Philosophical confusions destroying Europe
As the great objectivist philosopher Ayn Rand so trenchantly put it: “Any refusal to recognize reality, for any reason whatsoever, has disastrous consequences.” During my 20-year political risk career, I have found this to be invariably true — most of the world’s political, economic and social dysfunctions are, at base, the result of philosophical confusions. So it is proving for Europe over its confused response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
There are at least three intellectual jumbles that are disastrously ruining the continent; illogic that must be dealt with decisively and quickly if the worst from the coronavirus is to be avoided.
First, we have been presented with the cloying, childish, superficial narrative that, if one dares to talk about economically reopening plague-stricken societies, one is cruel, hard-hearted and is “placing a price on human life.” Given the world historical crisis we are in, it is well past time for believing in simplistic fairy tales such as this.
For reality is ethically more challenging and must be grasped. As I have made crystal clear in this column over the past few memorable months, in political risk terms there are two demons that must be fought, and at the same time: The Scylla of allowing a pandemic like the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, which killed 30-50 million, and the Charybdis of global economic depression. To focus too much on either monster is to steer directly into the waiting jaws of the other.
Everyone on the left mewling about how there cannot be a price put on human life has absolutely no understanding of how global depression will affect everyone in the world for decades to come, rather than the merely large but limited cohort directly imperiled by COVID-19. For it is a simple, inconvenient fact that about 98 percent of people who contract the virus under the age of 65 survive it. It is time to think about their futures for a while. There are 600 virus-related unemployed for every fatality from the disease. For goodness’ sake, it is time for some philosophical balance here.
Second, those who increasingly seem to be perversely enjoying lockdown should consider this: The arguments for sequestration are now radically changing — a sure sign the action being defended is deeply suspect. At first, and rightly, the clear point of the lockdown was to “flatten the curve,” to see to it that the number being infected daily was put off (not done away with) through sequestration, so as not to overwhelm our hard-pressed medical services. And, thankfully, this has largely come to pass.
This is a recipe for decadent ruin and a fundamental misunderstanding of how life works.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
But something odd has happened along the way. Those being terrified by their governments have over-learned their lesson. Now it seems we should all stay indefinitely cocooned — and somehow massively subsidized by increasingly bankrupt governments — as people take not weeks but many months off work; until there are no new cases, until the risk of infection is nothing. This is a recipe for decadent ruin and a fundamental misunderstanding of how life works.
In the US, just under 40,000 people die a year in car accidents, yet this risk in driving is not usually given a thought. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fully 235,000 people over the age of 15 visit emergency rooms because of accidents in the bathroom; yet somehow, some way, I’ll wager I brave taking a shower tomorrow.
Life is, and will remain, full of risks. That is not an excuse to stop living it, in the process economically ruining the dreams of all of us for the present and the future. The lockdowns must end, and soon, even though the virus numbers will spike. The curve has been flattened, but risk will never be done away with entirely.
Third, European governments must stop treating their people like children. I have heard the European leaders talk in very undemocratic tones, bordering on contempt, about their own citizens and the need to give them back their rights only when they “behave properly.” I think it is high time for a refresher course for European elites on how Lockean, democratic government actually works.
As Thomas Jefferson put it so eloquently, rights in a democracy are inalienable — they cannot be given away and must not be taken away. To think the people of Italy only have the basic right to leave their houses when they behave as the government wants is to fundamentally misunderstand democratic governance. In reality, to combat the virus, people have temporarily, voluntarily ceded some of their rights in the short term to allow the curve to flatten, and the virus to abate.
There has been far too much talk of the government as a second-rate nanny; that it alone determines when these rights shall be returned to the people, rather than gratefully acknowledging that the people have temporarily ceded their rights to the government to combat COVID-19. The nanny state does not determine when people “deserve” their rights. This vast philosophical confusion about democracy itself illustrates the perilously thin basis for democratic rule in Europe. It is high time the elites re-read their Jefferson, or French declarations about the rights of man.
• Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.