How COVID-19 challenges our notions of freedom

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

Osvaldo Javier Lopez Ruiz  
Professor, Doctorate in Social Sciences – UNCuyo, Argentina;
Former Visiting Fellow, PSIG – Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies

Synopsis: Is our conception of “liberty” in the 21st century the same as that for the “moderns” of the 19th century? The coronavirus pandemic challenges our views and the idea (or ideal) of a universal concept of freedom that can be applied globally.

Keywords: freedom, COVID-19, liberalism, culture, globalization


A little more than 201 years ago, in February 1819, Benjamin Constant (Lausanne, 1767 – Paris, 1830), gave his famous lecture “The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns” at the Paris Athenaeum. In the lecture, Constant, a prominent figure of 19th century liberalism, analyzed the revolutionary rhetoric of the French Revolution. He also uncovered the constant trace of the notion of “freedom” of the ancients — especially of Athenians — in the discourse of the Jacobins who, following Rousseau among others, aspired to recreate the public virtues of antiquity to give a moral content to the constitution of the modern republic.

The freedom of the ancients consisted in exercising sovereignty directly but accepting the submission of the individual to the authority of the whole. In this way, the price paid for the active and continuous participation in power — where the will of each individual had a real influence in the collective — had as a counterpoint that the authority of the social body often hindered the will of individuals in their particular affairs. Thus, according to Constant, for the ancients, the individual was sovereign in public affairs but a slave in private matters. This was, in his opinion, a notion of freedom based on the civic virtues that the French revolutionaries wanted to adopt and that produced so many atrocities.

That is why Constant denounced the untimeliness of this notion of freedom. The world of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was very different from that of Classical Antiquity. Large communities had developed, the division of labour had diversified and slavery had disappeared — at least in Europe, we should add — and a mercantile or commercial society with modern characteristics had flourished. In the society of the 19th century the individual had much less possibility of influencing public affairs effectively with his will and, it didn’t escape Constant, he had less time and disposition to take care of them.

That is why the freedom of the moderns, unlike that of the ancients, had to be defined in terms of individual independence and security for private benefit and enjoyment, protecting individuals from the authority of the social body and from any advance on their freedom. For this reason, he reproaches the philosophers who had inspired the revolutionaries for not having taken into account the changes that two thousand years have brought about in the inclinations of the human race.

Quarantine: restricting freedom, a source of privilege, or universal right?

The COVID-19 pandemic, because of its global extension, presents a unique scenario to appreciate how much cultural construction is behind the notions with which we conduct our lives. For example, it has become evident to what extent the notion of freedom, which we like to think of as universal, can depend on the geography, culture and history of each community, as well as on the economic and political situation of each country.

In this sense, Switzerland is an interesting case because, being a small country with only eight million inhabitants, it allows us to appreciate the differences in sensitivity between those of Latin and those of Germanic culture — what has been called “Coronagraben”, referring to the differences in support for health measures taken by the authorities. While some cantons have shown their support for the containment provisions, others consider these measures as an intolerable limitation of their individual freedom and a violation of their fundamental rights.

In this context, among the different ways of reacting to the pandemic, one of the models that has been most discussed is that of Sweden — “a panacea” for the critics of restrictions on freedom of movement; a “risky experiment” for those who consider that appeals to civic conscience and individual responsibility are not sufficient in the face of the rate of spread of the virus.

At other latitudes, the measures taken against COVID-19 allow for very different readings. In developing countries — even in large economies like Brazil — quarantine can be understood as a privilege of a few to take care of their health. In a context where, because of the lack of social coverage, the great majority cannot stop working, being able to stay home to take care of the contagion is seen as a privilege. Many cannot stop their activity because of the risk of exposing their families to total abandonment. For them, those who can stay at home are privileged. In other words: in contexts like this, to have rights is to be privileged. Thus, faced with a situation of selective quarantine —only stop those who are able to stop — the idea of freedom is modulated in a different way.

However, as should be common sense, staying at home in the middle of an epidemic should not be considered a privilege. But neither should it be considered a merely individual decision. It is an act of collective solidarity that lends itself to the whole of society because the threat of COVID-19 is not individual — nor is its solution. For some then, the possibility of physical distancing should be not a privilege, but a universal right, the right to be able to protect oneself and others.

Writing “On the True Principles of Freedom,” Constant said, “Individuals must enjoy a boundless freedom in the use of their property and the exercise of their labor, as long as in disposing of their property or exercising their labor they do not harm others who have the same rights”. It is interesting to note in the claims to individual freedom “as…” seems to have been forgotten, if we take the definition of liberty for the moderns offered by Constant two centuries ago as a reference.

200 years may be more than 2000

A world like ours inhabited by 7.7 billion people seems to be very different from the world inhabited by a billion people like during Constant’s time. Even more so than if we compare the 19th century with the ancient world. This without even considering all the technological developments and the general progress experienced by humanity in terms of health, food, mortality rate, among others. Also, without considering the enormous social and environmental challenges that the almost eight-fold increase in population represents for the planet.

The sheer magnitude of these numbers is enough to make one wonder to what extent our notion of freedom may or may not continue to be the same one that inspired the thinker of Lausanne and many of his contemporaries who rightly defended, in the face of the excesses shown by the French Revolution, a different idea of freedom from that of the ancients.

However, today, the possibilities of having a universalist vision of freedom are paradoxically more limited than in the 19th century. In other words, it seems that in times of globalization and the rise of science and technology, the ideals of the Enlightenment are more than ever challenged. In this context, the COVID-19 pandemic puts before us the need to reflect on the validity and viability of our conception of freedom. It allows us to see in a very evident way how certain, perhaps, excessively self-centered definitions of freedom can become a dangerous ideology for life in society. This is particularly true when those of us who are protected by the social protection system forget too quickly the conditionality that the principles of freedom had for 19th century liberalism, in order to be considered as true. Or, when we also forget too quickly about the others, on whom we depend not only to avoid contagion.

Image credit: John Weiss

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