Your freedoms (and mine) are in danger and civil rights and democracy are not compatible. These issues already existed before the pandemic. They just became more apparent and more pressing because of it.
The pandemic and the political measures taken in response have led to restrictions most of us have never thought possible. Things we were accustomed to suddenly became memories of the past. Distant memories, becoming blurred the longer the COVID-measures were kept in place. Our homes became prisons. Our dreams and aspirations were rendered impossible. An atmosphere of fear was lingering over society, leading to people accepting rigorous restrictions of their civil rights, with almost no opposition. An unprecedented assault on freedom took place, and most people were complacent.
By civil rights, I don’t mean civil rights as defined by governments. I want to challenge the notion that civil rights are given to people by someone else. Civil rights are something inherent to human dignity, and they have to be taken by each individual to be effective for this individual. Civil “rights“ given to you are privileges, not rights. And as such, the ones giving you these privileges are able – and maybe even legitimized – to take them away from you as they see fit.
So, what are civil rights? Etymologically civil rights are a characteristic of humans interacting with each other in a civilized manner. Interacting in a civilized manner essentially means respecting the human dignity of your fellow men. In other words, it means seeing your fellow man as an end in himself, not as a means to an end. The respect of human dignity implies the right to self-determination. Whenever you view your fellow man as an end in himself, you will have a hard time arguing that these same men don‘t have the right to self-determination. Therefore, the most important civil right is the right to be fully in charge of one‘s own life.
Democracy and Rights
Everybody nowadays seems to support democracy, but not many people can explain what they mean when they talk of democracy. In a way, something being democratic has become synonymous with it being good, ethical, or righteous.
Etymologically, democracy means people’s rule. What is meant by that – both historically and currently – is not self-determination, but participation. In most contemporary democracies, this participation is understood primarily to be the right to vote. A democracy that defines itself by allowing its people to vote has nothing to do with self-determination. As soon as there is more than one person – yourself – taking a vote, self-determination is out of the window on the topic voted on. You are then ruled by others, at least partially.
Taking a closer look, we often see that the things we deem worth protecting when it comes to democracy are the things that restrict rulership and, consequently, the scope of democracy. In that sense, when we talk about protecting democracy, we often mean preserving our freedom, our liberties. We want to protect ourselves against rulership, against undue interference in our lives, and therefore also against the core of democracy, which is participation – both by others in your life and by yourself in the lives of others. So maybe – just maybe – it isn‘t democracy we want to defend. Perhaps it is the case that we want to defend ourselves from democracy.
Rights during Corona
Most government measures in response to Corona had the support of the majority, and I don’t know why this is. It may be that many people already see it as something normal to infringe on other people’s rights to do what’s “good” for society. It may be that people are scared because they believe that this virus is a threat to their lives (and don’t get me wrong here, for some people, it is!). It may be that the questions posed to the voters are whether they think some action is a good idea, not whether they think people should be coerced to act accordingly.
And then, a law is passed based on the preferences of the voters, not on their willingness to force other people to do or not do something. There is a big difference between wanting something to happen and wanting to coerce others to make it happen. But this difference is largely ignored by modern politics. That is probably one main reason that democracy has become a more substantial threat to civil liberties than most people realize.
Whatever the case, the fact is that the majority accepted harsh restrictions on the right to self-determination. Not just since Corona, but a long time before that. The regulatory code was growing daily for decades, reducing the possible scope of self-determination while doing so. Since Corona, however, this tendency has intensified. Businesses were shut down, borders were closed, gatherings were curtailed. Worse still, many people weren’t even allowed to leave their homes if they didn’t have “a good reason” for doing so – for weeks, even months. Could any of you have imagined that to happen only two years ago?
Rights and Their Importance
The cold, iron fist of the state came down upon Europe and most other parts of the world. I understand everyone saying that the restrictions were necessary evils and that there would have been a catastrophe if they hadn’t been introduced. But I disagree. Restrictions on self-determination have one very destructive side-effect: they lead to people becoming less responsible for their actions, as they are coerced to act in a certain way anyhow. And it is hard to take responsibility for actions that are forced on you. People acting irresponsibly is the last thing you want in a pandemic. Trying to cure irresponsibility by taking responsibility from people won’t mitigate, but exacerbate the problem.
When people aren’t able to lead a self-determined life, an atmosphere of desperation and depression is the consequence. Being unable to lead a self-determined life is the same as being unable to pursue dreams. Robbing people of the means to pursue their dreams is the cruelest and most inhumane act I can think of. It takes the fire out of people. You can see that in their eyes. And that is the tragedy all the restrictions on self-determination have led to, long before Corona. Many people’s means to lead a happy life were taken away. A life that feeds on our inner fire. A life worth living, not merely existing.
This is the reason why rights derived from the right to self-determination are so crucial. All individual and entrepreneurial rights that matter for libertarians are related to self-determination in some way. These are the rights that have to be defended, also against majority-backed attacks. Individual rights, or more precisely individual privileges, lose their function as a defense against mob rule if only minorities viewed kindly upon by the majority are protected. This is rather obvious when it comes to taxes, for example – especially when it comes to taxing the rich. The rich are a minority that is viewed unkindly upon by the majority, and therefore people find no issue in disproportionately taxing rich people. However, if only those minority groups that are viewed kindly upon by the majority are protected, we are at least close to a tyranny of the majority.
Going back to what happened in the pandemic and we can see what the dangers for civil rights are. Some people are already trying to use the restrictions of the pandemic as a blueprint for further restrictions in the name of other issues, like climate change for example. While I agree that there are issues that need to be solved, restricting self-determination is not a promising way to solve them. Quite the opposite, self-determination enhances responsibility, increases creativity, and leads to more innovation. More than that, it leads to a life full of stimulating experiences that make life brighter and much more colorful. That is why I agree with Thomas Jefferson when he wrote: “I prefer the tumult of liberty to the quiet of servitude.”
In times like these, it is essential to fight for what is important and not waste energy fighting for something that only seems important on the surface. Freedom in the sense of self-determination is what makes a society prosperous, fascinating, and worth living in. Let‘s make sure that the “new normal“ isn‘t forged by more “participation“ and buzzwords like democracy. Let‘s make sure it is shaped by the astonishing diversity and zest for life that comes with self-determination.