During the pandemic, governments have gained in power at the expense of society. The many laws voted and decrees announced have severely limited individual freedoms in many countries, despite the fact that from the beginning many doubts existed regarding the effectiveness, the relevance and the legitimacy of these draconian measures used to fight the pandemic. The successive lockdowns, the obligation of wearing masks outdoors, the closing of schools and colleges, are just a few glaring examples.
Yet, now that the pandemic is in remission in most countries, many governments do not seem to be in a hurry to remove these restrictions and let conditions return to what they were before this health crisis erupted worldwide in early 2020. In most Western countries at least, the medical emergency has passed; the elderly are mostly vaccinated already.
In the US, many states like California and New York kept harsh limitations on individual freedoms in place, though other states, like Florida and Texas, opened up much earlier and arguably did not show worse results. In the United Kingdom, the date for the total lifting of restrictions, euphemistically called "Freedom Day", has just been postponed for no clear reason. In France, there is not much zeal for quickly restoring pre-pandemic individual freedoms either.
What’s going on here? It is possible to make three reflections on political power in order to understand this situation.
1- The State’s Unquenchable Thirst for Power
The first reflection concerns the State’s unquenchable thirst for power. When the State arrogates new powers to itself, it is naturally difficult for it to give them up. This can be seen with governments that have become accustomed, during most of the pandemic, to exercise a significant influence over the smallest details of the daily lives of individuals, such as when one can go out, when one must go home, or even whether one can invite friends over for dinner!
This unquenchable thirst for power is also seen in the size of the State and the extent of its regulatory scope, which continues ceaselessly to grow in most countries. In the United States, the Federal Government has expanded dramatically in the last 50 years, by practically every metric. In France, the State has added around a million bureaucrats to its ranks since 2000. Of course, it is always possible to find cases where some politicians have managed to reign in the State, but such efforts are usually only temporary and certainly only exceptions to a larger trend.
Ludwig von Mises identified in his work Bureaucracy this tendency of an administrative State to grow in size and scope, at a time when, in retrospect, the expansion of State power was really only getting started. He warned against the introduction of bureaucracy in the main economic and social spheres of life, because a bureaucratization of human activity will necessarily tend to reduce individual freedom.
The reactions of governments worldwide to the pandemic can then be understood as the endeavor by bureaucratic States to increase their control over society. Crises are always considered excellent opportunities for the State to increase its power. Crises have been used countless times in History for this purpose. This was the case especially during WWI and WWII, which gave many governments the opportunity to wield exceptional power in wartime, which they only partly gave up when peace returned.
2- The Need for the Permanence and Predictability of Laws
The many unprecedented regulations that have been imposed by governments during the pandemic must of course be strongly condemned. But what is sometimes neglected in this critique is the constant variability of these rules.
Hayek made precisely this point; that at a minimum a citizen should be able to expect from the government the predictability and the permanence of laws. There may be many laws and rules, but if at least they are predictable and permanent, individuals can plan ahead with serenity and businesses can better control political risk.
Legal certainty allows individuals not to waste time to understand legal changes, but let them go about their business in a know legal environment. Without such certainty, a serious effort to be made to avoid violating current rules. Permanence and predictability of the Law will not guarantee freedom, but at least allows a more tolerable life.
During the pandemic, a plethora of laws and decrees have been repealed and replaced all over the world, i.e. exactly the opposite of the desired legal certainty. A recent article summarized the feeling well in the UK, similar to what happens elsewhere: "And who even knows what the rules are anymore? Who has been able to keep up with the hundreds of changes, and distinguish between law and guidance? Not the police, and not ministers either".
Part of the anxiety experienced by millions of people during the pandemic is probably also due to the lack of legal certainty.
3- The Paradox of Political Power
The third reflection concerns what can be called the paradox of political power. Murray Rothbard identified the constant tensions that exist in society between “State power” and “social power”. Briefly, the paradox comes from the fact that a weak State makes society strong, which then strengthens the State. And vice versa, a strong State weakens society, making the State weaker.
The process is the following. A weak State is a State of reduced size and scope, essentially dedicated to laissez-faire. This is a State that cannot and does not interfere in the activities of society. Society is then strong, because it is mostly free and based to a large extent on the unhampered market economy. Social power then dominates State power.
Over time, this dynamic society tends to strengthen the State by providing it with increasingly higher tax revenues. On top of this, the temptation of borrowing at preferentially low interest rates gives the State the means to develop over time. It inevitably begins to grow.
In its will to power, the State begins to exert pressure on society. As the State increases its bureaucratic, regulatory and fiscal grip on society, it weakens it. Society is then slowly sapped of its innovative forces and its entrepreneurial energy.
Public expenditures continue to increase, at a certain point faster than tax revenues. The proposed interest rates for taking on more debt are no longer as attractive as before. The economy becomes less and less competitive and can no longer support a State that is becoming gargantuan. This bureaucratic State starts running chronic budget deficits, is highly indebted, and tries to solve its financial problems by inflating the money supply. Society suffocates, and a general cultural, social and political decadence reigns. State power then dominates social power.
More and more voices start to demand a liberalization of society so that it can develop and flourish once again. Finally, an economic and political crisis is inevitable because of the stagnation of society, the difficulties to reform the State, and the corruption that inevitably accompanies the lack of opportunities.
Obviously, it is possible to perceive a long cycle in this paradox of political power, often longer than a century, in which society is characterized at certain periods more by State power, and at other periods more by social power.
Today, the health crisis echoes this paradox of political power. The countries that have most enhanced State power at the expense of liberty during the pandemic, by implementing restrictions and all kinds of obligations on society, are also those countries that will suffer the greatest economic and social impact of these measures over the long term. State power will then be significantly weakened and political crises will probably erupt in these countries.
Learning the Value of Freedom
These three reflections show aspects of political power that are particularly relevant in the context of the current health crisis. More generally, libertarianism offers the intellectual tools that are essential to understanding the economics and politics of modern society.
However, sometimes a personal experience will drive the point home much quicker than political theory. People usually take for granted the freedom they have and only start to cherish it once they have lost it. The Covid health crisis will at least have had the benefit of exposing even more clearly the nature of political power.