Dr Jeremy Bell: Lockdowns, liberty, and the meaning of politics: The COVID-19 pandemic and the case for anarchism

31 May, 2021

Dr Jeremy Bell

In a letter from 29 November 1943 to his 18-year-old son Christopher, then in training with the Royal Air Force, the great novelist and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: “My political opinions lean more and more towards Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy.” This statement is remarkable in more ways than one. That the devout and fiercely traditional Catholic Tolkien should harbour anarchist sympathies is surprising enough. Also surprising is his avowed antipathy to “control” at a time when pervasive government control over civilian life was widely deemed essential to Britain’s ongoing war with Nazi Germany. Indeed, such antipathy was exceedingly rare among British men of letters even before the outbreak of the Second World War. The experience of the Great Depression had persuaded most of the few remaining devotees of nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberalism that Adam Smith’s “natural system of liberty” had proved a disastrous failure. From John Maynard Keynes to George Orwell, nearly all British intellectuals in 1943 had no doubt that civilization’s very survival depended on some form of central planning.

Perhaps the most striking feature of Tolkien’s statement, however, is not his predilection for anarchy but his apparently equal (and equally unfashionable) predilection for “unconstitutional” monarchy. Absolute monarchy seems an odd alternative to anarchy. To be sure, Tolkien’s model absolute monarch would be no Ivan the Terrible or Frederick the Great. He would have a positive distaste for power and his chief interest, Tolkien half-jokes, would be “stamps, railways, or race-horses”. All the same, this monarch would wield the sceptre, with no parliament or bill of rights to restrain him. He would be a benign despot.

It may indeed be partly because Tolkien is wary of “control” that he prefers naked despotism to republicanism. If control there must be, he seems to suggest, let it take the form of undisguised personal rule, rather than of impersonal, “constitutional” government. But his monarchist leanings clearly run deeper than this.

Tolkien’s wavering between anarchy and monarchy would eventually find curious expression in his fictional masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. The quest to destroy Sauron’s Ring of Power, whose baleful allure even for the wise and the good makes it too dangerous for them to use against its master, is at one level a straightforward parable about power’s tendency to corrupt. The novel’s action begins and ends in the idyllic de facto anarchy of the Shire. Yet the destruction of the Ring is also the precondition for the glorious restoration of the kingdom of Gondor under the Christlike Aragorn.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, my political leanings were not dissimilar to Tolkien’s. Ever since I first gave serious thought to fundamental political questions, I have inclined towards what is sometimes called “right” anarchism — that is, anarchism not opposed to private property. In the wake of my conversion to Catholicism ten years ago, I have sometimes also inclined towards “unconstitutional” monarchism. I cannot say to what extent my ideas and sentiments coincide with Tolkien’s. (While Tolkien never, to my knowledge, voiced any objection to private property, his dislike of industrialism sets him sharply apart from most contemporary right-anarchists.) However, his wavering between anarchy and monarchy does not strike me as perverse.


Anarchist social order

When we hear “anarchy”, we tend to think “chaos”. Anarchy in the political sense means, not chaos, but freedom from what Tolkien calls “control” or, as I would prefer to say, freedom from coercion. To be precise, I would call anarchy a condition in which no one claims the right to initiate violence. To initiate violence is to use, or to threaten to use, violence against someone for any cause other than that he has used or threatened violence first. “Violence” here means, not only bodily assault, but destruction, or appropriation by force or fraud, of what rightfully belongs to another. If my neighbour has planted and nurtured a fruit tree in her garden, I commit violence against her if I spitefully poison the tree or if, without her permission, I help myself to the fruit.

From the anarchist’s perspective, government rests on the alleged right of the ruler or ruling body to initiate violence. I may wish to smoke marijuana or to set off fireworks in my own backyard, harming nobody (except perhaps myself), but the government threatens me with violence in the form of fines or imprisonment if I do so. I may wish to dispose of my own earnings as I see fit — again, harming nobody else — but the government orders me (again on pain of fines or imprisonment) to pay a part of them in taxes. It makes no difference if the regime under which I live happens to be democratic and I happen to be eligible to vote. I did not, after all, vote to live under any government at all. I may well not have voted for the current administration and I certainly had no direct say in the specific legislation that thwarts my wishes. True, the money I pay in taxes goes partly toward funding government-run goods and services of which I am probably a beneficiary (roads, for instance), but then I did not ask the government to fund these services. Given the chance, I might be happy enough to pay for them uncompelled.

Some might object that to speak of what “rightfully belongs” to a person would be senseless if there were no government. Property rights, or perhaps all rights, are at the end of the day mere conventions or “social constructions”. We can only meaningfully speak of property rights when such rights are defined and enforced by a government. The anarchist slogan “taxation is theft” is absurd, since theft is only possible where property exists, property only exists where there is government, and government depends on taxation.

The right-anarchist would retort that property rights are not merely conventional. If they were, what just basis could there be for, for instance, the overturning of the legal fiction of terra nullius? Drawing (selectively) on John Locke, he would argue that, when someone has “mixed her labour” with previously unowned natural resources (for instance, by picking wild strawberries), no reasonable observer will deny that she has thereby appropriated these resources for herself, and has the right to consider them her own. Unlike the left-anarchist, the right-anarchist follows Locke in holding that this right of appropriation through mixing of labour extends to land (as when, for instance, one encloses and cultivating a patch of waste ground). If, having appropriated some previously unowned natural resources, a person voluntarily gives them away, no reasonable third party will deny that her right to them thereby passes to the recipient. She may alternatively share her ownership of them with someone else. From such simple beginnings, the anarchist would say, an ever-expanding nexus of just and generally recognised property titles, including shared or communal ones, may naturally arise through a combination of original acquisition and free exchange, with no need for the artificial imposition of rules by governments. Between people of good will, disputes over the justice of specific property claims and disagreements as to whether certain kinds of behaviour count as unjust encroachments on another’s property can, where necessary, be submitted to a disinterested arbitrator, whose decision the disputants agree in advance to accept. Over time, a body of ever more sophisticated customary “law” will develop. Even in a world, like ours, with a long and confusing history of theft and fraud on a grand scale, the prima facie natural justice of a great many present property titles is evident, quite apart from their recognition by governments.

An anarchic social order would be a free association of individuals united in the conviction that no one has the right to initiate violence. Retaliation in kind against unprovoked violence is a different matter. The customary “law” of an anarchic society would need periodic enforcement. Efforts to impose an apparatus of coercion (“government”) on the society would need to be resisted, perhaps violently. Disciples of Tolstoy and Gandhi would not resort to force even to save innocent life, let alone to protect or restore justly acquired property, but other anarchists have no such scruples. Tolkien did not. When Frodo Baggins and his fellow hobbits return to the Shire after their quest is over, they find their beloved homeland languishing under the tyranny of Saruman. Tolkien surely expects his readers to applaud the ensuing violent rebellion, in which Merry and Pippin distinguish themselves by their valour.


The government’s right to violence

Some of the attractions of anarchism are dubious. The prospect of freedom from “control” naturally appeals to the wilful child in all of us. What has always seemed to me the chief attraction of anarchism, however, is its insistence that all human relations be strictly voluntary. Precisely this feature would be scarcely comprehensible to the wilful child, who would (if he could) force all the world to do his bidding. The anarchist who is true to her principles would never, even in the direst need, seek to force anyone to do hers. To force a fellow human being to do one’s bidding is, in Kant’s familiar phrase, to treat him as a mere means to one’s ends, not as an end in himself. When I treat someone as a mere means to my ends, I refuse to recognise him as a rational being like myself, with ends of his own. I deny him basic human respect. Anarchism categorically rejects (non-retaliatory) violence out of respect for the dignity of man as a rational agent.

I may, of course, treat others as mere means to my ends without resort to violence. I may feign admiration or affection for someone, show him outwardly disinterested kindness, play on his perceived weaknesses, or in some other way try to manipulate him into doing what I want. Manipulation is far more common than violence and sometimes no less damaging to human relations. Yet it has a straightforward remedy: one may politely decline to have anything to do with a manipulator. One cannot simply decline to have anything to do with a violent aggressor. And, as far as the anarchist is concerned, government is nothing less than institutionalised violent aggression.

As David Hume observed, even the harshest tyranny in one way depends, not on brute force, but on opinion. The cruel and capricious Stalin was an object of terror to millions of Russians, yet a bare handful of them would together have effortlessly overpowered the short, plump Georgian. The opinion that the ruler (or ruling body) has the right to rule — the right to initiate violence — must find widespread acceptance among the ruled. Put differently, all government is in a sense “government by consent”. For the anarchist, this only makes things worse. It means that most of the victims of this institutionalised gangsterism are complicit in their own victimisation. This, in turn, leads to a kind of moral schizophrenia. Government’s willing victims accept, enable, and even approve in the case of government what they rightly abhor in virtually all other cases — the initiation of violence.

What makes such doublethink about non-retaliatory violence especially deplorable (continues the anarchist) is that the ruler or ruling body claims the right, not merely to despoil and incarcerate, but, if necessary, to kill. This fact bears emphasising in an age when nearly all Western nations have abolished the death penalty and conventional opinion deems it barbaric. In Australia, as elsewhere, police officers are permitted to use lethal force “as a last resort”. We are apt here to think of cases, like the Lindt Café siege, where they are confronted with terrorists or psychopaths on a murder spree. They are also permitted, for obvious reasons, to use lethal force when their own safety is at risk. But their safety will always be at risk when they confront people who are seriously determined not to be “controlled”.

Imagine a circle of anarchists, who wish peacefully to secede from the Commonwealth of Australia (and from the state and local governments they presently live under) and establish a rural anarchist commune. They acquire a farm and notify the federal, state, and local authorities of their intentions. Thereafter, as much as they can, they avoid using public goods and services. They decline to file tax returns, flout what they consider unjust legal restrictions on their private behaviour, and disregard notices and summons from governmental agencies. When, inevitably, police officers turn up at the commune, the anarchists seek to explain their position. They have no quarrel with the police and no desire to harm anyone; they simply wish to exercise what even the non-anarchist Herbert Spencer considered the universal human right “to ignore the State”. They also warn that they are prepared to fight for this right. Sooner or later, the officers initiate violence — they might, for instance, seek to handcuff the commune’s spokespeople — and the anarchists retaliate, perhaps with weapons. It is not hard to foresee the likely, unhappy end to this scene. No doubt the slain secessionists have been foolish, but it is not obvious that they have done wrong. The government has, meanwhile, made its position crystal clear: it will not be ignored by those it deems subject to its jurisdiction, and it will, if necessary, kill anyone determined to ignore it.

The anarchist has not yet finished his indictment of government. As if it were not enough that government claims the right to use lethal force against men and women who ask nothing more than to be left alone, it also claims the right to compel citizens to take up arms against foreign enemies, when it judges that the nation’s security or interest makes this necessary or expedient. It claims the right to compel citizens to kill and to risk being killed.

This fact, too, bears emphasising in the present age. Since Australia, like most Western nations, has not practiced conscription for decades, we may be tempted to regard its return as somehow impossible. Yet it is easy to imagine circumstances (most obviously, armed invasion) in which its reintroduction would be uncontroversial and even popular. A government cannot conceivably disclaim the right to demand that citizens fight foreign enemies to the death, any more than it can conceivably disclaim the right to kill refractory citizens. In short, it cannot conceivably disclaim the right to dispose of citizens’ lives. And if citizens’ very lives are, in principle, at their government’s disposal, so must their property be. Does it not follow, the anarchist urges, that there is in sober truth no limit at all to a government’s supposedly rightful power? However humane and moderate some governments happen to be, is not the institution of government inherently totalitarian? One of the greatest and most ruthlessly consistent of all political philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, unabashedly answered this question in the affirmative. Any government worthy of the name, he declared, unavoidably (if tacitly) lays claim to “absolute power”.


Is government a “necessary evil”?

Here we may wonder whether, if Hobbes and the anarchist are right, the “totalitarian” character of government is as monstrous as the anarchist would have us believe. The most basic function of government, after all, is to protect its citizens. If a nation is fighting for its life against a resolute and powerful foe — as was Great Britain in 1943 — and if winning depends upon conscription, rationing, requisitions, and other far-reaching encroachments on citizens’ liberties, should these citizens not be grateful, rather than resentful, that their government claims the power to impose such measures? And war is not the only national emergency that might call for the drastic curtailment of citizens’ liberties, as the events of the last year have reminded us. Much as we may dislike stay-at-home orders, mandatory mask-wearing, and so on, is it not just as well that governments imposed these measures in order to prevent mass deaths and the collapse of public health systems?

The anarchist will dig in his heels. He has not asked for the government’s protection and he is confident that, in free cooperation with his fellows, he could protect himself, his loved ones, and his property as well as (or better than) any government could do. In any case, he does not consider himself entitled to assistance that is given under compulsion. The case of defensive war brings the decisive issue into sharp relief. Why, asks the anarchist, should young men be forced to risk their lives for his or anyone else’s sake? Why, in other words, should some be forced to die for others? Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends — but most of the countless men and women for whom a conscript lays down his life are not his friends (in any ordinary sense); and a man prepared to fight and die for love would not need to be forced. In the less extreme case of a pandemic, the anarchist will ask a similar question. Why should people be forced to stay at home indefinitely and to sacrifice their livelihoods, their ordinary social pleasures, their public worship, and their opportunities to visit living family members and farewell deceased ones, all so as to minimise the overall risk of infection to countless, nameless others (most of them total strangers) who, after all, have the option voluntarily to self-isolate indefinitely for safety’s sake, if they wish?

Unquestionably, in pandemic conditions we have an increased duty of care to others. The anarchist will likely applaud private, voluntary efforts to “slow the spread”, such as having staff work from home, admitting customers only on condition that they have temperature checks, and so on. He will also acknowledge that to infect others with a potentially fatal disease, either wilfully or through gross negligence, is to initiate violence against them. Gross negligence might take numerous forms, such as failing to get tested when symptomatic, refusing to self-isolate while awaiting a test result, and disdaining to wear a mask when visiting a nursing home. Not only is such behaviour reprehensible, but, if it results in others being infected, it may justify violent retaliation (such as compelling the aggressor to pay damages). On the other hand, the anarchist will stoutly deny that any of us can rightfully be forced to live like a prisoner for weeks or months on end as part of a collective effort to “beat COVID”.

At this point some non-anarchists will possibly lose patience. The anarchist, they may say, is utterly out of touch with reality. In the face of a world-historical calamity like the Second World War or the COVID-19 pandemic, it should be plain to the meanest intelligence that the sheer magnitude of the danger necessitates drastic, tightly coordinated, collective action, which can only mean government action. To depend upon private, voluntary action in such a crisis would be suicidal madness. Anarchy is a pipe dream.

Tolkien, as we have seen, did not share this view, despite having fought in the Battle of the Somme, lived through both the Spanish Flu (a deadlier pandemic than COVID-19) and the Great Depression, and endured the darkest days of Nazi Germany’s attempted conquest of Great Britain. In another of his wartime letters to his son Christopher, he caustically remarks that “human stupidity … is always magnified indefinitely by ‘organization’,” and adds that “the only cure (short of universal Conversion) is not to have wars — nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation”.

Some who sympathise with Tolkien’s antipathy to “control” may feel that his breezy contempt for “organization” is misplaced. While sharing the anarchist’s fear of coercive power, they will not follow the anarchist in flatly rejecting the institution of government. One of the more radical variants of classical, laissez-faire liberalism, according to which the chief or even sole legitimate function of government is to protect individuals from violent aggression, purports to temper the anarchist vision of a purely voluntarist social order with a dose of healthy realism. The classical liberal considers private law enforcement impractical and laughs at the idea of private resistance to attempted military conquest. Many classical liberals, like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, are also more sceptical than the right-anarchist of “natural” property rights and customary law. They accept that government has an essential role to play in defining, as well as enforcing, the rules that make genuine order possible. Some classical liberals, including Adam Smith, further accept that “public goods” (roads, money, and so on) are the responsibility of government. A few go so far as to countenance government involvement in such fields as education and poverty alleviation.

Nonetheless, classical liberalism regards government as, in Thomas Paine’s words, a “necessary evil”, whose sphere of action should be as narrow as humanly possible. The classical liberal is at one with the right-anarchist in being fundamentally concerned with the individual’s freedom from interference. He denies that people’s voluntary dealings with each other need extensive oversight or regulation and he claims that the alleged defects of the free market either are not genuine defects or are, in truth, due to government interference. (Liberal observers like Lionel Robbins and Ludwig von Mises argued trenchantly that the Great Depression was a consequence, not of unhampered market activity, but of severely distorted price signals due to extensive government interference with banking and currency.) Fundamentally, individuals are responsible for their own well-being and happiness and none of us is his brother’s keeper, unless of his own free will.

With respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, the classical liberal would not likely object to the quarantining of overseas travellers (at least from regions where infection rates are high), to contact tracing, to social distancing requirements in public spaces, to mandatory tests for close contacts of positive cases, and to mandatory self-isolation both for known positive cases and for those awaiting test results. A strong case can be made that such measures merely serve to enforce individuals’ increased duty of care under pandemic conditions. (A handful of nations, including Taiwan and South Korea, have so far relied exclusively on measures like these, without recourse to lockdowns, and have succeeded remarkably in containing infection and death rates.)

Restrictions on public gatherings and mandatory distancing — which Taiwan and South Korea have also imposed — are much harder to defend on classical liberal principles, since, even under pandemic conditions, individuals may arguably gather in relatively close proximity without being guilty of gross negligence of each other’s rights. An amateur brass band with no members above the age of 50, for instance, might meet once a fortnight to rehearse, on the understanding that symptomatic members or members awaiting test results would absent themselves. Provided that all members recognise and accept the risk of these rehearsals, it is hard to see that any of them is guilty of gross negligence. Above all, the classical liberal would reject lockdowns out of hand as rank violations of rightful individual liberty. Their popularity and even their effectiveness would leave him unmoved.


Political community and “the good life”

The “individualism” of right-anarchism and classical liberalism is apt to strike many of us as selfish. Time and again in the course of the pandemic, we have heard it said that “we’re all in this together”. This slogan reflects a way of thinking about politics that is anathema to the anarchist and to the classical liberal. According to this way of thinking, we are not mere rights-bearers, negotiating on a more or less ad hoc basis with other rights-bearers; we are members of a community, with a responsibility to this community. As Aristotle puts it in his Politics, “one ought not even consider that a citizen belongs to himself, but rather that all belong to the city; for each individual is a part of the city.” The Aristotelian citizen, unlike the Kantian human agent, is not an “end in himself”. Yet citizenship, for Aristotle, is the normal human vocation. Human beings are, in the famous Aristotelian phrase, “political animals”, creatures who find their true fulfilment and happiness only within, and as parts of, a polis. It is for this reason that the political community may rightly demand heavy sacrifices of its members, including the supreme sacrifice of the fallen soldier.

The apolitical, rights-bearing individual championed by the right-anarchist and the classical liberal is a myth or, at most, an abstraction. Flesh-and-blood human beings need to belong to something greater than themselves, a community that not only protects its members’ rights but on occasion requires heroic sacrifices of them. A true citizen will make such sacrifices not only willingly but with joy — and she will do so reasonably. This thought is briefly and movingly expressed in Horace’s oft-quoted line, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“It is sweet and fitting to die for the Fatherland”).

This view of politics demands that the individual citizen unreservedly submit himself and his interests humbly and cheerfully to the community and its interests. But an ethic of humble and cheerful submission is ill-suited to a (putatively) egalitarian social order. Willing, selfless submission to a faceless collectivity or to an elected body of “representatives” is, for most human beings, less natural than willing, selfless submission to a person, whose word is law. An ethic of submission realises itself most naturally as loyal obedience to an “unconstitutional” monarch. Moreover, willing, unreserved submission to a person will normally be associated with feelings of deep reverence for this person, or at least for his office. But reverence tends to be greater when its object is not dependent on its subject. A monarch will be likelier to inspire reverent loyalty if he has inherited this office than if he owes it to appointment or popular election. Since, in turn, an inherited office will most often be (or eventually become) an hereditary one, an ethic of submission will tend to find a natural home in an hereditary, absolute monarchy. If I am a soldier living under such a monarchy, I will fight and die, not just for my country, but “for king and country”.

Like any human association, a political community is defined by its purpose. But we have seen that it claims absolute rightful power over its members and, hence, over every sub-political association. Its defining purpose must then be more important than any of the particular purposes of individual citizens or sub-political associations. It must be, quite literally, supremely important. Now since nothing is more important for human beings, individually or collectively, than a living a good and happy life, the defining purpose of a political community can be nothing less than what Aristotle calls “living well” — that is, living the best and happiest life possible.

The political community must therefore have some tolerably clear and coherent conception of what it means to “live well”. Any such conception will be rooted explicitly or implicitly in what the (non-classical) liberal John Rawls would call a “comprehensive doctrine”, a general account of the human condition and its exigencies. To belong to a political community is to participate in a common life guided by some shared vision of the highest human good (“shared values”, in today’s anaemic language). In fighting for king and country, one fights at the same time for “our way of life”. In sacrificing self to polis, one sets aside merely selfish wishes or interests for the sake of what the polis holds up as the highest human good. This highest good might be any number of things. Aristotle matter-of-factly observes that the apparent highest good for Sparta and other ancient Greek cities was military conquest and domination. The highest good for a socialist state would be the authentic communion with one’s fellow human beings made possible for the first time in history by the abolition of capitalist exploitation and the adoption of the principle “from each according to his ability; to each according to his needs”. Even Hobbes, who expressly rejected the very idea of a “highest good”, nonetheless postulated a kind of highest political good: the prevention by any means necessary of the “war of all against all” supposedly characteristic of anarchy.

In any case, the political community necessarily wants its citizens to “live well”, whatever exactly that might involve. And this, in turn, means that the political community cannot recognise any strictly inviolable “private” sphere. The “personal” morality of its members is of no less interest to it than their “public” morality; indeed, the distinction is hardly meaningful. The wavering absolute monarchist Tolkien strongly opposed the legal recognition of divorce, as he made clear in a draft letter to C.S. Lewis.

A ruler or ruling body may, indeed, opt for a broadly tolerant and even liberal policy on prudential grounds, reasoning that heavy-handed interference in people’s day-to-day lives will provoke angry resentment more than it will promote living well. The distinguished twentieth-century British jurist Patrick Devlin deemed it impossible “to set theoretical limits to the power of the State to legislate against immorality”, on the Aristotelian ground that a shared moral code is part of what makes a political community, yet he also declared himself heartily in favour of “the maximum individual freedom that is consistent with the integrity of society.” We must not, however, confuse a merely prudential policy of non-interference with a principled commitment to individual liberty.

The political community par excellence would, then, be an unconstitutional monarchy informed by some robust conception of the good life. For a Catholic like Tolkien or myself, the good life can be nothing other than a life of Christian virtue, ordered to everlasting communion with God after our earthly pilgrimage is over. The ideal political community, for a Catholic, would be an absolute, “integralist” Catholic monarchy — something like France under Louis XV. The greatest of Catholic Aristotelians, St. Thomas Aquinas, drew precisely this conclusion. The office of a Catholic monarch, he held, is “to promote the good life of the multitude in such a way as to make it suitable for the attainment of heavenly happiness”. To this end, the monarch “should command those things which lead to the happiness of heaven, and, as far as possible, forbid the contrary.”

Most contemporary Catholics, to say nothing of non-Catholics, have no desire to live under an integralist Catholic monarchy. Most of us would shudder at the thought of living under any political regime anxious to see its citizens “live well”. Nor would many of us wish to live in the night-watchman state of classical liberalism, let alone in outright anarchy. If we would be principled and consistent, however, these seem to me our choices. We may choose to be rights-bearers who pursue our own interests, associate with others on a strictly voluntary basis, and expect little or nothing from the state — if there must be a state — except protection against violence; or we may choose to be true citizens, cheerfully submissive (and dispensable) members of a body politic oriented towards some vision of the highest human good.


Lockdowns and liberalism

Contemporary parliamentary democracies like Australia are commonly called “liberal” democracies, and not without reason. The “Australian Values Statement”, which all temporary visa applicants are required to sign, begins by affirming “the freedom and dignity of the individual”. An Australian citizen is free to embrace any religious creed or none, to choose her own occupation, and (within limits) to say what she likes and associate with whom she pleases. On the other hand, the federal and state governments have little faith in the capacity of free individuals to care for their own well-being and happiness. It suffices to mention the enormous role of government regulation and funding in the fields of education, healthcare, and provisioning for retirement. Nor do Australian governments resolutely strive to be neutral when faced with profound disagreements among its citizens over questions of “personal” morality, in the manner that classical or even Rawlsian liberalism would demand. A truly liberal regime would not, for instance, pass legislation defining “marriage”.

The reaction of most of the world’s parliamentary democracies to the COVID-19 pandemic made abundantly clear how little these regimes still deserve to be called “liberal”. In Australia, as elsewhere, concern with individual freedom seemingly disappeared overnight as authorities imposed unprecedented restrictions even on what citizens were permitted to do in the privacy of their own homes.

Yet what is perhaps more telling than the lockdowns themselves has been the character of much of the public debate surrounding them. Defenders and critics alike have most often posed questions such as these: Are the economic costs of lockdowns worth the public health benefits? Is it fair to force those (a majority) at negligible risk of dying from COVID-19 to make heavy sacrifices for the sake of those (a minority) at significant risk? Are lockdowns truly as effective as often supposed? To what extent have lockdowns had negative health consequences (increased depression and suicidal ideation, the cancellation or indefinite postponement of urgently needed surgery, and so on) and do the positive consequences outweigh these negative ones? Common to all such questions is the assumption that we can determine the rightness or wrongness of lockdowns only by carrying out some kind of cost-benefit analysis. The more general assumption at work is that only a cost/benefit analysis can justify the adoption or rejection of any government policy. By implication, it does not matter whether and to what extent the policy encroaches on people’s liberties or, indeed, whether it violates abstract principles of any kind. All that matters is whether it “works”.

This essentially utilitarian approach to political problems is antithetical to rights-based classical liberalism. And, for all its vaunted pragmatism, it is also hopelessly impracticable. Most of the above-mentioned questions about the pros and cons of lockdowns, for instance, are simply unanswerable. The empirical issues alone present huge difficulties. (Can anyone honestly claim to know the approximate number of premature deaths lockdowns have prevented or the approximate amount of economic damage they have occasioned? Can anyone meaningfully quantify how much private misery they have averted and how much they have caused?) But even if, impossibly, we knew with certainty and in exhaustive detail all the good and bad consequences of lockdowns and were able to take a comprehensive survey of these consequences, we could not draw any uncontroversial ethical or political conclusions from this knowledge.

It is easier to see this if we consider individual cases. Let us suppose that the short-term effects of the Australia-wide lockdown last year on the residents of a certain Sydney street were known to be as follows: two elderly people who would otherwise have died from COVID-19 did not; one younger woman with a respiratory condition who would otherwise have contracted the virus and suffered horribly for months did not; one man was spared the death of a friend from COVID-19; two 20-year-olds were denied the long-anticipated pleasure of a twenty-first birthday party; five university students were forced to take their studies online and one of them found this so unpleasant that her marks plummeted; one restaurant-owner in his forties lost his business, was plunged into deep depression and started physically abusing his wife and children; one member of a large family was not allowed to attend a grandparent’s funeral. Do the “benefits” in this list outweigh the “costs”? There is no non-arbitrary way to answer this question.

Some may be inclined to say that the benefit of lives saved indisputably outweighs any cost (except other lives lost), but this is untrue. Very few of us would wish to stay alive at any cost. Let us suppose that, had it not been for the lockdown, one of the elderly COVID-19 victims in the Sydney street would have contracted the virus from her grandson. She was instead prevented from seeing her grandson (or any other close relative) in person for weeks and weeks on end. She might feel that the torment of this separation from loved ones, compounded by uncertainty as to whether she would ever see them again before she died, was a worse evil than contracting COVID-19 and dying of it would have been. Would we gainsay her?

If it were true that averting (or rather postponing) death is, in general, more important than anything else, the policy implications would be revolutionary. The Australian government would be perfectly justified in, for example, banning the consumption of tobacco and alcohol, outlawing fast food, outlawing confectionary and soft-drinks, mandating daily exercise for all citizens, and imposing a maximum speed-limit of 20km per hour on all roads. The only possible argument against such measures would be the prudential one that, as with the American experiment during “Prohibition”, they might prove unenforceable or counterproductive. But most of us would surely want to object to such measures also on grounds of principle. The government, we feel, has no business policing our lives to such an extent — even granted that it would thereby lengthen them. We do not want longer lives at the cost of virtual enslavement to a government wellness program.

Utilitarianism attempts to base moral decisions on the aptness of this or that course of action to maximise benefits and minimise costs for all — which is to say, to promote “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. But we can never come close to knowing what all of the (short- and long-term) consequences of any course of action will be, and the “benefits” and “costs” will often be clearly incommensurable. (It seems senseless either to affirm or to deny that, for example, the benefit of sparing one person months of physical agony “outweighs” the cost of causing another person financial ruin and months of mental agony.) Moreover, the very idea of a sum of overall happiness and unhappiness is in a way deceptive. It tempts us vaguely to imagine a sort of collective organism that experiences this sum, as a diner experiences the sum of tastes in a stir-fry. In fact, of course, the overall happiness and unhappiness resulting from a course of action is not experienced by anyone.

Unworkable though it is, the utilitarian approach to lockdowns and to policy decisions generally is an unavoidable consequence of the failure (or refusal) to make either liberty or “living well” the ultimate end of political association. It is, in other words, a consequence of the basically unprincipled character of contemporary politics. If government policy is not to consist in the inflexible application of coherent general principles, whether liberal or illiberal, it will necessarily degenerate into the fantastic attempt simultaneously to promote any and all ends (including individual liberty) that current public opinion deems sufficiently important. In short, it will attempt to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number. And since it is impossible to say just what the success or failure of this attempt would even look like, confusion and mutual incomprehension will tend to bedevil utilitarian political debate, which will therefore tend towards the shrill and uncivil.

I earlier mentioned my prolonged wavering between right-anarchism and “unconstitutional” monarchism. The COVID pandemic — or, more precisely, political reactions to the pandemic — cured me of my wavering. Whereas the nightmare of 2020 apparently convinced many others of the necessity for strongly interventionist government, it convinced me of the opposite. If government is indeed a necessity (and I am sceptical), then it should be as little interventionist as possible. Let government by all means protect the individual’s unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but God forbid that, heedless of her liberty, it should seek to prolong her life or to make her happy.

Aristotle may have been right that human beings can only find true fulfilment (at least in this life) as cheerfully submissive citizens of a polity informed by a comprehensive doctrine regarding the human good. It may be that both anarchy and the night-watchman state are fundamentally dissatisfying. However, contemporary conditions seem to permit nothing better. Socialism, the great modern experiment in illiberal politics, involves the destruction of price signals and consequent economic chaos. An Aristotelian polis must be both relatively small (Aristotle thought it should be surveyable at a glance) and culturally homogeneous, if its citizens are to be capable of that ardent devotion to a shared vision of the good that distinguishes it from the “value-neutral” state of classical liberalism. Neither of these requirements can be met today. Modern regimes are too large, and their citizens too diverse in their ideas, sentiments, and pursuits, for any authentic rebirth of the ancient city or of the Catholic Ancien Régime to be feasible. For the foreseeable future, the “unconstitutional” monarchy of which Tolkien sometimes dreamed belongs nowhere but in the fantasy-world of Middle Earth.

This article originally appeared on ABC Religion & Ethics online and has been republished here with permission from the author, Campion lecturer Dr Jeremy Bell.