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Liberty and lockdown: Perceptions in USA and UK

In many Western countries many people are demanding an end to “stay at home” orders issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This is a mistake, but an understandable one. Liberty, after all, is hardwired into the our psyche, and the limiting obligations of quarantine are in conflict with that instinct.  People around the globe are vexed with the long and strict lockdown and they want freedom — freedom to go shopping, freedom to open up their businesses, freedom to go sit in a restaurant and have dinner with friends, freedom merely to do what they were doing unencumbered two months ago. As one scholar says ‘quarantine is when you restrict movement of sick people but  tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people’.

American perception of liberty and lockdown

Even  today, everything said in America is primarily in terms of freedom: who has it, who doesn’t, how we got it, how some of us had to fight for it for far too long, how some of us are still fighting for it, and even how we define it. Individual liberty isn’t just one of our chief national values — it can sometimes seem like the only principle we collectively share across the political spectrum. It’s difficult to think of a song about America that doesn’t include the word “freedom.” “Stay at home” orders are rooted in another, somewhat less-lauded virtue: community. We are staying home — those of us who can — not just because we don’t want to risk contracting the virus, but also because we don’t want to risk spreading the virus to others. We’re looking out for the collective good. We don’t necessarily have training for this. Our national stories and culture don’t often highlight the merits of taking care of each other. And yet the collective good exists. Without it, we might not have volunteer fire departments, public hospitals, or even book clubs. We are healthier, safer, and happier when we work together to create things we couldn’t on our own. For all our love of rugged individualism, very few of us move to the country to live off-grid. We need freedom, but we also need each other. It isn’t always easy to find the right balance, but in some circumstances — like during a global pandemic — we have to accept limits on our own lives so that others might benefit. The public at large seems to recognize that some limits now might be good for the long-term health of the country. We owe each other — and ourselves — the chance to live. Elsewhere, lockdown is causing social tension and even protest. Only very small numbers of people in some American states are demonstrating against the curtailment of liberty, but they are demonstrating. The English, by contrast, have accepted lockdown with a wistful shrug and maybe a bit of passive-aggressive grumbling, eschewing riots in favour of settling down with a nice cup of tea to wait things out.

Views of Britishers on liberty and lockdown

In the context, the British has an  extraordinary document called Magna  which  echoed down the centuries, with consequences far beyond the scope here. One was probably the Civil War, which in England at least had its roots in the legal reasoning of men such as Sir Edward Coke, that even the monarch was subject to Parliament’s laws. Coke paved the way for William Blackstone, the 18th century judge who defined “the absolute rights of every Englishman” including freedom from unwarranted interference by the state. These “rights of Englishmen” were a cornerstone of the American Revolution and the establishment of the United States. At least some of the founders believed that their new nation was brought into being to preserve the liberties that supposedly defined England yet which a tyrannical king and his ministers had defiled. The Americans  claim Nothing but the Liberty & Privileges of Englishmen, in the same Degree, as if we had still continued among our Brethren in Great Britain: these Rights have not been forfeited by any Act of ours, we can not be deprived of them without our Consent, but by Violence. Injustice when our American cousins cry “Live Free or Die” and take to the streets to protest overweening state authority during lockdown, whether they know it or not, they are honouring  the tradition of English liberty. That tradition has not entirely died out in England itself, even if many of the English prefer to hallow St George and the nation’s history by ignoring the issue altogether.   But some people still remember, upholding the idea of “freeborn Englishmen” as a band especially committed to personal freedom.

As for lockdown, this is, of course, just a speculation, but it seems likely that people who think that the majority and its official representatives should be able to tell us all what to do would be willing to heed instructions to stay at home — even on their patron saint’s day. And to make sure others do too, hence all those calls to the police from people informing on others for such transgressions as walking the dog not once but twice a day. So numerous are those calls that the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has had to urge the public to “exercise common sense and only report well-meaning concerns”. In other words, the police in England, this land of liberty, have had to beg people to stop grassing up their neighbours to the authorities for “simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishmen.

Author: Dr. Rajkumar Singh Professor and Head University Department of Political Science B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura Madhepura-852113. Bihar, India.

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