Is Australia an autocracy? Is it on the Road to Serfdom? And what about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?!?!

In my previous post, I argued that the only plausible way to criticize covid policy is to explain why some alternative policy mix (possibly a policy with a big dose of “no regulation”) will lead to better outcomes than the current policy regime.  Libertarians often refuse to engage in this type of policy analysis.  Instead, they often claim that government efforts to fight covid are illegitimate because they are authoritarian, or violate rights, or in some vaguely specified way may put us on the Road to Serfdom.  Let’s take a look at a couple of arguments, again focusing on Australia.

In the Atlantic, Connor Friedersdorf had a column up recently questioning whether Australia is still a liberal democracy:

Australia is undoubtedly a democracy, with multiple political parties, regular elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. But if a country indefinitely forbids its own citizens from leaving its borders, strands tens of thousands of its citizens abroad, puts strict rules on intrastate travel, prohibits citizens from leaving home without an excuse from an official government list, mandates masks even when people are outdoors and socially distanced, deploys the military to enforce those rules, bans protest, and arrests and fines dissenters, is that country still a liberal democracy?

Enduring rules of that sort would certainly render a country a police state. In year two of the pandemic, with COVID-19 now thought to be endemic, rather than a temporary emergency the nation could avoid, how much time must pass before we must regard Australia as illiberal and unfree?

Of course Australia is still a liberal democracy.  Here is how we can tell. 

First, as Friedersdorf notes, it still has multiple parties, regular elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. 

Second, although some of the freedoms we normally take for granted have been restricted, such as the right to travel, many of these restrictions seem at least plausible in response to covid.  Furthermore, to the best of my knowledge the restrictions are general and do not target socially disfavored groups (they are not aimed at “discrete and insular minorities”, in American legal parlance).

Not all restrictions on rights are authoritarian.  Restrictions on rights are inevitable, and their necessity is recognized by the United Nations.

It is possible to argue that any limitation of basic rights is authoritarian and unacceptable.  Alex Tabarrok suggests here that Australia is an authoritarian state because it has suspended the right to travel, which is a basic human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.    

The problem with this argument is that rights are not and simply cannot be absolute.  The real world is messy and full of tradeoffs.  Rights often conflict with each other and with the duty of government to promote the public welfare.  The right to a fair trial can conflict with the right to a free press.  The right to a free press can conflict with the right not to have your reputation attacked.  Criminal and civil due process rights are limited in every country on earth because process is expensive, and as a result giving people lots of process conflicts with the duty of government to promote the general welfare.  Every legal system in the world recognizes that rights must be limited when they conflict with each other or the general welfare.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states clearly that the rights it enumerates – including the right to travel – can be restricted to promote the general welfare. 

Of course we can argue about how the balance between different rights and the public welfare should be struck in particular cases, but to declare Australia an authoritarian state because it has restricted the right to travel is over the top.  Liberal democracies can and must put reasonable limits on rights.  Serious questions would indeed be raised if the right to travel was being withheld to punish enemies of the government or to burden socially disfavored groups, but that does not seem to be the argument that Friedersdorf or Tabarrok are making.

Australia will not become an autocracy due to covid (though of course democracy may fail for other reasons)

Perhaps, as Friedersdorf notes in the quote above, there is a danger that the current covid restrictions will be retained after the epidemic wanes.  In this case, Australia would arguably cease to be a liberal democracy, and insisting on an immediate end to all restrictions might be justified to avert catastrophe.

There are many problems with this “Road to Serfdom” argument, the most obvious of which is that the risk that Australia will remain locked down forever is vanishingly low because literally nobody wants this to happen.  Restaurant owners want to serve meals and customers want to eat them.  People want to travel and to receive visitors and to sell stuff that tourists want to buy.  Once the virus is under control this is exactly what will happen.  It might take a bit longer than it should, but the idea that covid has put Australia on the Road to Serfdom is absurd.  Politicians may take too long to loosen restrictions, but they know the restrictions will end and they are saying this out loud.

Again, to be continued . . .