Monday, 29 June 2020

Taking liberties

On Friday, the Prime Minister of England warned people not to “take too many liberties” with the coronavirus guidance which his government has issued. He presumably thought that the official guidance wasn’t sufficiently vague or meaningless, and there is little so vague in life which Johnson cannot, with a few ill-chosen words, make vaguer or more meaningless.
Taken literally, his words mean that people should consider themselves free to take ‘some’ liberties with the advice – which I take to mean free to ignore it – as long as they don’t take ‘too many’, but the definition of how many is too many is a matter which he will leave to that good old British common sense which led thousands of people to congregate on beaches last week. And although the outcome didn’t look exactly like the mass application of common sense, the individual decisions of those people heading to the coast were entirely rational within the context of the PM’s words. Anyone who believed that everyone else was going to follow the government guidance could legitimately set out for the beach (aka taking a few liberties) safe in the ‘knowledge’ that the beach would be otherwise empty. And that leads us to a rather different interpretation of the PM’s words.
He doesn’t really mean that ‘all’ people are free to take ‘some’ liberties at all – what he really means is that a small minority can take as many liberties as they want as long as the vast majority follow the rules. It’s another variation on the ‘one rule for us, another for everyone else’ philosophy which underpins his whole approach. There is nothing particularly risky about any individual taking a trip to the beach (or, for that matter, and choosing a destination not entirely at random, driving to County Durham); the risk arises when thousands individually apply the same ‘common sense’ assumptions to their own decisions. The actions of any one individual may be considered excusable, but the problem with excusing the actions of one is that it becomes difficult to condemn the actions of others for doing the same thing. Or at least, it would be difficult for anyone who applied rationality or a sense of justice and fair play to the question: for those who start out with a perception that some people are privileged and have more rights than others, it’s very easy to do.
What the PM was really telling us on Friday is that the many need to know their place and stay there so that the world is relatively safe for the few.

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