Liberalism Failed COVID Test

Failed_Again_by_Aleksey_Korin_(1891)
Aleksey Mikhaĭlovich Korin: Failed Again // Public Domain

Liberalism is based upon the premise that individuals are to be trusted, that they know best what is in their interests, that laws, regulations and rules are superseded by the freedom of an individual, and the legislator intervenes only when absolutely necessary. Why then do we still not return to this notion after more than a year after the COVID restrictions started in earnest?

When the pandemic began to conquer, the world’s borders closed even in the European Union, which proudly boasted the importance of freedom of movement. Is this the end of the ever closer union since nation states can decide to abandon this fundamental EU value?  All over the world people were banned from traveling internationally, which also questions liberal democracies’ previous commitment to globalization.

The closed borders also hindered international trade. The uncertainty on mobility and on demand, as well as closure of factories caused a great delay in the shipping of goods. Admittedly, the EU stressed the importance of special Green Lanes to ensure the operation of the Single Market. Nevertheless, member states placed export bans on certain protective equipment as did the EU.

The trade disruptions were also apparent to the consumers. Specialist shops lacked import goods, such as delicacies from Italy as orders from across the borders failed to shop up on time and shipping costs increased. Interestingly, the latter was partly because online sales increased which led to a shortage of containers.

No surprise people ordered more goods. What else could they do when they were banned not only from traveling internationally, but also from leaving their own homes? Only the most suppressive of dictatorships posed a ban on the gathering of people. However, the freedom of assembly also fell victim to COVID-19 in the hitherto liberal minded countries as well.

A long line of liberal thinkers thought long and hard to finetune the ideas of liberalism. They created a system of political thought, a way of governance and a collection of values. We thew it away with the advent of the pandemic and did exactly as the enemies of liberalism, such as Russia and China.

That is not to say the restrictive measures were wrong. Actions had to be taken within a very limited time frame with a shortage of adequate information. Does it mean that liberal principles can be set aside in emergencies? Does it mean that liberalism does not work if its basic system cannot be applied to absolutely all and every scenario?

It was way too easy to abandon basic liberties during the pandemic. Creating emergencies whether one objectively exists or not is the most powerful tool of populists. Consequently, even without a global virus, will the liberal values be swept aside once again without anyone batting an eyelid if populists manage to seel the idea of an emergency?

We must concede that many liberals are not idealists. They are not liberals due to a system of values but out of pragmatism, that is limiting control over an individual often leads to the best results in a normal situation, and this needs no moral garnishing. Thus if the situation leaves any normalcy behind, pragmatists might find a more optimized system for the given scenario.

In order to recover from COVID-19, liberalism must be better than this. It needs more pragmatic ways to implement its values in any situation, whether in normalcy or in emergency. It must factor in the possibility of an emergency at least, and adjust its values to accommodate such scenarios. In any other case, liberalism will have fallen victim to the pandemic.


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Mate Hajba
Free Market Foundation