COVID-19 and the Tyranny of the Majority – Opting Out

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The problem with the state is not that it has no popular support. Nor is the problem with democracy the risk of getting high-jacked by a tyrant that imposes their will on a helpless populous.

Many historical regimes and policies that we look back on as backwards and evil were supported by the majority. Slavery, for instance, was defended by the white majority as a necessary good, essential for the proper functioning of society.

Quite rightly, we see that slavery is not just immoral now, but immoral then too. It wasn’t the case that it was moral when it was supported by the majority, and then switched to being immoral when it become a minority viewpoint. The “might” of the majority doesn’t make right.

The right of minorities has been the cornerstone of any legitimate discussion of civility in the West since then. One group doesn’t get to stamp on another just because there are more of them. Even proponents of democracy, the “We live in a society” people, will admit this.

A more subtle point of view they might put forward would be that the needs of the majority and the minority need to be balanced. That there is some hypothetical middle-ground where individual rights are broadly protected whilst laws and policies are directed towards the “needs of society.”

This is the pretext from which the current policies regarding COVID-19 are justified.

The answer surely cannot be that the minority just needs to shut up because the majority’s will supersedes the minority in all cases. “This is what the government has enacted. We’re a nation of laws. If you don’t like it, you can always leave.”

The lockdown has revealed that that last caveat, as most freedom-lovers suspected, was nonsense. You can’t “always” leave. You can leave with the state’s permission, and by jumping through their hoops. After that, states can often find a reason why you can’t leave.

Another classic non sequitur has come back to the fore amid this crisis: arguing that something should be enforced at the point of a gun because it’s prudent. Or to put it another way, the idea that if you’re against a law prohibiting an action, that you’re favoring that action.

Some will be familiar with the drug legalization example. Just because some of us favor the legalization of drugs doesn’t mean we favor the use of those drugs. Consider former presidential candidate Ron Paul, who is a temperance advocate in his personal life but a radical on legalization of all drugs, including drugs that are currently Class A, such as heroin. He believes drug use is a problem, but views it as a medical and moral issue, not a legal issue. They are separate and distinct.

Equivocating legal acceptance with approval is a mistake. There are many other reasons why one might want to make an action legal other than advocating for that action per se. For example, in the case of drugs, some see the cost of enforcing the law and resulting War on Drugs is too high for the marginal difference it might make in preventing irresponsible people from partaking in them. Whether it’s moral, prudent or wise, or not, to use drugs is not part of the legal argument.

This mistake is made again, time after time, in this discussion over lockdown and social distancing during this pandemic. The argument is that if you disagree with the lockdown restrictions, you’re not in favor of reasonable steps to prevent the spread of the virus, such as social distancing.

There’s a minority of highly enthusiastic commenters out there on social media who are arguing that this pandemic business is all fake and we should go out there and do what we want. We’re not paying attention to these people.

We’re talking about the curious people, whilst recognizing that COVID-19 is a serious issue, quite soberly asking questions about the efficacy and wisdom of the state’s lockdown restrictions. They are drawing attention to the unforeseen costs associated with basically shutting down an economy.

We’re not talking about a metaphorical scale with people’s safety on one side, and the economy on the other. This includes potential loss of life down the line. Any thinking person realizes that the economy is bound up with people’s safety. The economy isn’t just curves and numbers, but consists of goods and services that people need in order to survive.

Yet, when these people ask these earnest questions, they get accused of not understanding how viruses spread, wanting their grandparents to die, or misrepresent their argument as advocating against social distancing.

What these critics of the dissenters have done is brazenly conflate the state’s policies with pure reason. Any opposition is labeled callous, selfish, murderous, because of course, by extraordinary coincidence, the policies the state has pursued are the only ones that it could have pursued. Any dissenters must be evil by definition.

They shape the debate like this: On the one side are the majority of people with common sense who advocate for sensible restrictions on our behavior in order to prevent the virus from spreading and save as many people as possible, and on the other side are sieve-for-brains who hate science and elderly people. This is little more than primary school strawmanning. It’s no more sophisticated than arguing that drug-legalizers love heroin and have disdain for public health and safety. Yet, bafflingly, many libertarians are making this same argument.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.

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