Coronavirus' profound threat to democracy
"War is the health of the state." That's Raldolphe Bourne's famous and succinct expression for how state power grows during conflict and resists being scaled back once peace is restored. But it's a worry that's highly relevant to our battle against COVID-19 as well. For while the health of the citizenry appears today to depend on the very health of the state that Bourne feared, we must think now about the consequences of ceding liberty if we want to ensure these temporary measures don't become permanent.
First, it's important to remember that many, if not most, of the ways in which states expand their power during wartime actually have very legitimate purposes related to war-fighting. In the economic sphere, the nation's industrial might needs to be retooled to serve military needs, making everything from boots to battleships, on a schedule that maximizes the chance of victory rather than either profits or the wellbeing of the civilian population. That population may have to suffer under strict rationing regimes and will likely be forbidden from striking, both profound intrusions on economic freedom. In the social sphere, there may be curfews and restrictions on mobility driven by civil defense needs, and limits on freedom of the press both to prevent leaks and to promote high morale. And, of course, conscription is itself a profound infringement on individual liberty.
Every one of these measures has been subject to corruption and abuse in past conflicts. And yet, it's very hard to imagine winning a major war of any meaningful duration without them.
The battle with the coronavirus presents the state with an awesome set of new powers and responsibilities fully comparable to those of wartime mobilization. Shelter-in-place orders have put government officials in the position to destroy whole industries by fiat, and the efforts to cushion the consequences have quickly entrenched government in the operation of much of the economy. They also make political protest extremely difficult — indeed, they make it extremely difficult even to conduct normal politics, like running a campaign. The best prospect for reopening the economy on a reasonable schedule, meanwhile, may well require the implementation of a regime of testing and tracking — potentially including monitoring individuals' temperatures and registering their immunity status — that poses obvious and profound challenges to the very idea of privacy.
In high-trust societies with capable states like South Korea or Denmark, measures like these may win support across the political spectrum. As a consequence, social solidarity can both support their implementation without excessive coercion and can act as a check on state abuse of these new powers, either during the crisis or after it has passed. While the war against the virus may be beyond politics, any attempt to use the virus to suspend politics as such would likely incur a fierce and swift backlash.
But in lower-trust societies, and particularly in societies that are profoundly divided, that is far less likely to be the case. We're already seeing leaders in some nations taking advantage of the crisis to entrench their regime and limit popular accountability. Most prominent is Hungary, whose legislature granted President Orban extraordinary emergency powers to rule by decree, and imposes long jail terms for spreading ill-defined "fake news." But from Israel, to Chile, to Thailand, regimes around the world are using new powers to protect themselves from public scrutiny while claiming to be protecting the public. And in most, if not all, cases, those regimes can count on a base of support for their power grab that could well be sufficient to sustain them through the crisis period and beyond.
That's a recipe not only for the erosion or, in the worst cases, the outright end of democracy, but for failure to defeat the virus itself. China's increasingly autocratic regime, for example, thoroughly botched the first weeks of their encounter with COVID-19, punishing truth-tellers rather than sounding the alarm. The result was that the disease spread far more widely than it otherwise might, and many other countries were far more exposed than they otherwise would have been. And while China deserves considerable credit for reversing course, and its draconian clamp down appears to have been singularly effective at stopping the epidemic at its source, tentative efforts to restart the economy are raising the prospect of renewal of the epidemic. Without a degree of trust and transparency that the Chinese regime has never manifested, there's a real risk of a repeat performance, with the government focused more on protecting its own reputation than on the health and welfare of the populace.
In wartime, loose lips sink ships. But the coronavirus has no ears. In this battle, while the state is going to have to increase its involvement in daily life, it has no legitimate basis for limiting press freedom, restricting public criticism, or otherwise interfering with the process of public accountability. On the contrary, the state will have to be as transparent and communicative as possible to encourage public participation in defeating the virus.
Trust in government is one of the most important — and undervalued — weapons in this fight. The only way for the government to earn the people's trust is for the government to trust the people in turn.
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