In October 1958, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin gave an innovative lecture at the University of Oxford on the topic of freedom. There were two kinds, he said. “Positive” freedom – in which freedom is usually achieved only through a collective and utopian quest – would always lead to tyranny, as embodied by communism. The antidote, he argued, was for the West to instead defend “negative” freedom – the freedom of the individual to do whatever he wants without interference.
A few years later, however, Berlin faltered. By defining “negative” freedom as the ability of a person to do what he wants (rather than what other people think he should want), the researcher could not get around the paradox that , in some circumstances, people may not really want to be free. at all. They could adapt to unfree situations by no longer desiring their own autonomy. A society might even “free itself” from the terrors of freedom, with an emphasis on personal responsibility.
Freedom won the Cold War, of course, and for decades libertarians – myself included – assumed that freedom was almost a basic instinct, a natural and universal desire, happily ignoring the fundamental conundrum that tortured Berlin. That was until Covid hit.
While I’m obviously delighted that Boris Johnson intends to remove almost all restrictions on July 19, I can’t help but feel trepidation as well. The Prime Minister’s blunt statement yesterday that if we won’t reopen the company within the next week, then “we have to ask ourselves – when can we get back to normal? sends a clear message to every household across the country: it’s now or never.
But a depressing truth hangs over Britain: Many people don’t seem to want the restrictions to end. Millions of people have attached themselves to the golden attributes of lockdown, flexible homework leave. With each of our movements micromanaged by one-meter signage and one-way arrows, our instincts for independent self-direction have shriveled. And after nearly 18 months of relentless – and irresponsible – anti-Covid messages, the terror of the virus is still everywhere.
In this context, a nasty culture war is brewing, a modern twist on the old feud between positive and negative freedom. In one camp are the freedom lovers who hope we can “learn to live with the virus” and roll back the state of Covid. On the other side, there are those who think that the Prime Minister’s new emphasis on the individual is dangerous; that it should seek to “liberate” society from risk and offer the ultimate “freedom” to live without coronavirus by aiming instead for a Zero Covid utopia.
Face masks should become the symbolic focal point of this ideological battle, as they become optional. What should have been a matter of personal choice, based on mutual respect, is preparing to become a kind of tribal signal. With many scientists and commentators proclaiming that they will continue to wear one for the greater good, the lines are clear: skeptical vs. non-skeptical; robust individualist vs cuddly community; selfish vs caring. Individual freedom threatens to become fetishized as a daring danger to society – a selfish value competing with health.
Unless the government morally defends individual responsibility as we learn to live with Covid as an endemic disease, the just dismay of its critics could sway those who half-seek an excuse to take refuge in containment if cases and hospitalizations increase seasonally in the fall.
It is nothing like 1945, when after the horrors of war the country looked forward to repairing the damage and building a new Jerusalem. There appears to be a deep psychological urge to continue the Covid emergency. Perhaps because this time the damage was partly self-inflicted. Or perhaps because no one has strong answers to the vast questions that confront us now. How to save our ruined education system? How do we deal with our new dysfunctional hypersocialist economy (in which the state now has a stake in millions of struggling businesses in the form of Covid loans)?
A return to normalcy is as frightening as it is exhilarating. Some of the young people who will soon be lining up for nightclubs will also end up lining up for unemployment, as the holidays end. Employees who spent a year working at Zoom now face pressures to return to the office.
With tough times ahead, Johnson must remain determined that this is the end of the Covid emergency and the start of the Covid recovery. In particular, the No.10 must keep his cool in the face of the Zero Covid campaign, which is being organized against him. Scientists have already started to inform against the government, calling new health secretary Sajid Javid “scary”. and accusing the ministers of “building” variant “factories in the population.
While deaths remain low, they seem eager to switch from spooky charts to warnings of mysterious long-term complications. Long Covid – a risk recognized by Chris Whitty at yesterday’s press conference – looks set to turn from a fringe story to a major talking point. Epidemiologists are going on the airwaves with various stomach-turning scenarios – that Covid could turn out like mumps, with rare but deadly risks for children; that infected people may become more susceptible to disease later on (as has been proven with Parkinson’s disease among Spanish flu survivors).
We should also be prepared to see unions switch behind Zero Covid in the coming weeks, in the name of health and safety. Several branches of Unison and the train conductors union Aslef have already officially affiliated with the left-wing zero Covid campaign. The vice-president of the Public and Commercial Services Union of the DVLA, which called a strike in June and threatened a new phase of “targeted and sustained collective action” against fears of Covid over health and security, is on the Zero Covid Advisory Board. Coalition, convened by Diane Abbott and the The morning star.
We are now beginning to see that the attachment to the value of individual freedom, far from being as strong as a coil spring, is as fragile as glass. Berlin, which has always suspected it, warned more than 60 years ago that “the principles are no less sacred because their duration cannot be guaranteed”. In other words, Freedom Day is just the beginning of the battle to defend personal freedom and responsibility. While many of us will shudder at the thought of another Culture War, there are some things that are worth fighting for.