24 March, 2020

“With consistency, a great soul has simply nothing to do.

You may as well concern yourself with your shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict everything you said today.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson — Self-Reliance (1841)

My friend Angela rang me yesterday to ask me if I would publish my last post (unchanged) today, knowing what I know now. She wanted to know if my position had changed, my view of the world had altered and whether, on balance, I felt that expressing my sentiments the way I had, would be such a good idea? This is the summary of my response to her, made necessary by our conversation and only just preempting a follow up that I had intended to write anyway.

I will admit first up that I am finding it intellectually challenging – not to say excrutiating – to construct a robust path of reasoning that will allow me to hold on to my ideals of freedom, limited government interference in commerce, markets and personal liberty, whilst at the same time acknowledging the very real possibility that, guided by the best estimates of knowledgable men and women of science, governments have little choice, but to issue a blanket lock down on personal mobility with all its catastrophic consequences for businesses great and small, at least until the now infamous curve has flattened and the exponential spread of the disease has been halted and reversed.

I have neither the capacity nor the interest nor even a semblance of a qualification to add an ounce of substance to the epidemiological arguments being held in open court. I see and hear that scientists and the relevant knowledge communities are still struggling to find a statistically valid basis from which to extrapolate the severity, outcomes and fatality rates of COVID-19. There is, to say the very least, a large disparity between the various possible scenarios and their probabilities. It would also appear that there is no consensus around the dispersion of susceptibilities and potential fatalities amongst age or any other segmentation of the public by risk factors, other than the blindingly obvious statement that those with weakened immune systems will be more at risk than those in more robust health. But – and here my thinking has evolved rapidly over the last 10 days – given that we must allow for those in charge of making these decisions, to err always on the side of caution and given that even in the mildest CTF scenario the human cost will be in the hundreds of thousands, the case can easily be made for the program of self-isolation to enable a strategy of viral suppression, as being the most responsible course of action. Not least because the health services are already being overwhelmed in the early phases of the outbreak and at risk of a complete collapse as the disease goes exponential.

As Nick Timothy writes in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, “You need three things to get through a plague. First as much social distancing as possible, perhaps for months. Second a strong central government to do what civil society cannot. And third, a strong sense of oneself, a confidence in being alone, a hinterland and, yes, “faith” in the broadest sense of the word. You need hope.”

The key to my libertarian dilemma is contained in the second precept: the need for a strong government to do what civil society cannot. And therein lies the rub. I suspect we are all being tested in our comprehension of what it means to be free in a liberal order and we are being forced to think deeply about where the boundaries of that freedom might lie and what to do when we bump up against them, as we are all surely doing now.

In this case we appear to have no choice, given where we are now, but to acquiesce to the government’s order that we stay indoors and self-isolate. Not assisting the virus to spread, protecting the weak and infirm from infection and death and ensuring that the “exponential” phase of the plague is kept as short as possible seems like a good idea. And by my actions you can tell that I am complying: I am staying at home, not travelling, going out only to shop for necessities or to disappear with the dogs up into the deserted fells behind the village in which I live. I am, for once, doing as I have been told to do.

But I will admit, that I am not doing it with very much enthusiasm and an equal and opposite amount scepticism about the consequences – unintended and otherwise. I struggle with this concept of “strong government doing what civil society cannot.” What is it exactly that civil society “cannot” do? And what do we mean exactly by “strong”? There are pictures in the UK papers this morning of the London Underground trains packed to the gunwales with commuters, which make drawing a line from “idiotic individuals” to “we need government coercion” simple enough. We evidently need protecting from ourselves as we are too stupid, selfish, inconsiderate, ill-informed (pick your adjective du choix) to make the “right” decisions for ourselves. Hard to argue with that.

However, I am aware that no matter how much of a Dame Vera Lynn wartime spirit is currently being channeled to focus our attention on “coming together” (the irony of which is so rich that it almost farcical) to battle this common enemy, my lack of enthusiasm is grounded in a profound mistrust in the competence and managerial skills of those now insisting on the abrogation of vast powers of coercion, unparalleled in post-war (or any other) times to themselves for the common good. Having lived through the last four years of Brexit shenanigans, in which no lever was left un-pulled to convince and berate the public of the dangers of their idiocy, I am unsurprised by the unwillingness of the same public, at least in the UK, to take any claims of immanent doom and disaster from the authorities at face value. Only somebody with a positive bank account of goodwill and an obvious distaste for the job of telling the entire country to close the pubs and stay at home, such as Boris Johnson, could even have thought to venture out onto this thinnest of ices and be admired let alone complied with. The thought of having the crisis managed by Albert Steptoe & Co. would be enough to rob me of my sleep, so I am at least thankful for small mercies.

So: I have accepted the principle and am adhering to the call for self-isolation, but my compliance should not be taken as blanket agreement with the decisions that have led us here nor to the fact that along the way many steps could have been taken to mitigate this sledgehammer approach. It beggars belief that testing, both in the US and the UK to name just two of the largest and ostensibly freest economies, is still negligible, with no signs of a rapid ramp up to make up for lost time.

I cannot get the thought out of my head that this pandemic has evolved into a game of chicken between a grotesquely underfunded and badly managed healthcare system and a massively over-leveraged, appallingly managed public economy and that these two juggernauts are now careering at full speed towards one another, with the economy being forced off the road at the last moment. I cannot get the nagging suspicion out of my mind that the greater the noise about the dangers of overwhelm of our “beyond-reproach” national health systems (and I don’t just mean the NHS in the UK) the less people will be tempted to ask why they were so woefully ill-prepared, so obviously underfunded, under-invested, over-managed and under-staffed going into the crisis. That these creaking behemoths, great monuments to central planning and government incompetence, were unfit for purpose before the crisis was obvious to anyone who has had to deal with them. That they should be threatened with collapse at even the slightest increase in capacity should not surprise anyone either.

So, Angela, no, I wouldn’t have posted my last post as I did, had I known then what I know today. I would not have mounted the libertarian barricades to defend the sanctity of free markets and our economy, not because I no longer believe they have been egregiously violated and not because I am not seething with rage at the cack-handed way in which large parts of the economy have been shut down with scant regard for the real and lasting damage that might be done to small and medium-sized businesses across the globe, but because that is not the battle to be fighting now and anyway it is blowing in the wind and unhelpful, given where we are. I am saving that breath for another day.

Now is a time for leadership and the moral imperative of leadership to be optimistic and to have faith that by acting we can create a better future. In this spirit I have published a guide for leaders of small and medium sized enterprises (but equally applicable I suppose to leaders in any company or institution) which is downloadable from the goodandprosper.com website under the title “Leadership in the Time of COVID-19”. I hope you found it useful.