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After a bad year for freedom, try liberalism

There's nothing illiberal about a lockdown to slow

There's nothing illiberal about a lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. The trouble starts when these measures are adapted, extended or abused. Credit: Getty Images/Emma Farrer

It's been a terrible year for personal freedom. And I'm not just saying that because I happen to find myself in yet another lockdown.

Like war or other disasters, a pandemic shifts priorities. In 2020, individual liberty seemed less important and public health appeared most urgent. State paternalism suddenly looked surprisingly acceptable, or at least necessary.

But along the way, COVID-19 also became an ideal pretext for cynics and autocrats everywhere who already disdained liberty to try to bury it altogether. As 2021 dawns, is freedom in global retreat? Is "liberalism" passé?

The outlook wasn't all that bright even at the start of 2020. In January, I penned a "liberal manifesto" because I feared that classical liberalism was going out of fashion and a new collectivism was becoming vogue. COVID-19 has accelerated that preexisting trend.

To avoid confusion, let's be clear about the word liberal here. It has nothing to do with its American meaning of lefty, woke or big government; nor with its European caricature as "neoliberal" and market fundamentalist. We're talking instead about a venerable philosophy that regards individual freedom as the highest value while fully recognizing the need to harmonize this principle with society as a whole.

For that reason, liberalism can occasionally live with restrictions on liberty. The harm principle, as defined in 1859 by John Stuart Mill in his treatise "On Liberty," says that "the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others."

So there's nothing inherently illiberal about, say, a lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. Or about a regulation that requires us to wear masks in public. Nor is it automatically illiberal for the state, in a situation of economic disruption and distress, to step in temporarily as the primary economic actor, paying firms and people until they can earn their livelihoods again.

The trouble starts when these measures are adapted, extended or abused. The world was already tilting toward authoritarianism in recent years. China didn't need COVID-19 to oppress the Uighurs or clamp down on Hong Kong, nor did Alexander Lukashenko need it to tyrannize Belarussians. But many autocrats have seized on the coronavirus as another excuse to crack down on their critics, the free press, minority populations and others they don't like.

Democracy and human rights have deteriorated in 80 countries this year, according to Freedom House, an American think tank. In Zimbabwe, government thugs have, in the name of policing lockdown infractions, arrested, abducted, raped or assaulted opposition leaders, activists and other dissenters. Authorities from Kazakhstan to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Guatemala and many other places have been almost as bad.

Even where governments don't physically tyrannize people, they increasingly censor them digitally or, under the pretext of contact tracing, build new surveillance tools. China has gone furthest, by connecting biometric, financial and other intimate information about citizens without their assent. Even democratic societies such as South Korea and Singapore increasingly have an infrastructure they could turn from transparent to Orwellian with the flick of a switch.

In mature democracies such as Germany or the U.S., checks and balances remain robust enough to prevent such dystopias for the foreseeable future. But there too the climate for democratic and civilized discourse, the precondition for any liberal society, has deteriorated.

The main culprits are conspiracy theorists, who always thrive in times of plague. They wantonly abuse the right to free speech and assembly — core principles of liberalism — to spread disinformation and lies.

Liberals will be the first to defend these people's right to disagree with government policies or to interpret medical facts differently. But when people misuse their own liberty to impugn facts and pervert truth they are vandalizing our intellectual, psychological and cultural commons.

Another illiberal trend is economic. It also precedes COVID-19. China in particular has presented its form of state capitalism as a countermodel to the West's open and competitive market economies. In response, Western countries have started leaning toward more state intervention.

The coronavirus has reinforced this change. Initially, the government interference was necessary. As the exogenous shock of the pandemic imposed bed rest on entire economies, only the state was left to pick up aggregate demand and prevent mass poverty.

The question for 2021 is whether Leviathan will be able, or willing, to wean economies again from the huge stimulus packages, furlough programs, bankruptcy suspensions, subsidies and other interventions. German economists, for example, warn that their country could have 800,000 "zombie companies" next year. These are firms that probably should have died and exited the market for reasons unrelated to the pandemic but were kept alive artificially by government policy.

Collectively, the world's market economies have thus taken a big step in the general direction of central planning. As the coronavirus retreats next year, some governments will be tempted to extend this approach, also under the banner of "Green Deals" to fight climate change.

Underneath these discrete policy areas, a more general suspicion has been spreading that markets, capitalism, elections, rules and entire systems are all somehow rigged. Liberalism and individualism, according to this meme, are an ideology of the elites, by the elites, for the elites — a "liberalocracy," as the author Patrick Deneen puts it in "Why Liberalism Failed."

This perception is at first blush understandable. Many younger adults, the so-called Millennials, having been buffeted first by the financial crash of 2008 and now by COVID-19, don't feel they've had a fair shot at building their lives and are increasingly embracing "socialism." Black people and other members of minority groups suffer daily humiliations by racist cops or other bigots. Everywhere, the poor have been hit worst by COVID-19, both medically and economically.

What has got lost in this atmosphere of crisis is that liberalism is not the source of these problems but rather the best starting point to find solutions to them. I've already tried to sketch two such approaches, to address climate change and inequality. Done right, a Universal Basic Income could be a reform that's not only sensible but also liberal.

If there is a meta-crisis beyond all these problems, it may be what the historian Timothy Garton Ash calls a "disparity of esteem." From the U.S. to Poland, societies have become polarized as people see one another less as individuals and more as representatives of rival groups and stereotypes: cosmopolitans versus bumpkins, "anywheres and somewheres," the "woke" or the "deplorable," those getting ahead and those falling behind. Sometimes the pain is less about feeling poor than about feeling unappreciated.

This is the psychological landscape that populists have been exploiting with so much success in recent years. But they are peddlers of resentment, the political equivalent of snake oil.

The tradition that genuinely esteems each individual irrespective of class, race, sex or zip code is classical liberalism, with its focus on personal liberty for all. It's worth restating this mission in 2021. Freedom is like health: You don't think about it until it's gone. So let's not wait that long. It's been a bad year. Let's make the liberal case for a better future.

Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

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