 1830 and the other in 1848, followed by Napoleon proved that the masses were easy prey for demagogues. In George Orwell’s novel ‘Animal Farm,’ Napoleon embodies The Pig with the principle of ‘all animals are equal but some more equal than others’. With a grant from the French government, Tocqueville ventured to America to see what democracy would look like — which he detailed out in his book ‘Democracy in America (1835)’. Part of his findings was democracy turns us away from authority. He had observed that the Americans had a strong reluctance to submit to individuals better placed to help a matter, e.g doctors, lawyers — in retrospect it seems that neoliberalism would be the immediate offspring to democracy and liberalism.
Constant travelled around France instructing French citizens about the principles of their constitution, rights and duties. In his article ‘The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns (1819)’ he wrote that individual liberty is the true modern liberty. “The danger of ancient liberty was that men, exclusively concerned with securing their share of social power, might attach too little value to individual rights and enjoyments. The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily.” (Constant, 1819) Whilst Constant is attacking this from a political level, there is an undertone of how we choose to bask in our individual rights which remains at the forefront of each action committed today.
What is evident here is that both Constant and Tocqueville understood that the trajectory of man would be freedom and individuality as a human right — with the state implementing and preserving frameworks over practice rather than dictating. However, both men also believed that the survival of liberal democracy required moral guidance, to avoid society morphing into an ‘each to their own’ form. So, how do we civically exercise our individual freedoms when part of a bigger system? The debate of public morality and public virtue (me and you) is becoming an increasingly poignant one as it pertains to containing the transmission of Corona (Rosenblatt, 2018). Is it actually still correct for us to observe the blatant disregard of advice as disobedience? Or, is it now and has it been our individual right to choose?
A matter of trust: Denmark vs. Sweden
What has been interesting for most governments is striking a balance between a staged or full-scale immediate shut down, much of which could be credited to two factors: 1) Risk of Corona Virus contagion, and 2) Impact of measures applied. However, there could be another potentially sub-conscious factor at play here — differing social systems and public acceptance.
Denmark and Sweden present themselves as an interesting case study of two contrasting strategies to COVID-19, mainly because despite the global tendency to conflate Nordic countries; the two show varied reactions based on differing social systems. In the case of Denmark, the country was one of the first in Europe to close its borders, shopping malls, cafes, night clubs and events with 10 or more people until March 30. Whereas Sweden opted against these draconian measures and have kept their country open for business as usual with schools, public spaces and our oh-so precious pubs remaining open. Folkhalsomyndigheten, Sweden’s Public Health Agency, made their sentiments clear that this approach to social distancing coupled with public advice being followed will slow infection spreads.
So why isn’t Sweden as closed off as the rest of the world? Firstly, Swedish public agencies, like Folkhalsomyndigheten are largely independent from ministerial rule. While the Swedish government sets the remit for public agencies’ objectives and budgets, the agencies are free to operate without political intervention (Rothschild, 2020). Therefore, rationale has the opportunity to circumvent political will and arguments such as Sweden has a population density of 25 per square kilometre, whereas Denmark has a population of 137 per square kilometre has been used to justify why they should proceed with independent measures (Local DK, 2020). Despite their similarities in language, history and culture there is a stark difference between the Swedish and Danish social systems; which ultimately means differences in the way the majority of the population react to said policies.
This is all made logical to Swedes because at the core of their constitutional set up and wide public acceptance, is trust. In fact, Sweden seems to enjoy a sense of Neo-Liberalism whilst being an outlying high-trust society — which may stem from their social democracy. Lars Trägårdh, a Swedish Historian who has written several books, one of which titled ‘The Swedish Contract’ noted ‘…the authorities on their part trust citizens to heed their advice… there is a high level of interpersonal trust where Swedes trust one other to act responsibly.’ (Wollebaek, D, Lundåsen, S. and Trägårdh, L, 2012). This is not to say that Swedish people are more trustworthy than their Danish or other global counterparts, but to highlight the interpersonal dynamics of the nation. This displays how the relationship shared between population and government has remained consistent even during a pandemic —whilst sticking to tradition in this case may be the biggest gamble that the Swedish state and its agencies could take, time will tell whether this approach pays off. Perhaps, in the meantime what would be interesting is the results of a trust survey from the UK population on what we believe our level duty of responsibility to each other is.
So, what does this all serve?
On the one hand, perhaps it is that regardless of what social system we are entrenched in, during any crisis social structures become void and meaningless — Sweden doesn’t seem to act so. On the other, it could be that that we are free to do as we please until harsher regimes come into fruition from the higher-ups. This article isn’t to suggest a revocation of freedoms or constitutional overhaul or to simply finger wag at anyone. It is to ask the question of do we trust that we are capable of stewarding one another in today’s system?
The quote from Eleanor Roosevelt rings deep here that “with freedom comes great responsibility” and I for one believe that we cannot afford the Neoliberal way of life without educating on the importance of civic duty, the same way you cannot drive a car without understanding the boundaries of the road. It may be that learning to serve and trusting each other to do so during this time is what will govern the joys of the individualism that Neoliberalism brings with it.
- Constant, B., 1819. The Liberty Of Ancients Compared With That Of Moderns (1819) — Online Library Of Liberty. [online] Oll.libertyfund.org. Available at: <https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/constant-the-liberty-of-ancients-compared-with-that-of-moderns-1819> [Accessed 26 March 2020].
- Harvey, D., 2005. Brief History Of Neoliberalism, A. 1st ed. New York: Oxford University Press, p.2.
- Rosenblatt, H., 2018. Liberal Democracy Is In Crisis. But … Do We Know What It Is?. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/27/liberal-democracy-history-us-politics> [Accessed 26 March 2020].
- Rothschild, N., 2020. Sweden Is Open For Business During Its Coronavirus Outbreak. [online] Foreign Policy. Available at: <https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/24/sweden-coronavirus-open-for-business/> [Accessed 26 March 2020].
- The Economist. 2020. Paying To Stop The Pandemic. [online] Available at: <https://www.economist.com/leaders/2020/03/19/paying-to-stop-the-pandemic> [Accessed 26 March 2020].
- Thelocal.dk. 2020. Why Is Denmark’s Coronavirus Lockdown So Much Tougher Than Sweden’s?. [online] Available at: <https://www.thelocal.dk/20200320/why-is-denmarks-lockdown-so-much-more-severe-than-swedens> [Accessed 26 March 2020].
- Wollebaek, D., Lundåsen, S. and Trägårdh, L., 2012. Three Forms of Interpersonal Trust: Evidence from Swedish Municipalities. Scandinavian Political Studies, [online] 35(4). Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263307414_Three_Forms_of_Interpersonal_Trust_Evidence_from_Swedish_Municipalities> [Accessed 26 March 2020].