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12. The complex return to the thing we used to call freedom

Two passages I read at the weekend spoke about a similar thing in different ways, from different points in time, and from greatly different points of view.

The Sovereign Individual, James Dale Davidson and William Rees Mogg

I’ve been dipping into The Sovereign Individual, a complex, thought-provoking, many would say controversial book written in the 1990s by two men called James Dale Davidson and William Rees-Mogg (the father of current UK Conservative Party front-bencher Jacob…)

The book was obscure for much of its history and is probably fairly obscure still (I’m not aware that it’s made any bestsellers’ lists during its quarter-century in existence) but it has struck a chord over the past 12 months or so with a new edition and a new foreword by Peter Thiel.

Thiel is a billionaire who was one of the co-founders of PayPal, an early — and therefore highly profitable — investor in Facebook and is the founder of a company called Palantir Technologies, which runs on a data mining and interrogation business model which might be described as an attempt to make real the Big Brother of George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four. (Palantir became a public company last year after 17 unprofitable years, despite which it is now worth an estimated $41 billion based on its stock price.)

Thiel’s secretive brand of billionaire attracts him to many in the tech set. As well as his dystopian Palantir venture, he has courted some notoriety as a result of his decision to purchase a large tract of land in New Zealand and hatching a plan to retreat there in the event of a global apocalypse.

His name on the cover of the latest edition of The Sovereign Individual was enough to see its sales spike in the past year, not least, perhaps, because of the Armageddon feel of a global pandemic that threatens health, livelihoods and economies everywhere.

It is a dense and challenging read, and the central thesis is that in the new borderless technological age, where finance and information and identities can travel the globe in the blink of an eye, governments — the countries and nation states humanity has become so accustomed to over the past 500 years — are destined to collapse. It sees the collapse of the Soviet Union’s communist state in 1991 not as a victory for the democratic west, but as the first evidence of the collapse of large governments everywhere. (There are many who might have viewed the Trump years in the US and agreed…)

One paragraph I read this weekend went like this (emphasis mine):

By any measure, the costs of democratic government have surged out of control … Most democracies run chronic deficits … Governments seem notably resistant to reducing the costs of their operations. An almost universal complaint about contemporary government worldwide is that political programs, once established, can be curtailed only with great difficulty. To fire a government employee is all but impossible.

Elsewhere this weekend, I came across an article by Camilla Cavendish in the Financial Times. For years I considered myself outside of finance, that it was something I’ve never understood and never will. A friend encouraged me to invest some time in the Financial Times. I can’t say that I’m especially financially literate yet, but it can’t be doing any harm.

(My sense of shame in my financial illiteracy was eased slightly by a quote about the financial world from the writer and historian Yuval Noah Harari, included elsewhere in the FT on Saturday: “How many people understand the financial system today? I think it’s fair to say it’s less than 1 per cent of people on the planet. Now imagine that in 20 years the number is zero. The financial system is becoming so complicated, so fast, because more and more decisions are made by algorithms. And algorithms make decisions in a fundamentally different way than humans, therefore there is some sort of unbridgeable gap.”)

Cavendish, a senior fellow at Harvard and a regular FT columnist, wrote an article about paths out of a general lockdown, under the heading “After conquering the virus, the task will be to preserve liberty” (paywall).

She wrote:

More than half of all UK adults have had at least one jab, and hospital admissions have plummeted. But ministers have become strangely addicted to extending curbs on liberty. As parliament rolls over emergency powers in the Coronavirus Act for another six months — three months longer than the promised end of lockdown — and the government pushes authoritarian plans to crack down on protest and foreign travel, I am left wondering which is worse: the casual alacrity with which ministers now crush democratic freedoms or the lack of reaction.

Later, she pointed out some of the multiple downsides of lockdown, and why we must take a wider lens to public health.

As the contradictions mount, the justifications for restrictions are wearing thin. The government has urged the public to get the jab, take Covid tests and quarantine. Most people have complied, expecting that normal service will soon resume. And it must, for this third lockdown has brought the country to its knees. Who is speaking for the women suffering domestic abuse, the children who are overwhelming psychiatric waiting lists, the old people crippled with loneliness, the patients who still can’t get a GP to see them in person, despite needing more than a cursory video call? When did we decide to abandon these people?

Not to jump to any sort of simple or straightforward conclusions — which don’t ever seem to exist in the real world in any case — but perhaps there is something of a “learned helplessness” of people everywhere.

The past year has seen a significant minority of people forbidden from going to work or running legitimate, law-abiding businesses, on the grounds of public health. And surveys show most people remain in favour of extending lockdown restrictions, a sort of Stockholm syndrome in the face of spiking fear and anxiety about an unseen, unknown enemy that can arrive in an instant and leave you or your loved ones breathless and fighting for your life in a sterilized hospital ward of masks and gowns and head-to-toe PPE. (As Cavendish writes, “when polls show support for continued restrictions, thoughtful MPs should ask themselves how exactly a nation became so fearful.”)

A rational analysis of the Covid situation would suggest that the vast majority of people have mild or non-existent symptoms, but rational analysis falls flat when one’s life is on the line.

And into this atmosphere of widespread fearfulness have come swathes of Government measures, in almost every country in the world, that will, inevitably, be much slower to remove than they were to implement.

Will we, many decades from now, have dreamlike reminiscences of a golden era way back when we had unimaginable freedoms?

Will we have to console ourselves with Google Street View journeys through Paris? Is a 23-inch monitor with high definition the closest we can get to a Van Gogh masterpiece?

I fully understand the privileges in these questions. We have been fortunate, most of us, to have lived in a peaceful time of almost universal progress.

It is easy — and true — to say that the challenges we face pale in comparison to those faced by older generations for whom war and disease and hunger were a daily reality.

Maybe we are behaving like spoilt children when we point out the freedoms we have lost. Or maybe pointing them out is the very least we can do.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.