Lockdowns and liberty

This short post grew out of a response to Paul Frijters on another thread. Naturally enough, those who don’t want to lockdown are telling us about our precious liberties. You know those we fought for at Gallipoli, and Iraq and Afghanistan.

In any event, I strongly agree with the anti-lockdown folks that liberties are being trampled on. I’m not sure when we cared about them much, but it’s pretty obvious we don’t now. We’ve been knocking down our civil liberties in government since at least the time Howard understood that he could wedge his opposition by making especially outrageous ambit claims which would then place the Opposition in a dilemma of whether to waive them through (so the electorate won’t be distracted from what it really cares about which is electricity prices) or try to introduce better safeguards to them — in which case pretty obviously they’re soft on terror.

In any event, I think of civil liberties as a two stage business.

I have no problem with democracies imposing restrictions on civil liberties — even draconian ones — providing the circumstances warrant this and they’re subject to strong safeguards. (Particularly in time of war). Of course then the question turns to what sort of safeguards. I’d like to see both parliamentary and sortition based safeguards. So I don’t see lockdowns as inherently interferences with our liberty. They can promote them as marshall law promotes them in certain circumstances. As lockdowns and blackouts do in time of war. And as lockdowns would if the currently circulating plague had a case fatality rate like Ebola or even SARS 1.

That the COVID measures have not been subject to appropriate safeguards seems completely clear to me. The thing is, this is a pretty new question for most people. I’ve actually shown some attention to this question for at least four decades. I say that because I can identify when I first did something about it. I wrote a private members bill for Senator John Button in 1981 when he was in opposition to introduce due process and the coming before a judge wherever parliamentary privilege was used to penalise someone (or perhaps just to jail them).

It has always amazed me that while we go on about our precious liberties, our constitution (I mean the fabric of our constitution not just the document) has precious little in the way of safeguards and no-one shows much interest in them. I’m not really talking about bills of rights, which come with their own ideological baggage. I’m talking of simply thinking what mechanisms would be the first to be used by authoritarians trying to take away our liberties.

Parliamentary privilege is an obvious example, but so are so many other things — for instance the government’s control over prosecutions. But I’ve not seen much agitation on this score from those now campaigning against lockdowns as compromising our liberties. (I’m not talking about Paul here, so much as the business community, the right wing of the Coalition, and all those most influential in our polity opposing lockdowns and sometimes — as with Paul — mask mandating.)

I recall speaking to an independent member of the Victorian Parliament who was leant on to extend Dan Andrews State of Emergency for many many months. I suggested to them when the pressure came on that they should agree to extend it on a month-by-month basis and not budge from that position. This is precisely the kind of oversight I’m talking about, though I’d like to see it considerably strengthened.

I remember at the time Howard was marching our troops off to Iraq “just so we were ready if it came to that” — you know the drill — trying to get the ALP interested in entrenching some legislation or amendment to our constitution supporting a position in which Australian troops could not be deployed in combat overseas without a majority vote in both houses (I’d add a sortition based body if anyone asked these days). Apart from believing it was good policy, I thought that would be a good way to get on the front foot, and place the ALP’s hesitancy about going to war in Iraq in its best possible light.

Anyway, the hard heads knew better, pointing out that one day they’d be in government and it would be terrible if they couldn’t head off to the next hotspot and make sure Australia was there defending all that’s right in the world. Like we were already doing in Afghanistan.

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paul frijters
paul frijters
3 months ago

eh, I think I agree with all of that. I too became convinced a few decades ago that liberty is not of huge interest to many people, and that the vast majority is very willing to sacrifice it for some supposed direct current threat that supposedly warrants it. One can think Assange, 9/11, and Russian twitter farms. Mencken did put it ever so nicely when he talked of the object of practical policy being to keep the population mesmerised by one imaginary threat after the other (hobgoblins) so as to keep them clamouring for safety. Machiavelli said much the same.

It is not a trivial question how humanity might learn (via institutions or otherwise) to avoid this trap. Its not clear its possible.

But the march of liberties does have a very powerful ally: effectiveness. Totalitarianism is just not very efficient.

I hear rubber bullets were fired at demonstrators yesterday in Melbourne. I dont know if its true but I did wonder when the previous time was it happened in Australia. The Vietnam demonstrations?

TOM BIEGLER
TOM BIEGLER
3 months ago
Reply to  paul frijters

Liberty may not be of interest to many people – but neither is the subject matter of thousands pieces of legislation that occupy the time of our parliaments and have little to do with popularity or re-election. The point is that liberty should be a matter of interest to our leaders. It should be written into their election platforms. They don’t need to make a big deal of it. They don’t have to rest their reputations on liberty. But liberty should be part of the general political toolkit, to be pulled out when needed.

Jerry Roberts
Jerry Roberts
3 months ago
Reply to  paul frijters

I reported anti-Vietnam War marches in Perth and don’t recall any heavy police action. No firing of rubber bullets. Did they have rubber bullets that long ago? It is important for the demonstrators to have the police on side. Police and soldiers have families, friends and neighbours. They need to remember that they serve their community, not their compromised Commissioners and politicians. Virginie de Arujo Recchia, the courageous young lawyer in Paris, recognises the key importance of good relations with police during the French protest meetings.

conrad
conrad
3 months ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

I seem to remember the police baton charging fairly peaceful teachers that were not going out of their way to assault them in the Kennett era. Whilst I think rubber bullets should banned entirely, I’m less clear whether that much has changed in the last 30 years apart from the fact you can see every second of it — indeed, in some respects I suspect the police are more careful about dishing out violence because they can now get recorded easily.

conrad
conrad
3 months ago

I agree too — on both counts — a few more safe guards would be good and that people don’t care that much so we probably won’t get them.

The flipside of this question would be curious — what people think of locking others down. It seems to me you would get a very high agreement that people in Wuhan should have been locked down and not allowed to wander around the world and the rest of China, so I suspect there may be some hypocrisy. There are probably lots of other factors too. Do people in WA think people Sydney should be locked down? Probably, but I suspect less than Wuhan (obviously unless the answer is close to 100% too).

john snowy bowyer
john snowy bowyer
3 months ago

Rubber bullets have never been used by the police in any previous demonstrations. Compare Extinction Rebellion where the coppers stood back from 7am to 9am when the demonstration had inconvenienced the maximum people. Then they gently went in no batons, tear gas or rubber bullets. No bashing and five cops bringing down one demonstrator then gently lead XR person away.
Rebel News has the real story because the ALP media is too busy praising the dear leader.
Best news is that your so called vaccines reduce your natural immunity which will almost certainly make follow up infections worse. Suffer in your jocks!

conrad
conrad
3 months ago

You are one of the reasons people can never get anywhere with these issues. Because every time someone mentions one, it gets infested by the loony brigade. So someone mentions it might be a good idea to think about lockdowns and laws, and then people turn up to fight the police (who of course fight back), tell us of 5G hazards, that lizard people are taking over the world, god will come down and save them, vaccines don’t work (despite 4.5 billion shots and all evidence to contrary), and and so on. So it is death by association with the loony brigade.

I hope you enjoy the vaccine passports, which no doubt the general public will love to inflict on you and presumably given Scomo is talking about it already it is probably a vote winner. I very much doubt there will be any decent debate over them before the introduction.

paul frijters
paul frijters
3 months ago
Reply to  conrad

I have become much more tolerant of what you call the “loony brigade” the last 18 months, conrad.
For one, John’s remark about vaccinations can by now even be found in New York Times articles (“The vaccine is still believed to help prevent severe illness in those who do become infected, though some Israeli data suggests the possibility of an increased risk of severe disease among those who received early vaccinations. “).

Much more importantly though, I have come to share the belief of ‘the loony brigade’ that most Western governments, international institutions, and national ‘independent scientific’ institutions talk self-serving BS nearly constantly. Also, I have seen deliberate censorship, propaganda, and outright lies from many supposedly respected scientific journals and academies. I bet you actually have seen the same. You are normally a quite skeptical guy.

What is a normal person who does not have 30 years of own experience, expertise, and high-quality advisory network then to make of the avalanche of disinformation? What else are they to do but to either go entirely with the flow of officialdom or entirely reject it and look for some kind of pattern to make sense of it? And when people try to make sense of things, having become justifiably convinced they are being lied to by officialdom about everything, can you really expect them to remain within the boundaries you want them to be in? Their search for truth will find odd data and make odd connections between them. That is in many ways a very healthy reaction, one that is actually extremely good for the group as a whole because it is an undirected search for patterns likely to find a few gems missed by everyone else, particularly the ‘trained minds’ like me. So I am a bit more ‘humble’ now towards seemingly outlandish stories (though I do of course apply my Russian twitterbot filter).

I have found another aspect of marginalisation more broadly irksome, which is that super-human self-control and reason is expected of those not going entirely with the flow, even though they can be physically beaten and psychologically abused at will. Your ‘Loony brigade’ formulation is a case in point. And what do you realistically expect of those just fired upon in Victoria? That they will abide by your rules of engagement and intellectual boundaries?

I do not agree with many of the stories going around on any side of politics or of the covid-issue. But I have become a little more tolerant and less quick to dismiss some of the stories pounded on by the mainstream, particularly since many of the stories dismissed as loony and conspiracy have after great battles moved center stage. Think of the lab-leak theory. Think of the ‘we will all become monitored and forced to vaccinate’ theory. Think of the aerosol theory. All three did the rounds early in the anti-lockdown circles, now mainstream even by institutions previously fighting them with censorship and ridicule. Seems to me that the ‘loony brigade’ might often be saying things not as loony as depicted and that the mainstream should relearn some real tolerance. Only then can it be expected to be truly talked to rather than ignored by those sifting through the possibility space to find out what the hell might be going on.

conrad
conrad
3 months ago
Reply to  paul frijters

After 4.5 billion vaccines that have allowed people in countries like the UK and and Israel to live happily ever after, what more evidence could you possibly want (and not just from Western countries)? It’s not like people haven’t got infected by covid after vaccines and so there is so little evidence one might think about it more. Indeed, it’s not like the baseline of being unvaccinated is unknown either nor the implications for other people. In the end one must call a spade a spade and this one is clearly a spade, lest we slip scientific postmodernism. Perhaps we shouldn’t fling names at each other or tell each to suffer in your jocks (although I do appreciate such a great idiom). As for your examples, we were all monitored before covid anyway, no country is forcing people to vaccinate possibly excluding China (just annoying them like is common in health domains, e.g., smoking, so that was hardly surprising), the lab-leak theory doesn’t have 4.5 billion data points, nor did the aerosol theory, which already had a decent data point from SARs-1 showing you could catch it that way.

I also don’t doubt there are questions which really are reasonable where people are unfairly maligned. For example, the treatment you got for suggesting you might like to add up numbers and think of the future, and whether we should give children vaccines are two. But the first has no simple answer, so one can never have such definite evidence, and the second hasn’t been debated much in the mainstream media or parliament presumably because the government doesn’t want to talk about it so falls into your censorship category.

Pyrmonter
Pyrmonter
3 months ago

When was this Golden Age when Australians cared about liberty? When NSW voters re-elected the McGirr-Cahill-Heffron governments under which prosecutions could be compounded for a fee? When the ‘free market’ types Lang Hancock bankrolled Joh-for-PM?

The best we’ve managed has been professional, functionally independent judges and prosecutors: and even then, that hasn’t stopped (perhaps it even facilitated) both the Gobbo scandal in Victoria and the Manock prosecutions in South Australia – and that’s in states where there police have been better regarded than NSW, WA and Qld.

ianl
ianl
3 months ago
Reply to  Pyrmonter

Likely, I’m older than you are – this means only that I’ve experienced more State and Federal elections plus several referenda. [I’m even old enough to well remember Button and adviser ng].

My point is that in none of these elections or referenda, up to the 9/11 advent of terrorism, was the issue of loss of any aspect of liberty a campaign point, so we never voted on this simply because we were never asked, despite your soft deflection of the real point. That context is quite common with the left – claiming something that never occurred as proof of something else. Ho hum.

That path was truncated with the blast of 9/11. From that point, loss of various avenues for dissent became increasingly intrusive. The rise of the brain-dead popularity of Tweetie Pie and In-Your-Face enabled that intrusion to increase to the point where Silicon Valley carries out the quiet wishes of the bureaucracy in suppressing dissent while the political class appreciates the free ride they now have.

paul frijters
paul frijters
3 months ago

I think it is worth saying that this post goes to a more general point about pretty much every human on the planet: we are much more fickle than we think we are. Our group allegiances can be changed within days under the right circumstances, meaning we are much more variable than we believe at any point in time. What we think is true can be radically changed in days, making it much more variable than we normally believe. What we are willing to fight for today might be something we are willing to fight against next week under the right circumstances. What we think is important is far more guided by very short-term influences than long-run things. Etc.

This has huge implications because it creates an unavoidable gulf between what people will follow in the short-run and where their long-run interests really are. It gives a role for habits, institutions, physical barriers, constant repetition, symbols, visual organisation, etc.

One of the most remarkable aspects about the story of freedoms is that such a thing developed whereby “middle class institutions where professionals stood up for certain values for fear of being shamed as beyond the pale that protected liberty” (what Nick said above). I very much agree with that statement and isn’t it a remarkable thing to have happened at all if one reflects on how many steps such a thing takes. It basically developed as part of a kind of middle-elite-owned civilisational project that (IMO) was ultimately fuelled by efficiency reasons.

paul frijters
paul frijters
3 months ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Again, I think I agree with most of this and particularly the idea that it is reasonable and inevitable that community representatives have recourse to emergency powers that transcend human rights and many liberties. I remember giving you an answer to your question, and can even say that roughly that answer got published in my 2021 Handbook (chapter 5, somewhere at the back). I also fully agree about having heuristics, legal pre-conditions, and rules of thumb to constrain the situations for emergency powers. I am not a human rights (or liberties) absolutist and yes I agree with your hypothetical. There is a even a real conversation to be had about whether many supposed liberties truly exist or are possible at all in a community of humans. But since we both know roughly what we mean with freedom and liberty in the current context, lets leave that for another day. Its probably something else we agree on anyway.

Where I might differ though is the notion that liberty requires living under the rule of law, at least as interpreted and enforced by those with authority. I believe in a non-trivial way that our elites have not lived under the rule of law for well over a decade now, ie that they are criminals under the law. That erodes liberties. I said so in Game of Mates and several times on troppo before 2020. Also, I believe some freedoms only really exist when they are taken despite whatever the law and the community says. ‘True’ freedom of belief is like that: I see it as a gift one gives oneself, a gift always available but that very few seem to want. This holds even in communities very adherent to good laws run by honest law-abiding authorities.

Moreover, I believe in the possibility that the law is wrong, that the whole community is wrong, and that leaders and populations can be engaging in group crimes. How can one not after WWII or any proper reading of history? And the judgment of what is wrong or what is truly ‘freedom’ can really only be made outside of the law and the community as it is in those moments. It has to be made from perspectives like ‘the long run interests of the community’, ‘historical viewpoints’, or some ideology/philosophy. So inherent in views of freedom, law, and authority is that notion of ‘the group one is with’.

So whilst I would agree with the notion that freedoms and liberties are far more secure and useful if they are enshrined in law and the customs of whole communities, and even that in many cases open adherence to rule of law is a crucial bulk ward against massive loss of freedoms, and that a ‘return’ to sustained freedom requires thinking about how to get a well-functioning community again, I do believe in exceptions to all those rules. Sometimes some freedoms only exist or can be achieved via resistance to both laws and communities. Given the nature of how I resist the lockdown narratives, I have not found I personally need to resist the law as it is, nor is it my role to say breaking points in general have been reached, but I do accept that those breaking points have been well and truly past for many others in their eyes. Lord Sumptions speech on a moral duty to resist whilst the legal duty is to obey is very good on this point (considering his interpretation of those terms).