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Covid-19 and Hobbes vs Locke

6 October 2021

5:01 PM

6 October 2021

5:01 PM

As we inch towards learning to live with Covid, it is common to hear it said that the government is granting us more freedom. The mainstream media, particularly television, loves to tell us that if we follow the rules, or ‘do the right thing’ as they like to put it, we will be rewarded with more freedom.  

This implies our freedom is given to us by the government. Only rarely, in Australia at least, do we hear anyone suggest a contrary view – that freedom belongs to us and the government merely takes it away.  

These two perspectives are fundamental to political philosophy. On one side are those who believe governments are essential to create rules for our well-being. On the other are those who view governments as a major threat to freedom. 

They can be traced to the views of two philosophers of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes thought the natural state of man was perpetual war, with life nasty, brutish and short. In his view, the only way to achieve a civilised society was to relinquish all liberties to the sovereign, who then allowed certain rights as he chose. 

Locke thought man was by nature peaceful and industrious, but to establish a society in which private property can be protected it was necessary to relinquish certain liberties to the sovereign. However, he believed this was a limited and conditional arrangement; only the powers required for the preservation of life, liberty and property ought to be relinquished, and ultimate power remains with the people. If the sovereign gets too controlling, those powers can be reclaimed. 

Locke heavily influenced the American declaration of independence. As many will be aware, it says: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.

In theory, a government based on Hobbesian principles could be as free as one based on Lockean principles. But that would require leaders with intelligence, compassion, and the wisdom to acknowledge their own limitations. A government based on Lockean principles only requires leaders who can be removed.  

Notwithstanding the Declaration of Independence, America is mostly not governed according to Lockean principles. Many measures introduced in that country to control the spread of Covid have entailed massive impositions on freedom, just as they have in Australia.  

Nonetheless, many Americans view freedom as their birthright, not to be relinquished without compelling justification. Consequently, Covid restrictions have met with far more resistance than in Australia. Opposition to lockdowns was significant from the start, and in some places are now actually prohibited, while resistance to obligatory vaccination is rapidly rising.  

Australia never gained its independence through war and has nothing resembling the Declaration of Independence. Notwithstanding our convict history, we are more like jailers than the miners at the Eureka Stockade or a sheep stealer who jumps into the billabong to avoid capture. Our larrikin image is not based on a deep-rooted respect for freedom.  

That explains why so many Australians, fearful of catching the disease, accepted without protest the loss of freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion, of movement, and of the right to protest, because they expected the government to protect them. They even tolerated the separation of children from their parents, welcomed the use of the military to promote compliance, and looked away when the police engaged in violent thuggery.   

Only a minority, quite small at first, questioned the measures. Are these losses of liberties proportionate to the risks, they asked? Why aren’t you even trying to convince us? Have all aspects, not just health, been taken into account? If jobs, careers, education and businesses are also important, why have they been disregarded in the pursuit of minimising the Covid health risk?  

Were less coercive options, pursued in some other countries, given genuine consideration? How do you account for the fact that the national pandemic plan says lockdowns are only to be used as a last resort, yet we had lockdowns and closed state borders imposed as a first response, sometimes with just one case?  

Not one of our governments has released the health advice upon which the restrictions were based, so others can assess whether they are scientifically sound and proportionate to the risk. Instead, public health officials have become media personalities, judged on their TV presence rather than the soundness of their policy advice.    

Indeed, accountability overall is low. Sittings of parliament, state and federal, have been postponed, suspended or neutered, removing or reducing the opportunity to hold ministers to account. Not that any parliamentary oppositions have offered a critique of the measures anyway. In reality, beyond some trivial questioning by mainstream media, most of which is reflexively Hobbesian, ministers and senior bureaucrats have rarely had to defend their decisions.  

Perhaps most important of all, there has been minimal attention paid to whether the measures are temporary. A Lockean society might tolerate a loss of freedom if it perceives the threat to be significant, but it has an expectation that it will be temporary.  

Rather than what we are seeing in the UK, where vaccine passports have been ditched and some of the emergency legislation repealed, each relaxation of restrictions in Australia is presented as a reward for good behaviour.  

In many ways, the Hobbes versus Locke distinction is the story of western civilisation: individualism versus collectivism, personal responsibility versus government control. The Covid experience tells us that Australia is, below the surface, quite an authoritarian country. And while they might not think too hard about it, most Australians would choose Hobbes over Locke.   

For those of us who prefer Locke, this is depressing. We have had four hundred years to compare the two approaches and the evidence is clear: government can be a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  

The author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, famously wrote: “what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?” 

If he were to tell us that now, I wonder how many would listen.  

David Leyonhjelm is a former senator for the Liberal Democrats.

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