As different governments around the world are enforcing various forms states of emergency in the light of the COVID-19 crisis, the eternal question of the balance between government authority and personal liberties arises again.
Unfortunately, the popular discussion seems to be taking place too often along the extremes of the question – proponents of “all government authority is evil and let’s defy the protocol” are clashing on the battlefields of the social media with the proponents of “this is a perfect opportunity to implement state controlled socialism”.
Subtlety is rarely to be found and criticism of one of these views is immediately interpreted as adherence to the other view.
This exposes a bigger problem that has permeated our political landscape long before the COVID-19 crisis: dominance of ideological dogmas over pragmatism and practical outcomes. This is especially harmful in the sphere of government policy and in its assessment by the public.
While having strong ethical and intellectual principles is essential for any political movement to gain public support, especially during elections, inflexible ideological dogmas should never be obscuring policy aimed at resolving specific difficulties, especially in times of a crisis.
On the left of the political spectrum, we have many people, whom we can loosely term socialists, firmly believing that private sector, capitalism and corporate businesses are immoral and should be reduced, if not eliminated. Their goal is to implement policy that gives greater economic power to the government, increases the public sector and inhibits the free market.
These people are ignoring the facts and the data that show the indispensable role that the free market and private businesses play in our economy and society. Even in times of crisis like the current one, we are still able to buy most of our food and supplies freely and in abundance thanks to the privately run grocery stores, farms, manufacturers, and logistics companies. These industries are also employing and paying salaries to vast multituteds of people.
The practical outcomes of the socialist policies that will stifle our free market do not matter for their proponents – they are mainly concerned with their ethical convictions and ideology.
On the right side of the spectrum, we also have many individuals, whom we can loosely term libertarians, firmly believing that government authority is inherently immoral and public sector is incompetent and superfluous. Their goal is to reduce the government as much as possible, and to defy and criticize any government regulations whenever possible. They are opposed to federal or local governments’ enactments of states of emergencies, government run programs, and to any coercion, such as fines or arrests, for individuals breaking the protocol.
They are ignoring the facts and the data showing that sometimes particular government run programs can be indispensable, such as public funded hospitals, mandatory vaccination programs, or enforcement of sanitary regulations.
The practical outcomes, such as that these programs can save lives and protect public health, also do not seem to matter to these people – they are mainly concerned with their ethical convictions and ideology.
The above two groups of people are paradoxically similar to each other, as both prioritise their dogmatic and inflexible convictions over practical outcomes of a policy.
This erodes the civil debate and the very much needed pragmatism. One side is fiercely condemning all government regulation as “socialism, tyranny and infringement of individual rights”, and the other is fiercely condemning support for private and corporate business as “putting profits over lives and letting people die on the streets”. As a result, legitimate criticism of either of the extremes gets drowned in this uncompromising and vehement rhetoric.
Under the smokescreen of this confusion, it becomes easier for governments to increase unreasonably its powers beyond justifiable limits, such as Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attempted the other week. At the same time, without trust in government, people become less motivated to observe and more inclined to violate legitimate government regulations that are necessary to maintain public safety.
I firmly believe that the government should not be abusing its powers, stifling the free market and recklessly taxing and spending to support inefficient and non-transparent public programs.
At the same time, I firmly believe that the government is justified to enforce certain types of public behaviours requisite for public safety, to collect taxes reasonably, and spend money on transparent and effective public programs that are necessary to overcome crises and to help those in dire need.
The question is not about whether all public sector and government authority are bad or all private sector and free market are bad as “socialists” and “libertarians” are trying to frame the conversation.
The question is which specific government programs, regulations or de-regulations are effective and are capable to deliver the intended outcomes at reasonable costs, and which are not.
In times of an emergency we need more than ever to make pragmatic and well calculated decisions and not let ideology obscure our judgement.