Ghost of Jefferson stirs in US, UK anti-lockdown protests
As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic lurches into its predictable winter wave, at last the long, dreary pattern of government lockdowns without real explanation is coming under increasing political pressure, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, dominated by the US and the UK.
This policy is tragically wrongheaded, befitting societies that seem to have forgotten how to read basic statistics. Only 1 percent of COVID-19 deaths are among people under the age of 45, while those above 65 account for fully 90 percent of the deaths. Even a cursory reading of these numbers would lead many reasonable people to conclude that, while the elderly need extra protection from the virus, the rest of us ought to get on with the business of living, both for its own sake and to generate the economic growth needed to pay for this massive, temporary emergency.
Of course, this has not happened at all. Instead, the whole of society has been shut down, as if the numbers I just cited simply don’t exist. The economic costs have been devastating. At the end of the third quarter, the US gross domestic product was fully 14 percent smaller than at the end of 2019, with a wretched fourth quarter still to come. Likewise, the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that Britain’s economy is set to plunge by 11.3 percent in 2020, the largest drop in 300 years. Added to this, of course, is the great (if largely unquantifiable) damage done to this generation’s children.
But the problem with all this is not whether one agrees with my above assessment; it is instead that governments in both countries have neither credibly argued their case as to the efficacy of continued lockdowns of the whole of society, nor even deigned to provide the evidence so reasoned debate can take place. It is here that the ghost of Thomas Jefferson is at last stirring in both countries.
The great, eloquent champion of individual liberty is having a bit of an intellectual renaissance, as in both the US and UK people are beginning to question both the logic of the continued lockdown strategy and their government’s role in stifling any dissent regarding this highly dubious course of action.
Governments in both countries have neither credibly argued their case nor even deigned to provide the evidence.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
As Jefferson put it: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories.” Yet Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, convinced he knows best, recently banned his constituents from attending religious services in significant numbers due to the draconian tier system enacted to protect New Yorkers from the virus.
While, on the surface, this might seem to be a judgment call between the two competing goods of religious freedom and safety, in practice it amounts to government intrusion at its worst. Cuomo mandated that no more than 10 worshippers are allowed to congregate in the worst-impacted red zone, as worship was not considered an “essential” function.
However, acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, and parking garages were all randomly deemed to be essential (and thus of relatively greater value than religious worship) and had no limitations placed on them at all. Enraged by the high-handed wrongheadedness of Cuomo’s edict, a group of Catholic and Jewish parishioners took the governor to the Supreme Court. The court last week ruled, in a 5-4 verdict, in favor of the plaintiffs, granting them an injunction to come together and worship in larger numbers while the case is fundamentally reviewed. The majority of justices wrote: “Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten.”
Likewise, in the UK, backbench Conservative MPs are increasingly fed up with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lazy, increasingly authoritarian premiership. The government this week passed its draconian new COVID-19 tier system into law, without seeing fit to publish a secret dossier detailing the economic impact of the virus on the British economy. As Jefferson put it: “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
How can Parliament be expected to vote on this seminal measure without knowing the government’s estimate of the economic costs? As Sir Graham Brady, echoing Jefferson, said: “If government is to take away fundamental liberties of the people whom we represent, they must demonstrate beyond question that they are acting in a way that is both proportionate and absolutely necessary.” Johnson won the vote, 291-78, but it amounted to the largest Tory revolt of his time in office, as 54 of his own MPs voted against him. It seems there is also a limit in the UK as to how much maladroit, unaccountable government will be countenanced.
It is best to leave the last word to Jefferson: “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent their government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” Fatuous Anglo-Saxon leaders beware: The ghost of Jefferson is stirring.
• 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 chartwellspeakers.com.