Flat White

Liberty is too important for bureaucratic bungling

19 April 2020

7:30 PM

19 April 2020

7:30 PM

Over the course of just a few days we have had all sorts of conflicting messages concerning the plan to have a phone tracking app to monitor the spread of corona. First, it was said to be voluntary, but then it morphed into being nearly compulsory. Yesterday morning all the headlines were talking about this becoming mandatory. Said one report: “Mobile phone tracking software could be compulsory if not enough Australians voluntarily download the application to help in coronavirus case tracing.”

Then by early afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that it would not be mandatory. Hmm, from voluntary to maybe mandatory to non-compulsory – all in a matter of hours. At the very least the government has been sending some mixed signals here. Maybe we need an app to track Morrison and what he really intends!

Whether compulsory or not, recently on these pages Monica Wilkie asked some hard questions about this, saying, among other things: “The real challenge will be ensuring this information is not misused – a seemingly futile task especially given governments’ history with handling citizens’ information.”

Or as Gideon Rozner of the Institute of Public Affairs put it: “Being tracked by the government in order to be free is not acceptable. This is a heavy-handed attack on the liberties of all Australians. History tells us that governments that give themselves extraordinary powers in states of emergency tend not to relinquish them. It took less than three years for metadata laws passed in the name of counterterrorism, for example, to be invoked by local councils to police minor infringements like littering.”


Quite right. As has been said so often now, the cure is looking to be lot worse than the disease. And once again, it is well worth looking at the actual hard numbers to see if all these austere measures make any sense. Consider a few of these figures.

At the time of this writing, we had 6533 cases of corona in Australia. And 65 deaths. Even under the new math that comes to less than a one perfect death rate. Yes I understand lag time, but these are only the confirmed cases. If all the other Australians who have the virus but have not been tested are added to the mix, the death rate per case would be much, much lower.

Consider one more set of numbers. Last year over 900 Australians died from influenza. Yes, that was higher than average, but it helps to put things in perspective. Having 65 corona deaths out of a population of 25.5 million, and all the relevant statistical curves as flat as a pancake, we have to ask about the lockdown we are under. We certainly do not lock down Australia each year because of the flu.

As always, we need to learn from history here. We know how often dictators and tyrants came to power by dealing with – or promising to deal with – various emergencies and crises. It could be a breakdown in law and order, real or perceived external threats, or economic crises, but the masses tended to support these leaders in their rise to power in the face of such threats.

One expert who has examined these truths is worth appealing to here. The Austrian-British philosopher and economist F. A. Hayek, in the third volume of his classic Law, Legislation and Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 1979) has a short section on “Emergency powers”. The first half of that is worth sharing here:

The basic principle of a free society, that the coercive powers of government are restricted to the enforcement of universal rules of just conduct, and cannot be used for the achievement of particular purposes, though essential to the normal working of such a society, may yet have to be temporarily suspended when the long-run preservation of that order is itself threatened. Though normally the individuals need be concerned only with their own concrete aims, and in pursuing them will best serve the common welfare, there may temporarily arise circumstances when the preservation of the over-all order becomes the overruling common purpose, and when in consequence the spontaneous order, on a local or national scale, must for a time be converted into an organization. When an external enemy threatens, when rebellion or lawless violence has broken out, or a natural catastrophe requires quick action by whatever means can be secured, powers of compulsory organization, which normally nobody possesses, must be granted to somebody. Like an animal in flight from mortal danger society may in such situations have to suspend temporarily even vital functions on which in the long run its existence depends if it is to escape destruction.

The conditions under which such emergency powers may be granted without creating the danger that they will be retained when the absolute necessity has passed are among the most difficult and important points a constitution must decide on. ‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded – and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist. Indeed if all needs felt by important groups that can be satisfied only by the exercise of dictatorial powers constitute an emergency, every situation is an emergency situation. It has been contended with some plausibility that whoever has the power to proclaim an emergency and on this ground to suspend any part of the constitution is the true sovereign. This would seem to be true enough if any person or body were able to arrogate to itself such emergency powers by declaring a state of emergency.

Let me highlight a key sentence from that second paragraph:

“Emergencies” have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded – and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist.”

Am I saying Morrison & Co are tinpot dictators? No, but caution is always needed nonetheless. At the very least one humorous meme making the rounds is worth running with here: “We are developing an app that will track politicians and alert civilians if they are at risk of coming in contact with one.” That might be a much more useful app than the current one that’s been mooted.

Bill Muehlenberg is a Melbourne cultural commentator.

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