[Ed note: Your regular Monday Editor Dan Denning lost power in a storm, so we’re using a piece he wrote for the Free Market Roadshow.]
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated restrictions on individual liberty and economic freedom all over the world. While some of this may have been necessary at the beginning of the pandemic as a short-term precaution, the actions taken by governments in the last 12 months pose a long-term threat to civil liberties and democratic accountability, as well as entrepreneurship and small business.
Unless ‘emergency’ powers are revoked and the Rule of Law is vigorously defended, Western countries risk a permanent shift toward more authoritarian limits on small businesses and civil liberties. We will become more like China every single day.
The time is now for defenders of individual liberty and entrepreneurial freedom to ensure that these temporary infringements do not become permanent.
As vaccinations roll out across the world this spring and summer, there will be no reason left to maintain illegal or unconstitutional limits on civil liberties and small business.
Maximum pressure needs to be exerted at the political level and through the media to 1) end emergency declarations that infringe on civil liberties and small business and 2) ensure they never happen again, at least without robust democratic accountability.
- Define civil liberties and what’s at stake in their loss.
- Define entrepreneurial freedom is and what’s at stake with its loss.
- Principles to protect civil liberties and entrepreneurial freedom in a post pandemic world.
What civil liberties are we talking about here?
- Five freedoms in the First Amendment and the Four Freedoms of Schengen.
SPEECH, RELIGION, ASSEMBLY, PRESS, PETITION THE GOVERNMENT FOR A REDRESS OF GRIEVANCES.
SCHENGEN: FREE MOVEMENT OF GOODS, CAPITAL, ESTABLISH AND PROVIDE SERVICES, FREE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE
- Speech: It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to see the ubiquitous mask or face covering as a kind of muzzle on democracy, or to see mask mandates as a form of suppression of free speech. But beyond the symbolism, the real threat is now the enforcement of de facto speech codes created by governments and enforced by multinational technology companies. It’s a dangerous collaboration between Silicon Valley and Big Government. In China, it’s the CPC that does the censorship. In the post-pandemic world, it’s Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. The trend toward punishing or criminalising political speech with which you disagree strikes at the very heart of the First Amendment. We need to be absolutist in our defense of free speech. Now more than ever.
- Press: Here I’m talking about the deplatforming of independent and alternative media and the pursuit or illegal detention of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, who exposed the illegal activities of various and numerous governments. Often this deplatforming is done on the grounds that what’s being deleted or censored is ‘fake news’, not factual propaganda sponsored by a foreign government, or simply the conspiracy theories that are product of potentially violent extremists. The result is what Orwell would call a kind of private sector Ministry of Truth, run by major corporate media working hand in glove with government. In the post-pandemic world, the press is no longer ‘speaking truth to power’ or holding public officials accountable. It’s working with them to advance a specific narrative that supports government policy and is both anti-liberty and anti-entrepreneurial.
- Religion: In February, the US Supreme Court struck down the State of California’s total ban on religious services. Justice Gorsuch from Colorado said it didn’t make sense that retail establishments could safely operate at 25% of capacity but churches could not. The court did maintain a ban on singing and chanting, deferring to California’s public health experts that said that behaviour could increase the transmission of COVID-19. But it’s a similar situation in New York City where the state’s COVID-19 restrictions were struck down. Those restrictions took on a distinctly anti-religious character, particularly anti-Jewish. Bottom line: Courts reiterated that even public health emergencies do not unequivocally justify the free exercise of religion which is guaranteed by the First Amendment.
- Assembly: Nothing prevents organised political opposition and dissent like preventing people from peaceably assembling. Yet that’s what we’ve seen in Australia, New Zealand, all over Europe, and in certain parts of the US. The stated reason was to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus by preventing large public gatherings. But the public health orders have been applied inconsistently. Organised protests against lockdowns have been broken up by police while political protests for social or racial justice have been permitted to continue. The lack of consistency in the application of the public health orders reveals their inherently political nature, to suppress popular dissent. The law is the law. People are constitutionally allowed to gather and peacefully protest public policies they feel are unfair or illegal.
- Petition the government for a redress of grievances: There are lot of people who have justifiable grievances against lockdown polices. These policies have limited their ability to make a living and provide for their family. Perhaps none more so than small businesses that have been shut down while big retail outlets and chains have been allowed to remain open. Public officials at the federal, state and local levels have said they need to defer to the authority of health experts. At the beginning of the pandemic, most reasonable people had no problem with this. Now, we know that lockdowns affect all aspects of civilised society and that it’s a mistake to give emergency powers to unelected public health officials, for an indefinite period of time. The emergency becomes permanent and there is no longer any democratic means for addressing the total costs of lockdown on the wider community, including the suppression of constitutionally protected liberties. We end up becoming governed by technocrats who are singularly focused on one issue to the detriment of everything else, not least civil liberties and entrepreneurial freedom.
- FREE MOVEMENT of GOODS and CAPITAL: COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities in global supply chains and just in time logistics. It will be up to businesses to figure out how to become more resilient or ‘anti-fragile’ in the case of future pandemics. Capital continues to move around the globe. The big danger here is that some $24 trillion in stimulus response has been spent or promised by governments worldwide to deal not only with the pandemic, but the cost of the lockdowns imposed by those same governments. This has led to a big increase in government liabilities and central bank balance sheets and could lead to much higher inflation this year, and eventually, higher interest rates. That would create a large, worldwide, financial shock similar to the crisis of 2008/09 — but this time with the epicentre in government bonds.
- Establish and provide services: Entrepreneurs are natural risk takers. They embrace uncertainty — indeed many of them see it as opportunity. But given the precedent set in the last year around the world — that your business can be summarily closed, or that new operating conditions can be imposed at will by unelected officials, there’s a real risk that small business creation and formation will take a big hit in the post-pandemic world — unless there’s an explicit roll back of those pandemic limitations. We’ve yet to see how many small businesses will fail due to lockdowns. Some government programs have been created to provide loans to enterprises that are most affected by lockdown policies. But if you talk to small business owners, they don’t want government help. They want the freedom to provide goods and services in their communities, to manage the risks of doing so safely, for those customers who are also taking the responsibility of managing their own personal health risks during the pandemic.
- Free movement of people: It’s important to remember that the very term lockdown comes from the management of prisons and correctional facilities. It’s an inherently authoritarian term that treats all free people as if they were prisoners of the state. The big danger in the Post-COVID-19 world is that the free movement of people across national borders, or even within them, can be revoked with the stroke of an executive pen, or require the permission of a ‘green passport’ which proves you’ve been vaccinated. The precedent that you need permission to exercise your natural rights and liberties has been set with the government response to COVID-19. What’s astonishing is that hundreds of millions of people have willingly accepted what amounts to voluntary, indefinite house arrest. Again, you can’t really argue with people trying to ‘do the right’ thing and slow the spread of a deadly virus. But there’s no doubt that some officials at all levels of government have less interest in ‘doing the right thing’ and more interest in controlling small business and individuals. They are now willing and eager to restrict free movement for any publicly declared emergency (which could be another virus, a natural disaster, or perhaps, because of ‘domestic terrorism’, a term we’re suddenly hearing a lot about here in the US).
The pandemic has accelerated the restriction of civil liberties, becoming a concerted attack on freedom of speech, religion, the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of movement.
The social mood — driven by fear — seems to have switched in favour of safety over liberty. Unless this trend is reversed, we could face permanent new restrictions on civil liberties which took hundreds of years to protect through our laws and institutions.
This will shift the balance of power in civil society from individuals, small businesses, and voluntary organisations, to centralised government and big corporations — acting in concert to protect their interests at the expense of our freedoms.
So, as Lenin asked, what is to be done? I’d like to put forward three principles that should govern our public debate about the post-COVID world and be our rallying point to win the argument in defense of civil liberties and entrepreneurial freedom.
- Follow the Swiss model and embrace subsidiarity: The principle is outlined in Article 5 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Political power, when it’s used at all, belongs and is most legitimate when it’s closest to the people. Power is more accountable to the people when applied at the local and state level. National emergency policy making is an alarming trend that’s inherently undemocratic and hostile to civil liberties and free enterprise. We should fight it and reject it.
- Anti-trust action against Big Tech’s censorship of free speech: Most of us who believe in the free market resist government intervention. We understand consumers are smart enough to decide what businesses they want to patronise, and that government shouldn’t pick winners. The research shows that anti-trust regulation can backfire and establish or perpetuate monopolies by creating competitive moats that small businesses can’t cross. But a collaboration between Silicon Valley and Big Government to determine what speech is permissible and what is cancelled would, by one name, be called corporatism and by any other name, fascism. We simply can’t let Big Tech become the arbiter of free speech on behalf of Big Government. Controlling speech isn’t about the speech. It’s about controlling the action that follows from the speech. And more importantly, it’s about controlling thought. If you control the speech, then you teach people to self-censor. This is the most effective form of authoritarian control and it’s why we must resist it vigorously.
- We need to reject the false narrative that the pandemic response and lockdowns value human lives over human rights: This is NOT a case of putting people over profits. Supporting your family and providing goods and services to your community is neither greedy nor selfish. Asking for all of civil society to be shut down so you feel safe IS selfish. Particularly when we’re talking about small business, we’re talking about the freedom individuals have to purse their passions and apply their talents not only for their own betterment and enrichment, but for the betterment of the community they’re a part of. To deny them this right is to deny them the means to support themselves and their family. It is also a denial of the right to pursue happiness and the flourishing of your individual potential, or what Aristotle calls Eudaimonia. Public health and welfare can only be best served if we recognise that destroying the livelihoods of millions of people is not only bad public policy, but also undemocratic and immoral.
So, we on the front line of the liberty movement have a lot of work to do. The stakes have never been higher. Let’s get to work!
Editor, The Rum Rebellion
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