Judging from the debate raging in the conservative media, it is conservative political principles that are being tested unlike any other in the current crisis. Socialists and modern ‘social justice’ liberals have little problem with big government and totalitarian society. But framing the current emergency measures in terms of loss of individual liberty is, I think, not how conservatives ought to view it.
For unlike naïve libertarians, conservatives hold the notion that we are atomistic individuals in free pursuit of our desires to be a fiction for two reasons. First, as Hobbes argued, for any semblance of civil society and therefore of individual rights to be possible in the first place, individuals must transfer their absolute right to do as they please on any occasion to a sovereign law-making representative, the body politic, to whom they thereby owe an absolute obligation; otherwise, we are reduced to the state of nature, to anarchy and perpetual strife.
But second, for this notional social contract to have any substance, for the authority of the sovereign state to win general acceptance (and this is where conservatives depart from naïve liberals and totalitarian socialists), and for people’s individual liberties to amount to more than hedonistic licence, the authority of the state must also be founded on shared pre-existing ‘pre-contractual’ values, loyalties, affections, experiences and obligations; in other words, the state must embody the shared sense of local and national community of a people.
Politically speaking then, the tragedy of the current situation is that the state, though democratically elected, has under successive governments wilfully worked to destroy – academics term is ‘deconstruct’ – the fabric of our shared values and loyalties, our pieties (as Scruton termed them), in pursuit of a set of alien faux liberal ideals – multi-culture, diversity, equality, ‘social justice’. Which, in turn, radically undermines people’s sense of obligation to the state.
For now, the obligation to the state remains – for what is the alternative to the state as currently constituted? And the nature of the current threat to our lives, and livelihoods, at least serves to bring people together in a common cause. So, whether we like it or not, whether we disagree with the policy or not, we must ‘lock down’. But once the current crisis is resolved, who can tell where our obligations will lie.