Liberty at a Crossroads

by Russell Coates

In the 2020s, the cause of liberty around the world stands at a crossroads. The state of affairs during the first couple of years of this decade has brought many challenges to our liberty, but through these challenges, we can learn important lessons and make an even stronger case for liberty. 

While it may not always seem immediately obvious, the world of 2022 presents many opportunities to advance the cause of liberty. We can highlight the value of liberty in our lives, particularly in the context of the unprecedented infringements on our civil liberties in recent years.

Learning lessons from the authoritarian response to the pandemic

In their response to the pandemic, most governments disregarded not only conventional wisdom regarding public health crises but also liberal values. Their one-size-fits-all approach that involved shutting down economies and confining everyone to their homes for months on end was straight out of the authoritarian playbook of the Chinese regime.

Thankfully, across Europe, the lockdowns that caused so much economic and psychological damage, particularly to the most vulnerable, appear to be off the table for the foreseeable future. More and more people recognize lockdowns as a disastrous policy that was unsuccessful at eradicating the virus while incurring an unacceptable cost on individuals’ lives and livelihoods.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it is important to reflect on the implications of the restrictions governments imposed on us. Around the world, faced with a novel virus, governments made knee-jerk reactions, seized emergency powers, and created unprecedented new legislation that would have a major impact on the lives of all those living under their jurisdiction. 

All of this was typically brought about on an indefinite basis and without due process or proper scrutiny. Those who voiced concerns over the implications for civil liberties were far too easily dismissed as dangerous fanatics. Yet, over time – as it became clear that the only viable long-term solution would be to live with the risk of infection – scrutiny of extreme measures became more widely acceptable to the point of now being the majority position.

While we cannot simply undo the damage caused by these policies, it is imperative that such a dangerous expansion of the role and scope of government must never again be tolerated. Just because it appears that the era of lockdowns has come to an end does not mean that it is a case of ‘job done’ for advocates of civil liberties. 

Those of us who value liberty hold that an individual has the fundamental right to go outside, to earn a living, or to welcome guests into their homes, so long as they are not demonstrably infringing on the liberty of another. As such, we must now advocate more fervently than ever for meaningful safeguards against future government infringement against civil liberties.

Human progress must resume

The 2010s saw a tremendous surge in global economic development and human progress. Indeed, while extreme poverty remains a substantial problem in parts of the world, particularly in countries with less economic freedom, the global rate of extreme poverty experienced a steady decline.

Tragically, due to policies implemented over the course of the pandemic, the 2020s have so far seen extensive setbacks in the eradication of extreme poverty, as well as a more insular world than we’ve seen in a long time. However, taking these setbacks as a stark warning, there is no reason why the remainder of the decade should not see a return to rapid human progress.

One worrying idea that has gained traction in some circles recently is that of degrowth, or more specifically a planned economic contraction that would supposedly benefit the environment. This is an idea that we must firmly reject. Not only would this require an egregious assault on individual and economic freedom and result in greatly reduced living standards, it would also be counterproductive.

Indeed, there is a strong correlation between higher degrees of economic development and reduction in pollution. Technological advances and market factors play an important role in providing solutions to environmental issues. In anticipation of the years ahead, innovation carries enormous potential to look forward to, provided it is not stifled by burdensome regulations geared towards benefiting legacy industries.

In the 2020s, we are seeing a renewed effort by advocates of more rational environmentalism to highlight the merits of nuclear power, which is safe, clean, and effective at meeting the energy needs of an industrialized world. 

Instead of governments seeking to eliminate the nuclear industry, this tremendous source of power should be embraced as an opportunity. With a resurgent nuclear industry, reliance on fossil fuels or gas from hostile authoritarian regimes can be greatly reduced without governments subjecting people to the rising costs associated with a focus on renewables alone.

Over the course of the decade, we are likely to witness the increasing ability of technology to help undermine the stranglehold of authoritarian rulers. For instance, as we have already seen in countries like Cuba and Belarus, access to the internet along with effective tools to bypass government censorship has made a meaningful difference in people’s ability to find and disseminate information, coordinate protests, and raise awareness of their plight by reaching a global audience.

An important aspiration for friends of liberty is to see not only a return to pre-pandemic levels of globalization but an enhanced global interconnectedness. As such, 2022 marks a crucial junction. 

In this case, one route leads to authoritarian populists, whether on the left or the right, using the events of recent years as a springboard to the formation of a more inward-looking, disconnected, and nationalistic world. The other route is that which leads to a renewed pressure for global trade, free migration, greater understanding and cooperation, and an abundance of opportunities.

Finally, there is one thing that is certain: far from being demoralised by the challenges this decade has presented thus far, friends of liberty will be galvanised by these experiences – with more motivation than ever to strive for a freer, fairer, and more prosperous future. 

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