Daniel Hannan: I hate everything about the lockdown. But most of all, how much we like being bossed around.

31 Mar

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

I hate everything about the lockdown. I hate the confiscation of liberty, and the ease with which it is surrendered. I hate the damage to children’s education. I hate the prying and the prissiness and the pettiness. I hate the way university students have missed out on what should be the best time of their lives. I hate the tone in which police officers address people going about their lawful business.

I hate the way the goalposts keep moving: flatten the curve; no – wait for a vaccine; no – keep the pressure off the NHS; no – stop new variants. I hate the cataclysmic impact on small businesses, and the indifference of large parts of the public. I hate the debt we are racking up. I hate the protectionism and the authoritarianism. I hate hearing words like “hoarder” and “profiteer” – words we used to associate with extremist ideologies. I hate the loneliness that I see weighing on my elderly neighbours. I hate the profusion of pettifogging laws.

But d’you know what I hate the most? I hate what it has revealed about us. It turns out that we quite like being bossed around – at least, a lot of us do. Given the excuse of a collective threat, we revel in crackdowns and prohibitions.

I am not talking about the contingent acceptance of some restrictions. Almost everyone can see that an infectious disease requires proportionate limitations on normal activity. Infecting other people is what economists call an “externality”, a cost borne by someone else.

No, I am talking about the equanimity, even the enthusiasm, with which some have taken to house arrest. “I loved lockdown”, declared a secret card returned to an enterprising London printer who is inviting people to send her their most intimate lockdown confidences on anonymous postcards. I reckon most of us have heard that sentiment, whispered furtively. Many of the printer’s postcards tell the same story: “a lot of people not wanting to unlock,” as she puts it.

King’s College London and Ipsos Mori found last week that 54 per cent of us will miss some aspects of the lockdown. Think about that for a moment. We’re not talking about things that we are free to do at any time. Obviously lots of us find staying at home more pleasant than commuting. Lots of us have enjoyed walks more than usual. Lots of us like seeing more of our children. But the essence of the lockdown is not that it allows us to rebalance our lives; it is that it mobilises the full force of the law to compel us.

We could always choose to forego a foreign holiday in return for working shorter hours. The idea that we need to be coerced into doing so – and have all our neighbours similarly coerced – is a terrifyingly illiberal one. So is the idea that we should be paid to stay at home – with money that someone or other is presumably supposed to find down the line.

I always knew that libertarianism was a minority creed. For most people, safety trumps freedom every time. Even so, it is distressing to see the near-universal demand for the smack of firm government. Take, to pluck an almost random example, the prohibition on leaving the country. Governments have every right to impose whatever conditions they want on people seeking to enter their territory, including quarantine. But leaving? Isn’t that for the receiving country to decide?

Yet that ban, like all the others, was cheered through with barely any debate. Politicians can see which way the wind is blowing: 93 per cent of people backed the first lockdown, 85 per cent the current one, and every easing of restrictions has been unpopular in the polls. There are honourable exceptions, but few MPs or commentators want to take what they know would be an utterly pointless stand. Even the PM, whose dislike of nannying has until now been his ruling principle, seems to have decided that there is no purpose in placing himself in the path of an authoritarian electorate.

This is not a column about the efficacy of lockdown measures. I happen to think that they are disproportionate. It has for some reason become fashionable to mock Sweden, but that country has suffered fewer excess deaths than most of Europe. Then again, there are good and sincere people who take a different view. The question of how much suffering we should inflict in exchange for a given number of lives is never going to have a simple answer.

No, this is a column about what ConservativeHome has called “the freedom gap” – the way in which a country that used to define itself as individualist, eccentric and undeferential now leads the world in its unhesitating acceptance of controls. An alien visitor, judging only from the texture of daily life, would assume that Britain in early 2021 was a far more repressive state than Russia or China.

The editor of this site recently speculated that the elevation of security over liberty might reflect the feminisation of politics. Jonathan Haidt would put it down to the vogue for “safetyism” – the idea that people should be at all costs be protected from unpleasant experiences rather than learning from (and being hardened through) them.

Let me proffer a gloomier explanation. Safetyism is a natural instinct. Throughout almost all human civilisation, people have accepted various forms of hierarchy and tyranny in the name of security. The liberal interlude through which we have lived is exceptional. We may be witnessing its end.

Daniel Hannan: Laws must be general, equal and certain. And yes, that applies to lockdown gatherings too.

17 Mar

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

Look, either it’s ok for people to gather in crowds or it’s not. We really can’t work on the basis that it’s wrong for other people to do so, but fine for you and your mates. Laws, as F.A. Hayek put it with admirable economy of phrase, must be general, equal and certain. Yet politicians, police chiefs, BBC presenters and – let’s not dance around the fact – the public at large now want a more or less arbitrary system where the rules are differently enforced depending on whether they share the opinions of the people infracting them.

This shouldn’t need saying, but the virus doesn’t care whether you’re demonstrating against the lockdowns, or for the safety of women, or against a police killing in the United States, or for the restoration of the Brazilian monarchy.

My own view is that many lockdown prohibitions are disproportionate. We know that outdoor transmission of Covid-19 is rare and, as a general principle, we should trust people to use their common sense. I would therefore allow peaceful demonstrations to go ahead. But plenty of good and sincere people disagree with me. Indeed, if the polls are to be believed, most voters want restrictions tightened further.

Fair enough. Where to draw the line between liberty and security is a legitimate argument – and, during an epidemic, an especially difficult one. If you’re in favour of people being allowed to congregate outside, fine. If you’re against it, fine. But if you want bans on sports crowds, weddings and other gatherings, but think that a special case should be made for demonstrators whom you happen to like, then you need to go back to basics and understand what the rule of law means.

When I say “you”, I include all the Labour and Conservative MPs who have spent this week complaining about the application of a law that they themselves passed only last year. I have no doubt that they were genuinely shaken to see images of women at Clapham Common being roughly manhandled. But what did they imagine would happen when they voted to outlaw demonstrations?

There is no dishonour in changing your mind, of course. If MPs were respond to the footage by easing the restrictions on public gatherings, or at least by bringing forward the end of the lockdown to take account of better than expected figures on infections, hospitalisations, fatalities, inoculation take-up and vaccine effectiveness, I would be the first to applaud. But that is not what they are doing, at least not in most cases. They still want people to be banned from attending the funerals of loved ones. But they want the law to be selectively disapplied when, as in the case of the Clapham protest, they sympathise with the demonstrators.

Not that I want to pick on MPs. They are reflecting the prejudices of their constituents. The rule of law – the idea that the rules apply equally to everyone, and that the people in charge shouldn’t get to change them as they go along – does not come naturally to us. Very few societies, in the sweep of history, have tried to apply it, let alone succeeded.

Think of the TV dramas that we watch: Game of Thrones, Narcos, Peaky Blinders. They appeal to a much older, tribal instinct, a desire to take sides. In evolutionary terms, Magna Carta, the American Revolution and “a government of laws not of men” happened an eye-blink ago. Our instincts and intuitions come from a different world, a world in which two completely different sets of rules governed our behaviour – one set for our kin-group, and another for everyone else.

That, in a nutshell, is why people are uninterested in due process when they happen to want a particular outcome. It is why they hold other parties to a very different standard from their own. It is why the first thing they ask, when they see people protesting against lockdowns, or holding a vigil for a murdered woman, is not “what do the rules say?” but “are these my kind of people?”

The rule of law, in many ways, contradicts human nature. We need to appreciate it intellectually, because we struggle to feel it in our bellies. The institutions of a modern state – legislature, judiciary, media, police – must build and maintain the norm through careful and rigorous impartiality.

Last year, that stopped happening, for two reasons. First because, in a panicked response to the disease, MPs passed too many rules. “If you make ten thousand regulations,” as Churchill once put it, “you destroy all respect for the law.”

Second, because, over the summer, the police – cheered on, it must be said, by the organs of Official Britain – subordinated the duty of consistency to the imperatives of identity politics. Having spent months harassing people for walking too slowly, sitting on park benches or chatting to friends, they dropped to their knees when Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets.

Unsurprisingly, our respect for the law has taken a hit. With each violation of the lockdown rules, the taboo against law-breaking buckles further. The police come to be seen, not as impartial upholders of the law, but as just one more group with an agenda. And the worst of it is that there is no reason to expect these things to end when the lockdown does.

Daniel Hannan: There are clear problems with raising the minimum wage. But anger now trumps account-keeping.

3 Mar

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

We need, sooner or later, to cut spending. Yes, the epidemic was a generational event, and yes, there are good arguments for treating its associated costs like war debts, to be paid off over many decades. But there is no argument for keeping an ongoing structural deficit after the end of lockdown – which is what will happen if these supposedly one-off spending increases are allowed to stand.

In theory, almost every Conservative accepts this proposition. In practice, there is fierce resistance to screwing shut any particular tap once it has been spun open. The furlough scheme, free school meals outside term, grants to performing artists and to charities, the increase in universal credit, various business rebates – how often do you hear an MP calling for any of these things to be wound up? Individually, they may be defensible; collectively, they are unaffordable.

On Monday night, I sat through a Lords debate on the increase in the minimum wage. The responsible minister, the clever and capable Lord Callanan, announced that the Government had accepted in full the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission, increasing the hourly rate in every age band, up to a level of £8.91 for people aged over 23.

These increases come following a 9.9 per cent contraction of our economy in 2020 and a commensurate rise in unemployment. Many public-sector workers have seen their pay frozen; many private-sector workers have seen a real-terms cut. Yet ministers, conscious of the role that minimum wage workers have played in the pandemic, none the less decreed increases.

Did they get any thanks for it? Of course not. One after another, peers appeared on the remote screens to express their outrage at the nugatory rise. It was mean, it was unfair, it was ungrateful. How would the minister like to live on less than £8.91? (Actually, Lord Callanan’s first job was on a building site at a far lower rate than that, but he was too polite to say so.)

Every speaker except one attacked the proposal – the proposal, remember, that had come from the Low Pay Commission and been accepted in full – as inadequate. The sole exception was the Conservative peer Lord Balfe, a former Labour MEP, who warmly congratulated his new party for having dropped its former concerns about unemployment and embraced the aim of a constantly-rising minimum rate.

The debate illustrated the fundamental problem that faces any politician who wants to reduce expenditure or, as in this case, to reduce barriers to growth. The debate is conducted as if it were the politician’s own money at stake rather than taxpayers’. If he wants restrain spending, he is howled down as a Scrooge. If he wants to give more away, he is warmly applauded for his decency.

In such a climate, anger trumps account-keeping. You might have all manner of sensible and proportionate concerns about the minimum wage. You might argue that favouring the low-paid over the unemployed is not the best way to help the poor. You might point out that some companies will respond by cutting non-wage benefits, such as free meals and shop discounts.

You might be concerned that, once the level gets too high, employers will turn to the black market – especially to the pool of illegal labour provided by people who do not have residence rights in the UK, and who therefore cannot claim any social protections. You might fret that wage costs will push firms into assuming the up-front costs of automation, thus reducing opportunities for younger and unskilled workers.

You might point out that rises in the minimum wage are passed on to customers, and that some of these customers are themselves poor. You might cite a powerful new study by Professor Jeffrey Clemens of the University of California, which shows that companies with low-income employees tend also to have low-income clients. If a wage hike pushes up prices in McDonald’s, it won’t be fund managers who are primarily affected.

You will find, though, that hardly anyone engages with these objections. Instead, they will fall back on the rhetorically powerful, but logically irrelevant, question: “How would you like to earn less than £8.91?”

I see the minimum wage as a way to privilege people in low-paid work over people looking for work. Now there are defensible reasons for doing this. You can argue that people should always be rewarded for trying to do the right thing, even if there are wider costs, or that reducing the number of households in which children never see an adult going out to work is a social benefit that justifies some unemployment.

What you can’t do, at least not if you have a shred of intellectual honesty, is to deny that there are trade-offs. Imagine that the hourly rate were not £8.91 but £89.10. Can anyone doubt that it would push up unemployment? Some companies would install machines, some would contract out their work overseas, some would hire illegal immigrants but most would cease trading.

Until now, that objection has been largely theoretical. Since the minimum wage was introduced in 1998, the economy has (other than a relatively brief blip at the time of the financial crisis) continued to expand. Although the minimum wage rose faster than the average wage, it was doing so against a background of record job creation. The increases, in other words, were affordable.

We are now in a very different situation. We have suffered the sharpest downturn in modern history, worse than anything that happened during the Depression or the two world wars. How much unemployment has risen will be revealed when the furlough is eventually wound up but, even on the current figures, we have undone a decade of falling joblessness. The idea that we can carry on as if nothing had happened is ridiculous.

Ridiculous but powerful. Once you have embraced the idea of a bigger state, you will find ways to downplay the economic costs. Supporters of the minimum wage, for example, cite the rise in employment over the past two decades as “proof” that there are no negative consequences – as though our current economic conditions were comparable.

Supporters of ever-higher spending have embraced “Modern Monetary Theory” (or at least a garbled version of it) to argue that debt doesn’t matter, because governments can always print whatever they need – a theory which, if true, would have made Robert Mugabe a financial genius.

As we prepare for the budget, all the pressure is one way. Some want tax rises now, so as to close the deficit. Others say that, no, early tax rises would choke off the recovery, and they we should defer them. But common to almost all the analysis is the assumption that the increase in spending, or at least a goodly chunk of it, is permanent.

If there are any MPs who think we should instead close the deficit with spending reductions, that lower spending boosts competitiveness, that a growing economy leads to naturally rising wages, and that cuts are therefore our surest way out of this mess, they are keeping remarkably quiet.