Our liberty and prosperity are in peril if COVID-19 triggers an arms race of compassion
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This was published 7 months ago

Opinion

Our liberty and prosperity are in peril if COVID-19 triggers an arms race of compassion

Since the first responsibility of the state is to protect its citizens, it is understandable why, faced with a pandemic on a scale not seen since 1918, drastic measures have been taken to try to keep loss of life to a minimum.

However, some of the emergency policies launched to respond to the coronavirus pandemic could remain in place and that will more deeply entrench government across the economy and civil society.

Police have extraordinary new powers to enforce social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Police have extraordinary new powers to enforce social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.Credit:Cole Bennetts

Political leaders face two challenges: first, to judge carefully when restrictions can be lifted and to strike a balance between the damage caused by the virus and that caused by economic ruin; second, to ensure those restrictions do not leave a legacy in liberal societies, but are removed so society can proceed as before.

This won’t be popular to read in certain circles, but the enthusiasm with which some governments – at home and abroad – have decided to print money and increase police powers has been disturbing.

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When police accost people sunbathing alone – or use drones to monitor people walking on hillsides (as they have done in England) – people are entitled to be outraged. The delight some police take in asserting the powers the state gives them is uncomfortably clear.

The coronavirus pandemic is a grave moment in human history. But it should not be prove to be a pivotal one, becoming a moment where society changes profoundly and permanently.

Once the main threat has passed, restoring the liberty of citizens to go where they wish on public property, when they wish, and with whom they wish may prove the least of the problems for society. It will be far more difficult for governments to remove wage subsidies, reduce debt and restabilise economies.

For one thing, some workers will be seduced by the new dispensation, unaware that the cost to supposedly richer taxpayers is nothing compared with the cost to the future of the economy.

For another thing, the socialist that seems to exist within even supposedly liberal, free-market politicians finds it so easy to prevail, because those politicians feel it gives them an acceptable degree of serious power.

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This sits at odds with true liberals – that is, those who believe that the function of governments is to find ways of distributing power from the state to the people.

The pandemic has forced the closure of many businesses in every economy. Some of the smaller and more vulnerable ones will never reopen.

Once the grave threat from the pandemic has passed, governments should do everything possible to ensure a minimum level of regulation so the next wave of entrepreneurs can enter the marketplace as easily as possible. This means resisting the temptation to increase taxes, which would stifle innovation, retard the recovery and risk drawing the world into a 1930s-style depression.

Of course, businesses have generally supported the widespread subsidy of wages around the world while they are closed. It means they can afford to retain staff and not have their employees’ hardship on their conscience.

However, these can only ever be emergency measures. The destruction of prosperity and personal liberty that would come from their retention should be easy for any businessman or woman to understand.

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And sadly, there are too many precedents. In many nations that participated in World War II and ended up on the winning side, the statist, over-regulated, high-taxation regimes deemed essential during the war lasted years after 1945. In Australia, food, clothing and petrol rationing persisted for several years.

How long can the present restrictions last before people start to rebel against them? In recent days, food shops have been looted in Italy, and Italians have used social media to call for a rebellion against the harsh lockdown. Could we expect civil disobedience and disorder here?

The problem for western governments is they have drawn up a template for dealing with a pandemic that focuses on saving life first and saving the economy later.

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So far, that judgment seems to be popular across Australia and elsewhere. But what if things return to normal by September (as the Prime Minister expects) and the coronavirus returns in a year’s time, as the 1918 pandemic did? Can the western economies go through this process again, suspending economic reality and printing money?

The temptation, indeed the political compulsion, to do so would be enormous. An arms race of compassion, such as we are witnessing now, will be on between those governments, with one fearing to be outdone by another and to look poor in the eyes of the electorate. Meanwhile, reckless spending policies will pile up an unsustainable mountain of debt, culminating in a generation of young people who don’t know what it is to be able to find a good job.

When this crisis is over, responsible governments should do everything to ensure a true return to normal. If they fail, future historians may view the general prosperity and freedom we’ve taken for granted in recent decades as an aberration.

Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies.

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