Risk Aversion an Invitation to Authoritarian Government

‘Is it OK for me to hug my granddaughter?’ Now something odd has happened to a society in which people feel they need to ask the Prime Minister if it’s OK to hug their granddaughter.

Oration delivered by Lord Jonathan Sumption at the 2022 Robert Menzies Institute, Melbourne Australia, 13 October 2022.

In my adult life, there have been radical changes in our world that have undermined many of the values that Menzies held dear. The West’s share of the world’s resources and output, which Menzies took as a given, has been much reduced. We face problems of faltering growth, relative economic decline, redundant skills, and capricious patterns of inequality. At the same time, there has been a dramatic rise in public demands of the state, as the providers of amenities, as a guarantor of minimum standards of economic security, and as the regulator of an ever-widening range of human activity. Coercion is the ordinary language of the state. When we transfer responsibility for our well-being from ourselves to the state, we invite a larger measure of coercion and a more authoritarian style of government.

…I am concerned with what this particular [pandemic] episode in our history tells us about current attitudes to the state, and personal liberty. On that larger canvas, lockdowns are only the latest and most spectacular illustration of a wider tendency in our societies. At the root of the political problems generated by the pandemic was the public’s attitude to risk. People have a remarkable degree of confidence in the capacity of the state to contain risk and to ward off misfortune. An earlier generation regarded natural catastrophes as only marginally amenable to state action. In the century since the Spanish Flu, something radically changed in our collective outlook. Two things have changed: One is that we expect more of the state, and are less inclined to accept that there are limits on what it can or should do. The other is that we are no longer willing to accept risks which have always been inherent in life itself. Human beings have, after all, lived with epidemic disease since the beginning of time…. So the change is in ourselves, and not in the nature or severity of the risks that we face. Epidemic disease is a particularly clear example of the kind of risk from which we crave protection from the state, although it is inherent in life itself. But there are many other risks — financial loss, economic insecurity, crime, sexual abuse and violence, accidental injury. The quest for state protection against ever-wider categories of risk is a very powerful instinct of modern life. It is not, however, irrational. In some ways, it is a response to the remarkable increase in the technical competence of mankind since the middle of the 19th century, which has greatly increased the range of the things that the state can do. As a result, we have inordinately high expectations of the state. For all perils, there must be a governmental solution. If there is none, then that implies a lack of governmental competence.

Risk-aversion, and the fear that goes with it, are a standing invitation to authoritarian government. If we hold governments responsible for everything that goes wrong, they will take away our autonomy. If we demand protection from the state from risks which are inherent in life itself, then the state measures will necessarily involve the suppression of some part of life itself. The quest for security at the price of coercion, and state interventions, is a feature of democratic politics which was pointed out in the 1830s by the great political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, in his remarkable study of American democracy, a book whose uncanny relevance to modern dilemmas can still take on by surprise after nearly two centuries. De Tocqueville’s description of the process can hardly be bettered. What he said was this:

The protecting power of the state extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but it is softened, and guided. Men are seldom forced to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence. It does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, and extinguishes; it stupefies the people until each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid industrious animals to which the government is the shepherd.’

Now by definition, regulation is designed to limit risk by limiting freedom. Governments do this primarily to protect themselves from criticism. During the pandemic, regulators addressed the risk of infection by closing [places of assembly] because governments identified that as the thing that they were most likely to be criticized for. Governments were quite willing to accept considerable collateral damage to mental health resulting from lockdowns, and large increases in deaths from cancer, ischemic heart disease, and dementia. Why was that? Because they knew they were less likely to be criticized for those things — they wouldn’t show up on TV screens. They would not appear in daily casualty figures….

… In Hobbes’ model of government, the state could do absolutely anything for the purpose of reducing the risks that threaten our well-being, other than deliberately killing us. Hobbes’ state as an exceedingly unpleasant thing, but he did grasp a profound truth: Most despotism comes not because a despot has seized power, but because people willingly surrender their freedoms in return for security. Our culture has always rejected Hobbes’ model of society. Intellectually, it still does. But in recent years, it has increasingly tended to act on it [Hobbes’ model]. The response to Covid-19 took that tendency a long way further. I could not have imagined in 2019 that my concerns [then] would be so quickly and dramatically vindicated.

Until March 2020, it was unthinkable that liberal democracies could confine healthy people to their homes indefinitely, with limited exceptions dependent entirely on the discretion of government ministers. It was unthinkable that a whole population could be subject to criminal penalties for associating with other human beings, and answerable to the police for all the most ordinary activities of daily life….

In the United Kingdom, the man mainly responsible for persuading the Government to impose a lockdown was Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiological modeler based at Imperial College, London. His work was influential both in the U.S. and elsewhere. In a press interview in February 2021, Professor Ferguson explained what changed their [U.K. Govt ministers’] minds: It was the lockdown in China. What he said was this: ‘It’s a Communist one-party state. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe. And then Italy did it, and we realized we could.‘ It’s worthwhile to reflect on what that statement meant. It meant that because a lockdown of the entire population appears to work in a country which was notoriously indifferent to individual rights, and traditionally treated human beings as mere instruments of state policy, they could, quote ‘get away with it‘, unquote, doing the same thing here [in the U.K.]. Entirely absent from Professor Ferguson’s analysis, was any conception of why this was hitherto unthinkable for Western countries to do this. It was unthinkable because it was based on a conception of the state’s relationship with its citizens which was morally repellent even if it worked.

It’s not merely the assault on liberty that matters. It’s the particular liberty which has been most obviously discarded, namely the liberty to associate with other human beings. Association with other human beings is not simply an optional extra, a leisure option. It is fundamental to our humanity. Our emotional relationships, our mental well-being, our economic fortunes, our entire social existence, is built on the ability of people to come together. Historically, the response to an epidemic like this would have been the responsibility of individual to make their own risk assessment, in the light of their own vulnerabilities, and those of the people around them. Sweden, which avoided coercion, in favor of sensible advice to vulnerable categories, had a death toll broadly in line with the European average, and considerably better than the United Kingdom. The substitution of a governmental decision applicable to the whole population, irrespective of their individual circumstances, is a most extraordinary development in the history of our society, and of other Western societies which have done the same thing….

All of this marks a very radical change in the relationship between citizens and the state. The change is summed up in the first question that was asked of the U.K. Prime Minister when Number Ten’s daily press conferences were opened up to the public. The question was ‘Is it OK for me to hug my granddaughter?’ Now something odd has happened to a society in which people feel they need to ask the Prime Minister if it’s OK to hug their granddaughter…. We have come to regard the right of a normal life as a gift of the state. And all of this was made possible by fear. Throughout history, fear has been the principal instrument of the authoritarian state….

As serious as the implications are for our relations with the state are the implications for our relations with each other. The use of political power as an instrument of mass coercion, fueled by public fear, is exceptionally corrosive. It’s corrosive, perhaps especially, even when it enjoys majority support. For it tends to be accompanied, as it has been in Britain, and I believe, in Australia, by manipulative government propaganda, and vociferous intolerance of any minority that disagrees. Authoritarian governments fracture the society in which they operate. The pandemic generated distrust, resentment, and mutual hostility among citizens in most countries where lockdowns were imposed.

It’s widely assumed that this is a phase which will pass when Covid-19 disappears, if it ever does. I’m afraid I think this is an illusion. We have turned a corner, and it will not be easy to go back. I say this for several reasons. The first is that governments to not lightly relinquish power that they have once acquired. In Britain, wartime controls were kept for years after the end of the war…. My second reason is that I see no reason why politicians should ever want or need to respect basic liberal values if the public is happy to see the back of them. There will be other pandemics. They will provoke the same reaction. But public support for Napoleonic government is not just simply a response to epidemic disease. It’s a response to a much more general feeling, of insecurity, combined with a profound faith in the ability of government to solve any problem if they throw enough money and talent at it. It’s a symptom of a much more general appetite for authoritarian government, as the price of security. And it’s accentuated by a growing feeling that one sees in countless polls that strong governments are efficient, they get on with the problem while deliberative assemblies like Parliament are just a waste of time and a source of dispute and inefficiency….

Most Western democracies have resisted the tendency [toward despotism] for something like two centuries, and avoided the disintegration which Aristotle regarded as their natural end. That has enabled this to happen is a shared political culture. Governments have immense powers, not just in the field of public health, but generally. These powers have existed for many years. Their existence has been tolerable in a liberal democracy only because of a culture of restraint, proportionality, and balance which has made it unthinkable that they should in a despotic manner. It has only ever been culture and convention which prevented governments from adopting a totalitarian model. But culture and convention are fragile. They take years to form, but can be destroyed very quickly. Once you discard them, there is no barrier left; the spell is broken. If something is unthinkable until someone in authority thinks of it, then the psychological barriers which have always been our main protection against despotism have vanished. There is no inevitability about any future course of a historical trend. But the changes in our political culture seem to reflect a very profound change in the public mood, which has been for many years in the making, and will be many many years in the unmaking. We are entering into a Hobbesian world, the enormity of which has not yet dawned on our people. Thank you very much.

Transcribed from: