Has society been infantilised by the state’s actions during the pandemic?
In his essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that the only reason state power can be rightfully exercised over another member of society against their will is to “prevent harm to others”. This dictum is particularly fitting as a justification for the worldwide lockdowns caused by Covid-19.
Has the pandemic altered our existing social contract by infusing the state with new powers to curb freedoms, unprecedented in peacetime?
Controlling the spread of a disease naturally requires broad state powers to restrict movement, commerce, and information. Every crisis changes what is considered normal. Lockdowns and limited information about the future invite the state to step in at the expense of individual agency.
This understandably is necessary to protect the public but as lockdowns are starting to be eased, it also raises an important question about the future balance of power between the state and society.
Simple slogans dictated from the top, daily updates on infections, and anxious hesitation before each government announcement on the war on Covid-19 have engendered a sense of passivity. Society transformed into a docile, rather than an immune herd.
While this is necessary to protect lives, it must not deter our attention from the need to maintain a focus on liberty. The public must remember that despite our advances in science, how different states have approached this crisis is largely a moral choice.
As with all states which take on the Manichean battle against an evil enemy, from the Soviet collectivization to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, that battle has expanded state power for the “greater good” with sometimes destructive consequences for the public.
The blurring of the lines between science and politics could legitimise extensive surveillance powers through measures like tracing apps. The next few months will be paramount in shaping the new settlement mandated by the post-Covid world. The balance between individual liberty and collective responsibility will continue to be tested but we must not forget our own individual agency in the face of growing state power.
As we increasingly begin to participate in a new social contract, we must remember that emergencies require both a top-down and a bottom-up approach. If we are not careful, the epidemic may be an important watershed in the history of government control of our lives.
Protecting others from harm is both an individual and a collective responsibility, shared in a mutual contract rather than enforced by a mighty Leviathan.