When the economist Friedrich Hayek wrote his 1973 work Law, Legislation and Liberty, it would have been impossible for him to imagine a world where his words would end up being shared via the internet, let alone as memes. This was three years before Apple was founded, and fifteen prior to the invention of the world wide web.
As short as the internet may make our attention spans, it does have the curious effect of immortalising the words of the thinkers of the past. Hayek’s words have found a second life in meme form, now circulating on social media thanks to the pandemic. It is easy to see why his words have been resurrected. “Emergencies,” he had written, “have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.”
Those who worry that the use of emergency powers to tackle COVID-19 will erode civil liberties have good reason. It isn’t a stretch to envisage despots capitalising on a crisis that has already seen over 300,000 fatalities internationally. For unscrupulous leaders, a state of international emergency is a godsend – it’s an excuse as good as any to pass draconian measures in the name of “the public good.” In some countries, this has already happened. Only a few weeks ago Hungary passed a law cancelling all future elections and pronouncing that Viktor Orbán was able to rule by decree indefinitely, all in the name of public health.
Fortunately for those of us in the UK, we don’t live in a dictatorship. The 2020 Coronavirus Act, which allows the UK government to dictate lockdown measures, has a time limit of two years. Thanks to pragmatic bargaining on the part of Labour and backbench Conservative MPs, the measures must be reviewed every six months. Any attempts by a government to erode civil liberties beyond reason may be removed within that timescale. When the Queen recently invoked Vera Lynn, declaring that one day we would all meet again, she wasn’t exactly striking a tone we’d associate with the institution of permanent illiberal measures, and the UK monarchy itself does (at least in theory) provide a safeguard against government overstretch.
The role of public expectations in political decision-making during this pandemic is not insignificant. In fact, the behavioural modelling that informed the government COVID-19 strategy was partly based on the assumption that the public would grow tired of lockdown and ultimately fail to comply with it. The average person understands and concedes that they are willing to give up some of the privileges they once had, to safeguard themselves and others from the virus. But over time expectations naturally shift, and on that the government modelling is likely to have been right.
But there’s a caveat. I am not sure the British public’s expectations are shifting in the way the behavioural experts predicted. Just a few days ago it was discovered that the government had redacted dissenting views from independent scientific committee meeting minutes and, before the outbreak, such an event may well have caused an outcry. But now, society is seemingly split between those who are concerned that this action marks an erosion of government accountability, and those who appear comfortable with government censorship when it is attempting to nudge the public into cooperating with pandemic curbing measures. Complying with public health measures is important. But is it possible to assess any degree of governmental overstretch when some elements of the public appear to support this silencing of scientific dissent? Government accountability shouldn’t vanish overnight simply because we have moved into more pressing and dangerous times.
While it’s right for pundits to question the impact COVID-19 measures have on civil liberties, the question, surely, isn’t simply whether it’s fine for civil liberties to be eroded by emergency measures. The question should also be whether this pandemic will change public expectations so much that future governments may find it easy to obtain (or maintain) extensive powers – be it those in public surveillance or in any other arena. If 60% of the country becomes accustomed to retaining geotracking apps on their phone in an attempt to contact trace COVID-19, as the government hopes, will it be possible to roll that technology back? Will governments want to? When widespread surveillance becomes the new normal, it may be far easier for governments to support measures that ten years ago wouldn’t even have been given a hearing.
Pundits may mock the poor messaging of the government after its launch of the new “stay alert” slogan, but vague regulations present another problem that may risk civil freedoms: will the police begin to take liberties with their new lockdown powers if legislation and regulations are vague? Just a few days ago a video of an apparently unarmed man being tasered by police in front of his young child was spreading across Twitter. While we don’t know the exact details of what happened in that situation, the video makes for frightening viewing. It may be a unique case, but the mind starts to question: is this kind of incident now the norm under lockdown?
Just two years before Hayek wrote his comment on emergency powers, an experiment at Stanford University aimed to understand the psychological impact of perceived power, focusing on the interaction between prisoners and prison officers. Students at the university were assigned the roles of “officer” or “prisoner” and underwent role-play in a mock prison environment. The experiment was abandoned within six days as the students embraced their assigned roles so overwhelmingly that some guards enforced authoritarian measures, subjecting some prisoners to psychological torture and abuse. While the methodology of the Stanford Prison Experiment has been questioned, it does raise concerns as to what the long-term impacts of police overstretch may be. The police are being tasked with a vital job in trying times, but if they are awarded a vague, seemingly carte blanche set of guidelines relating to policing of lockdown, what can we expect to happen to civil liberties? How will this alter their behaviour?
These types of considerations are not exclusive to a pandemic lockdown, but they are highlighted by our current situation. Desperate times breed desperate measures, and it isn’t always clear what the long-term outcomes will be until long after any crisis is over. I was nine when the twin towers fell, and my first real memory of politics was the immediate effect it had on geopolitical relations, particularly on military conflicts in the Middle East. But it wasn’t until I reached my twenties that I realised part of the legacy of 9/11 was that the response motivated Edward Snowden. In the name of national security, legislation that extended state surveillance powers such as the USA PATRIOT Act passed easily through Congress, despite evidence that some forms of widespread surveillance do not aid in crime prevention. The utility of the legislation was not relevant: what was relevant was the ease with which many citizens supported curbs on their personal freedom in the name of counter-terrorism. I worry that similar attitudes may lead to erosion of civil liberties once we begin to rebuild after the pandemic. The set dressing is different, but the themes are the same.
The best safeguards against authoritarianism, as the world begins to heal, will surely be simple: that we cease denouncing journalists for investigating the government’s actions, and that we never stop asking questions.