Liberalism in a Pandemic

The US has been plagued by horrific events against their black population for a long, long time. In fact, the country was in part built on a foundation of racism. Thus, the recent protests are definitely warranted, and I support them wholeheartedly. There are many ways in which a more just and equal society would benefit us all, and I despise anyone who would not stand by the BLM movement, as it is not about black lives mattering more, it is about black lives mattering as much as ours.  

Still, there are some things that bother me in the midst of all of this. Not directly related to the BLM movement, instead I am going to focus on a few things that has been going on in Sweden.

First, let me recap. I have been critical toward the strategy chosen by the Swedish government in fighting COVID-19, as I have written in earlier posts. I have also written about the virtue of intellectual humility in matters that are highly uncertain. With the things that I am going to write about in this post, I also think it is important to highlight that I have been living as I have been preaching. I have not been in any crowd in the last three months, I have not visited any restaurants or cafés etc. The only time I have been exposed to other people is when I have been to the grocery store and when I am at work, which I could not avoid.

Thus, I think I have the merits to critique what I have been seeing in Sweden, more specifically, in Stockholm, the last few weeks. I have two observations, which will then lead into a conclusion.

Ever since the curve started to flatten and the number of people dying each day got fewer and fewer, more and more people have started to move around on the streets of Stockholm. The outdoor seatings of all the restaurants are filled to the brim, the parks are also filled with people enjoying the weather. The days of social distancing are over, people are not worrying anymore. It is as if the virus has lost its psychological power over the people, they are not scared of it anymore. Why? Well, the only answer I can come up with is that the fear declines with the number of people dying from the virus. This, this is morally despicable. While the elderly are dying and others are getting irreparable lung damage from the virus, the people of Stockholm are running around and potentially spreading the virus to even more people.

Then, a few days ago a demonstration was held in Stockholm. A demonstration held in the memory of George Floyd and as a demonstration of solidarity of the BLM movement. A worthy cause of a demonstration in itself. But, the context in which this is done must be considered. I have seen different estimates for the amount of people that gathered at Sergels Torg, thousands gathered there. Thousands, that all could spread the virus among each other. The demonstration in Stockholm has triggered more demonstrations in other parts of the country. What is the problem with this? The problem lies not in the cause, but rather in the potential costs and benefits of such demonstrations. There are so many ways for Swedish youths, that are concerned about racism and injustices, to express their sympathies for the BLM movement. Ways that do not involve the potential to spread a deadly virus.

These two observations, in some ways similar and in some ways not, have been brought up in the past few days from different sides of the debate. Some justify the demonstration with the fact that the people of Stockholm are already ignoring most guidelines of social distancing. I believe that one wrong ought not to justify another wrong. Furthermore, I believe that these observations prove an important point. Liberalism must die during a pandemic.

Letting individuals decide what measures are enough to protect the population is not good enough. For each individual, in this specific pandemic younger individuals, the cost of social distancing and confinement may be high. They also do not have to bear the cost of not following the lax guidelines, instead the older generations have to bear that cost. Most 20-30-year-olds do not get very sick from the virus. Thus, it may be “rational” for them to live their life as they did before the pandemic. But, to save lives, and perhaps the economy, one cannot act rational on an individual level, we need to act rationally on a national level. For that to happen, liberalism and individual freedom cannot guide policy decisions.

I am sympathetic to many liberal ideas; in the end I believe that market mechanisms and personal freedom can solve many of the problems a person face in their life. But, in government one must also consider scale. Liberal ideas may not be sufficient at the scale of our national governments, why? Because the problems that I, as an individual, face are very different from the problems that the government faces. Different problems require different solutions, and those solutions may come from different modes of thought.

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