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The Virus Has Killed the Liberal Order

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

Daniel Hannan, Baron Hannan of Kingsclere, read Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford. From 1999 to 2020 he was a Member of European Parliament (MEP) for South East England. In 2019 he held a visiting professorship in History at the John Locke Institute. He is the founding president of the Initiative for Free Trade and sits as a Life Peer in the House of Lords.

Things won’t get back to normal. The political and psychological impact of Covid-19 will last for decades. The world into which we emerge will be poorer, meaner, more pinched, more authoritarian.

An epidemic flicks switches in our brains. We become warier and less tolerant of dissent. We demand the smack of firm government. And our mood won’t fade when the virus does. Think of the political changes that followed the Second World War, the last time people felt collectively threatened on this scale. Restrictions that were supposedly brought in on an emergency basis remained in place long after the emergency had passed – food rationing, identity cards, conscription, a controlled economy.

Why? Because wars and epidemics throw us back on our most basic hunter-gatherer instincts. We become more inward-looking, more tribal, more collectivist, more hierarchical. To put it another way, major disruptions of this kind remind us of how unnatural the liberal order is, and how fragile and contingent the individualism and prosperity of the past two centuries has been.

"Since 1824, average global incomes have risen by 3,000 percent."

“Free trade, the greatest blessing a government can bestow on a people, is in almost every country unpopular”, wrote Lord Macaulay in 1824. Since then, average global incomes have risen, at a conservative estimate, by 3,000 per cent – having previously barely sloped upwards at all. Globalisation and open markets have been miraculous poverty-busters. Take any measure you like: literacy, longevity, infant mortality, female education, calorie intake, height.

Yet, in thrall to our Palaeolithic instincts, we still refuse to accept it. We deny the evidence of rising prosperity; or else we tell ourselves that rising living standards come at a terrible cost, that society has become soulless and materialistic, that something is missing. Every protest movement against the modern liberal order – romanticism, existentialism, fascism, communism, religious fundamentalism – is a tortured cry from our inner caveman, yearning for the collectivism and authority of the kin-group.

As we haul ourselves from the pupa of lockdown, we find we are subtly transformed. There is more demand for authoritarian governments of both Left and Right. There is more protectionism, and thus more poverty. There is less tolerance of dissent. There is more identity politics – the ultimate form of collectivism, because it defines people, not as individuals, but by group.

The owl of Minerva, wrote Hegel, spreads its wings only with the gathering of the dusk. It may be that the ideas we took for granted in the modern age – that the individual is more than part of a collective, that the rulers shouldn’t be able to make up the rules as they go along, that people we don’t like might still have useful things to say, that our relations with one another should not be defined by birth or caste – were a blip, an exception. We may be coming to the end, so to speak, of a brief interglacial between long ice ages.

As the glaciers roll back in, let’s mark what we’re leaving behind. Let’s celebrate the extraordinary miracle that released the human race from ten thousand years of servitude and raised us to a pinnacle of wealth and happiness that was recently unimaginable. Let’s recognise the achievements of a market system that ended slavery, broke tyrannies, raised living standards for ordinary people, liberated women and minorities, stood in defence of the dignity of the individual. Let’s celebrate the first economic model that allowed people to get ahead, not by sucking up to the powers that be, but by offering a service to those around them. Let’s mourn, as it passes, the liberal order that was, before the pandemic struck, mopping up the last puddles of poverty on the planet.

Let’s acknowledge that capitalist moment, when reason overcame dogma and when ordinary people came to enjoy lifestyles that mediaeval kings could not have dreamt of. It was an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that hardly anyone understood or appreciated it. Its beneficiaries remained suspicious and hostile to the end. Only now, perhaps, as we revert to our natural condition, do we appreciate what we are losing.

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