Debate: Are authoritarian attitudes here to stay?


July 9, 2021

Michael St George, freelance writer, argues YES

The most shocking, to my mind, of the many unpleasant surprises of the past 16 months, from the Government exempting the vaccine from product liability to its eagerness to deploy behavioural psychology to persuade us to accept its ‘guidance’, has been the apparent acquiescence of the British public, long credited with visceral hostility to excessive state-authoritarianism, to the most draconian restrictions on economic and societal liberty imposed by their elected Government in peacetime.

That recent Ipsos MORI and YouGov polls suggest this level of submission could be prolonged, if not permanent, though a frightening prospect, doesn’t therefore feel surprising.

Firstly, fear, unfortunately, works, especially when fresh ‘variant’ scares follow one another in quick succession. An induced apprehension about contracting – via otherwise innocuous everyday activities – a hitherto unknown virus with a lurid reputation creates a perception of imminent and mortal risk. The immediacy boosts the potency, and in turn, the susceptibility to compliance.

Secondly, the poll findings are supported by the conclusions of the IEA’s newly-published paper on how favourable attitudes towards socialism and collectivism are no longer a youthful aberration, but now persist even among those in their 40s. Against this background, it’s perhaps reasonable to assume as a concomitant a greater inclination within that demographic to see the activist and controlling State as a solution rather than a hindrance, a source of beneficial pastoral care rather than oppressive restriction.

Clinging to the lifeline that the mistrust felt by so many towards polling firms is justified and that these figures are therefore an over-statement suspiciously agreeable to the State – because the alternative presages a dystopian nightmare too awful to contemplate – I fervently hope that I’m wrong, but genuinely worry that I might be right.

Andy Mayer, Chief Operating Officer at the Institute of Economic Affairs argues NO

During a pandemic, it’s a mistake to confuse agreeableness and bias for the status quo with evidence of widespread authoritarian attitudes. Opinion polls, like photographs, tell you where you’ve been, not where you’re going.

It’s likely that people’s views are largely driven by their level of comfort with the status quo, in turn driven by their personality traits, as well as the relative attractiveness of alternatives. Many people are also naturally risk averse, agreeable, bound by duty, or otherwise slow to embrace the ‘new normal’ until it is the ‘new normal’.

That doesn’t make them authoritarians, but certainly more at risk of exploitation by real authoritarians. Most people can be swayed to support bad ideas by social pressure, whether it be socialism, fascism, or any other belief that we need the state to dictate our choices. But it is quite a leap from ‘people living in a pandemic support anti-pandemic controls’ to ‘round up the dissenters and send them to the gulag’.

Freedom loving libertarians should not be baffled by the apparent willingness of some Brits to embrace the dystopian currency of current pandemic restrictions – they’re conditioned for caution. One of the reasons government communications about reopening were so bad under the last Health Secretary is that everything was targeted towards reassuring the most terrified. This, rather than encouraging the bold to be brave, to encourage the waverers to follow.

The current Government, for all their love of micro-nannying idiocy from third rank civil servants, are orientated towards freedom. They have set a path towards laws becoming guidance, and guidance becoming personal choices. That’s the direction we’re heading.

The cancer of public health authoritarianism requires actual viruses to sustain the mind worms of compliance. The vaccines have done for the viruses. Lovers of freedom and their embrace of life will do for the worms.

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