Crises and Individual Liberties

Crises and Individual Liberties
A week ago, I had Hady Amr on my television programme. Amr is a former senior diplomat at the United States Department of State and a thought leader on a range of socioeconomic and geopolitical issues. We discussed the impact of Covid-19 from various angles.

Just before the programme ended, Amr raised a very interesting point. He said that if at the end of this we see that vibrant democracies, like the ones we see in Europe and the United States, are the ones that actually performed the poorest on this threat, I wonder what signal that will send to people around the world or what lesson people will draw from that; that when there’s a crisis the democracies fail but the authoritarian regimes ultimately succeed. I think we are all gonna need to look into the mirror and figure out how we are gonna discuss that. That’s further down the line. (This is an actual transcript of his remarks.)

What he said contains a paradox. Let’s look at it like this. At a very basic level, liberal-democratic systems are about the individual and his liberties; authoritarian regimes, on the other hand, are about the collective. In liberal democracies, the central unit is the individual. He is not a drop to be subsumed in an ocean. In authoritarian systems, individuality must give way to the perceived larger interest of the collective.

This is, of course a very simplistic and crude way of putting it. For instance, even in liberal democracies, individuals must cooperate with others in certain ways; equally, they must submit to a larger Will in terms of laws, rules and regulations. But, the larger Will, or to use the framework presented by Acemoglu and Robinson in their 2019 book, The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies and the Fate of Liberty, the Leviathan is shackled. The State must be a facilitator and enforce the compact, but the society must be equally strong to keep a check on the state. In other words, it’s the strength of the society that also guarantees the individual liberties.

To carry forward the A&R thesis, the Leviathan — they use Thomas Hobbes’ use of the concept and the term — can either be absent or become despotic. For the Absent Leviathan we have several examples of states that cannot enforce their writ. It’s the Lagos of the 90s when Wole Soyinka had to strap on a Glock to move around Lagos. Or what we saw (or see) in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s not that the state doesn’t want to enforce its writ; it just doesn’t have the tools and the capacity to do so.

On the other hand, we have the Despotic Leviathan: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, China, DPRK et cetera. In all those examples, the state won the race against societies; societies had to submit to the state’s version of what a society should be or how it must behave. Sometimes, as in the case of Syria or Libya, the Despotic Leviathan broke down and became the Absent Leviathan.

A&R argue that the best balance is to have a Shackled Leviathan, what they call the Red Queen Effect. Alice and the Red Queen can run and run but neither should be able to outrun the other. The balance requires that state and society must run neck and neck. If state outpaces society, we get a Despotic Leviathan; if society outpaces state, we get an Absent Leviathan.

At this point, however, we must return to Amr’s observation. We certainly don’t want an Absent Leviathan because no one wants a total breakdown of law and order. In Hobbes’ words, if that happens, if the larger Will (to which all must submit) vanishes, we will be back to bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all). But how does the Shackled Leviathan fare? Is it necessary that a Despotic one will fare better? Take Iran or the DPRK, as opposed to China. The Iranian Leviathan is not as despotic as the Chinese or the North Korean one, but it is despotic enough. Yet, its weakness is there for all to see. The North Korean Leviathan is despotic but equally inefficient in dealing with a crisis that requires resources. The Chinese one is despotic but efficient and, yes, rich.

To put it differently, Amr’s original formulation needs to be qualified: Is an efficient Despotic Leviathan better prepared than a Shackled Leviathan to deal with a major crisis? It would seem so. What did the French and Belgian governments do after the ISIS attacks in Paris? They put armed soldiers on the streets. We are not here concerned about whether that was the most efficient step to take. What’s important to note is that at the first hint of a crisis, something that disrupts normal life or is perceived to do so, states tend to fall on displaying and employing their coercive apparatus.

Both France and Belgium are liberal democracies, A&R’s Shackled Leviathan. How did 9/11 transform the United States? How has the Leviathan defined national security since that event? How has that definition and the laws under that definition impacted US society? Can we say that the state has outpaced society just a little more than should have happened? Do we see the debate about and the tension between individual liberties and collective security?

During the recent Covid-19 crisis in China, what did the Leviathan do? The country’s quarantine was unprecedented, perhaps the largest in history. Thirteen cities, containing more than 60 million people were locked down; life came to a standstill. No other country has that capacity.

In which case, here’s the question: Are individual rights and liberties as we have come to understand them and which we aspire to, a function of normal times – times that are not testing, times that do not require us to make hard choices? What happens when, to quote Lear, Man is unaccommodated and no more than a poor, bare, forked animal? He tends for himself; and when everyone begins to do that and can do that, central authority, the Leviathan, disappears. What’s the choice then, between Absent and Despotic Leviathan? Which one would one prefer?

The answers to those questions will lead us to more ironies and paradoxes. But that’s the whole point about crises. They do not denote normal times. The values we cherish and take for granted are not meant for times of crisis. When the crisis worsens, only two things can happen: either a complete breakdown and lawlessness or the Leviathan taking over. What choice would people make? Would we even consider such a question in normal times? Darwin be praised.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.