Saturday, March 28, 2020

Resisting the Ghouls

It is Day 3 of our universal house arrest (and I think that is a more accurate description than “lock down”) here in New Zealand, and I’m well set up to carry on working. I have every videoconferencing application known to mankind on my desktop Mac – Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Jabber, etc. So far, the internet is working well despite everyone else in my household bingeing on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple TV+. Yesterday afternoon I was even able to participate in my usual “Friday Fours” – the regular drinks I have with a group of associates – by videoconference. The biggest topic for discussion was how to buy alcoholic spirits in a Puritan lock down. Supermarkets, which are considered essential services and remain open, can sell beer and wine but not spirits. Other liquor outlets have to remain closed, unlike in Australia where “Bottle-Os” (take out liquor stores) are considered an essential service. You have to hand it to the Aussies, they have their priorities right!

I was listening to a podcast yesterday and one of the presenters was discussing Covid-19 with his elderly father, who was a doctor until retirement. The presenter asked how he would’ve coped with the virus in the heyday of his medical career during the 1960s and 1970s. The old man said they wouldn’t even have known it was a distinct virus, not having the DNA analysis we have today, and would’ve regarded it as just a form of influenza.

The story made me realise that some of our worst concerns are subject to what I would call information arrogance – a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. This is the problem with climate science – we know that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ought to lead to an increase in average temperatures, all things being equal. The problem is, all things are never equal in real life, and we understand very little about the influence of other factors in climate change such as cosmic radiation, the sun’s radiance, the formation of cloud, and the absorption of CO2 and heat in the oceans. The same is true of Covid-19. In most countries, we don’t know the true incidence of the virus because most people haven’t been tested. We don’t know the real mortality because we’re only testing people we think have already got it.

Perhaps the most unsurprising thing to me about the pandemic is that it is being exploited by the usual ideological thugs to push their dystopian agendas. We have already seen numerous claims that “there are no libertarians in a pandemic” and “we’re all socialists now”. The exploitation of these difficult circumstances by those on the left to justify their illiberal political views has been described by Brendan O’Neill of Spiked (an old leftie himself) as the “socialism of ghouls”. He goes on to say:
If your overarching thought upon observing a crisis of this magnitude is to feel ‘vindicated’, almost to welcome the crisis as an opportunity to promote your political worldview, there is something wrong with you. 

There has been much praise of China's response to the pandemic, despite that country’s regime being complicit in the spread of the virus. The idea that only a highly centralised authoritarian state could respond effectively to the virus outbreak doesn’t stand up to the most cursory examination. If China had been a more free and open country, instead of arresting those who sounded the alarm, the virus might have been confined to Wuhan. Other repressive regimes, such as those in Iran and Russia, have also botched the response. You could counter that Western governments haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory in responding to the virus and certainly the New Zealand Government underestimated the risk and responded too slowly, but others such as South Korea and Singapore have managed to bring the pandemic under control comparatively quickly.

We have heard much about how we are all in this together, but ultimately our response to the pandemic is personal and individual. We may be under the confinement orders of our governments, but we each have to take responsibility for how we respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. In particular, our ability to recover from this will depend on the decisions of millions of individuals - decisions about whether to invest, start a business, apply for a new job, buy a house, get married and have children, or take early retirement. Governments need to remember this once the pandemic is over. If they lock in the measures they have sold as a temporary necessity, and make all of us dependent on the state for ever after, we may never fully recover economically and socially, and the ultimate cost will be far higher than that of the pandemic itself.

Liberty has been the driver of the huge improvement in the health and prosperity of human beings all over the world for more than two centuries, and we are currently sacrificing that driver to bring this virus under control. The worst effect of the pandemic would be to make that sacrifice permanent.

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