John Locke and Lockdown Politics

Matthew Haji-Michael discusses Covid-19 and liberty.

The recent coronavirus crisis has lent a new urgency to political debates over the meaning of liberty. The government’s decision to place the nation into a state of lockdown has necessitated state action on a scale that has no precedent in the post-war era, and it has unsurprisingly concerned a number of civil society groups.[1] As the lockdown has dragged on, we have also begun to see the growth of right-wing challenges to the government for invasion of supposedly sacrosanct British liberties, not only in the press,[2] but in protest marches,[3] and even in the courts.[4] The recent decision on face masks has now provoked a new wave of outrage from the right, with Peter Hitchens leading the charge against a state which continues to ‘thrust itself into every corner of our existence’.[5] As happens far too often, the left has been more than happy to allow the right to establish a monopoly over the language of liberty in the debate over lockdown. This has given anti-lockdown figures a powerful rhetorical weapon with which to oppose the much-needed health interventions taken by the state. The left cannot allow this to go unchallenged.

Behind much of this right-wing opposition to the state is the idea of ‘classical liberalism’, a 17th to 19th century philosophical movement that laid the foundations of our modern liberal politics. Modern anti-lockdown commentators such as Syed Kamall, who has warned that greater lockdown measures risk ‘turning the country into a police state on Chinese lines’,[6]  consider themselves the heirs to this tradition, which they define in terms of hostility to state action, wherever it appears. The invocation of the classical liberal tradition enables figures like Kamall and Hitchens to assert the theoretical legitimacy of their phobia of the state, whilst also allowing them to claim to be defenders of Britain’s historic liberties. It is upon this foundation of classical liberalism that opposition to the lockdown has been built.

It is startling, then, to consider how insubstantial these foundations really are. Consider John Locke, a philosopher whose Two Treatises of Government is often considered to be the original statement of classical liberalism. Despite his name often being invoked,[7] Locke’s ideas about freedom are much more complex than his latter-day disciples like to suppose. Far from being implacably hostile to the state interference, Locke was explicit in stating that good laws serve ‘not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom’.[8] For Locke, the founding father of classical liberalism, freedom is not undermined by the state, but in fact requires it. The reason for this is that in Locke’s classical liberal theory, ‘freedom is not, as we are told, a liberty for every man to do as he lists’ but rather the freedom from fear and dependence that we achieve only by living in a well-ordered state.[9] In such a properly constituted state, the law would merely restrict you from causing harm, and, as Locke puts it, a restriction ‘ill deserves the name of confinement, which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices’.[10] For true classical liberals like Locke, a law which prevents you from causing harm to yourself and others cannot be counted as an infringement of liberty at all.

The implications of such a view for our current situation are clear. A true classical liberal like Locke would have to admit that far from being a totalitarian interference with people’s liberties, the lockdown rules merely act to keep us from causing harm to ourselves and others, and are therefore no true restriction on freedom. The kind of liberty claimed by those opposing lockdown measures, which effectively amounts to the freedom to cause harm by spreading this dangerous disease with impunity, has in fact nothing to do with the classical liberal heritage they claim to represent. In reality, attacking the state’s recent actions as the destruction of our civil liberties is not principled ‘classical liberal’ politics at all, but rather cleverly disguised ideological scaremongering. Perhaps it’s time these knock-off classical liberals went back to the texts they claim to have read.

Matthew Haji-Michael is a labour member and is a student studying for a masters in political thought and intellectual history at UCL and Queen Mary. In his spare time he loves to sail and hike in the countryside. 
He tweets at @haji_matthew.









[8] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Second Treatise, Chapter 6

[9] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Second Treatise, Chapter 6 and Chapter 11

[10] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Second Treatise, Chapter 6

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