Liberty in the Time of Corona –

Roman head. Photo credit: Juan Aunion /

The coronaviruspandemic has led to the severe curtailment of civil liberties and the lockdownof billions of people worldwide. Some states reaction to the pandemic has beenseen as more effective than others. In particular, authoritarian governments,such as China, now boast about their efficient management of the crisis and areproviding support and advice to European and other nations.

Consequently, manycitizens are questioning the purported advantages of democratic governance. Asboth democratic and authoritarian states have imposed exceptional measuresrestricting political and civil liberties, there is a nagging suspicion thatdemocracies might not turn out to be inherently superior regimes. Some radical thinkers,such as the influential Italian philosopherGiorgio Agamben, have recently claimed that states of emergency are thepermanent condition of modern political life, regardless of regimes.

This, however,ignores the difference in the quality of freedom between democratic andauthoritarian states.

Some political philosophersdistinguish two notions of liberty: liberty as non-interference and liberty asnon-domination. The first notion assumes that someone is free insofar as no oneinterferes with the choices one can make; understanding liberty asnon-domination instead stresses that one is free to the extent that others donot exercise arbitrary power over one.

We live in a timewhere our liberty as non-interference is drastically reduced, with basicfreedoms to work, to travel, to associate in public taken away. Anyinfringement of these new restrictions can result in interference by publicauthorities.

Under such regrettablebut necessary conditions, we should be vigilant not to relinquish a no lessimportant liberty: liberty asnon-domination.

In the classicalRoman tradition of republican liberty, to be free meant not to be subjected toarbitrary rule: to the uncontrolled power of the slaveholder or the tyrant, thetwo classical figures of oppression. Self-governing republics enjoyed libertyas non-domination because the power exercised over citizens was a power that citizensultimately controlled. It was power exercised on the peoples terms, toborrow the title of an important bookby the civic republican philosopher Philip Pettit. It was also powerexercised for the public good: In extraordinary times, this can requireextensive restrictions of ordinary liberties. On the civic republican view, stateinterference is not always a form of domination (a lesson perhaps forgotten bytodays anti-state libertarians).

How can we bestpreserve liberty as non-domination in todays increasingly restrictive state ofemergency?

There are threemain considerations. First, in todays liberal democracies the state ofemergency should be the exception, not the norm. In classical republics, therule of dictators unlike that of tyrants was justified as a temporaryconcentration of all powers in wartime conditions with the explicit aim ofeventually restoring the full regime of civil liberties. It is cruciallyimportant that emergency powers be periodically reviewed and renewed (only ifnecessary) through parliamentary and judicial oversight. They should not bepresumed to be indefinite. Normal democratic mechanisms of accountability includingelections must be maintained as much as possible during the crisis.

Second, in liberaldemocracies, non-domination is secured through the quality and transparency ofpublic information. Democratic accountability depends on a delicate balancebetween trust and distrust. The public needs to be able to trust crucialsources of information, such as scientific experts and professionaljournalists. A well-informed public can then robustly scrutinize governmentalinitiatives. All government actions in a crisis should be subjected to publicdiscussion and contestation even to the threat of enquiries in the case ofgrave mismanagement. Freedom of expression and public criticism often slowsdown and even disrupts political action, but it is crucial to guarantee thatthe exorbitant powers of the state do not go unchecked.

Third, in a liberal democracy, power should be exercised for the benefit of all the people, not a restricted faction. This truism becomes salient once we take the measure of the hugely unequal effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has revealed how our social fabric is maintained by low-paid, working-class members of the labor force, such as nurses, social care workers, supermarket cashiers, delivery workers, and bus drivers. They now face the risk of sickness and even death on a daily basis.

The socially regressiveimpact of lockdown is also clear in the way that it disproportionately hitsfamilies living in confined spaces and in precarious financial, bodily, orpsychological health. Further, the pandemics effects are intensified forstruggling young generations like gig-economy workers, indebted universitystudents, and urban renters. Only a renewed democratic social contract canensure that the long-term costs of the pandemic will not (as was the case afterthe financial crisis of 2008) be paid for by the most vulnerable.

The Indian economist Amartya Sen onceobserved that democratic governance is the best antidote to the destructiveeffects of famine in developing countries. In a similar vein, democraticgovernance should ideally immunize us against the devastatingly unequaleffects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With thisknowledge, should we be hopeful about the future prospects of non-domination inactual democracies? Some scepticism though not Agamben-style pessimism iswarranted.

One problem isthat the conditions of democratic resilience have slowly been eroded over thelast couple of decades in existing democratic states. The post-9/11 era hasseen the uncontrolled development of anti-terrorist legislation, of whichcurrent emergency powers are often derived from. The populist assault onscientific experts, traditional media, and other countervailing institutions,such as courts, has weakened the public sphere and its ability to oppose theexercise of arbitrary power. And many democratic governments worldwide haveundermined public services, while scapegoating immigrants, Jews, Muslims, orthe European Union for the economic and social despair of their coreconstituencies.

States such as theUnited States, Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland, and Israel have gone furthestinto this dangerous democratic backsliding. Many liberal democratic states,including France and the United Kingdom, have seen the weakening of the verymechanisms that have helped protect their citizens from authoritarian orarbitrary rule.

It is one thingfor our liberty as non-interference to be suspended under the exceptionalcircumstance of a public health emergency. It is quite another thing for ourliberty as non-domination to be eroded, for this loss is not so easilyreversed. This is all the more dangerous because, as the Roman republicanwriters knew well, liberty as non-domination is the best guarantee of the secure,resilient protection of our ordinary liberty as non-interference.

Ccile Laborde is the Nuffield Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford, and a Fellow of the British Academy.

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Liberty in the Time of Corona -

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