Can Liberalism Survive the Coronavirus Era?

Patrick Keeney
May 3, 2020
Covid-19 poses a grave threat to many things: nursing homes, music festivals and café culture among them. But what of its broader implications? The coronavirus cares nothing for identity, imaginative individual rights or past grievances. It is severely undermining globalist fantasies. And recovering from its ravages seems likely to reward countries that focus on conservative values of pragmatism, frugality, duty, markets and tradition. Patrick Keeney charts the likely fortunes of conservative and liberal convictions once the pandemic recedes.

Can Liberalism Survive the Coronavirus Era?

Patrick Keeney
May 3, 2020
Covid-19 poses a grave threat to many things: nursing homes, music festivals and café culture among them. But what of its broader implications? The coronavirus cares nothing for identity, imaginative individual rights or past grievances. It is severely undermining globalist fantasies. And recovering from its ravages seems likely to reward countries that focus on conservative values of pragmatism, frugality, duty, markets and tradition. Patrick Keeney charts the likely fortunes of conservative and liberal convictions once the pandemic recedes.
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These are extraordinary times. And nothing this unusual lasts forever. No economy can sustain an indefinite lockdown and across the country plans are now being unveiled to lift the pandemic restrictions. Some provinces are already taking the first steps in this regard. As this process unfolds, Canadians will confront a variety of practical matters on how best to open the doors, turn the lights back on and get back to work. But beneath lurks a longstanding philosophical debate.  

Conservatives and liberals can be expected to approach the recovery and the issues it presents in very different ways. Their foundational beliefs provide insight into how each will frame the recovery debate. And after watching liberal preoccupations dominate the public sphere in recent decades, there’s reason to believe the conservative perspective may soon find itself in ascendency.

As provinces make plans to end the economic lockdown, an eternal philosophical debate between conservatism and liberalism is playing out behind the scenes.

Contrary to popular understanding, conservatives are not opposed to change. But they believe change should be measured, incremental, and founded on tried and tested empirical truths − which is to say on those traditions which are embedded in the ways and norms of a people or a nation. They consult history and believe that the evidence of millennia of human experience provides reasons to believe some forms of social life promote human well-being, and some don’t. Using history as our guide isn’t infallible. Still, our rational faculties can determine that certain ways of life are likely to end badly, while others are likely to lead to prosperity and human flourishing. Conservatives thus put their faith in the rule of law and property rights, and they generally accept free and open markets. 

On the other hand, liberalism, in the name of freedom and human perfectibility, is a grand experiment in dissolving all traditional sources of social cohesion and ways of life. As the late Sir Roger Scruton expressed it, “The convention for liberals is to be opposed to convention”. Liberals – here we use the term in the traditional sense of someone distinctly left-leaning or “progressive”, rather than the common Canadian meaning of a middle-of-the-road non-Conservative – reject the idea that tradition should inform social practices. Instead, they embrace a trust in science and technology married to the secular faith that we are all “evolving” in an ascending spiral of human advancement toward a better existence. Liberals believe that with the accretion of scientific knowledge come social progress and political freedom.

What separates liberals from conservatives? For starters, conservatives put their faith in tradition, markets, empirical evidence and incremental change.

The greatest good for liberals is presenting the sovereign individual with the maximum number of life choices. Freedom, autonomy and individual choice represent the summum bonum of the liberal project. As recent years attest, even our biological sex is now a matter of choice, something to be negotiated by the freely choosing individual. Whereas conservatives believe we discover our ends and goals in a universe stubbornly resistant to human willing, liberals maintain we choose our life goals in an infinitely malleable world. 

How to actualize all this choice? Here the contemporary world speaks in a monolithic voice: by advancing the human rights of the individual. One of the fixed moral and political assumptions of our secular, scientific age is that furthering individual rights leads to a better life for the individual, more equitable distribution of opportunities, greater prosperity and human flourishing for marginalized groups, and ultimately a more just and equitable society. Unsurprisingly, the future advanced by progressive liberal thinkers is one that encompasses an ever-expanding catalogue of rights. If human beings are seen as primarily rights-bearing individuals, issues of public morality are articulated exclusively in the language, concepts and categories of human rights.

What mattered in the pre-Covid era may not matter so much anymore: A student protest against the Ford government’s proposed education cutbacks at Bloor Collegiate in Toronto in 2019.

In brief, rights talk in the pre-Covid world was omnipresent. It held us in an imaginative thrall from which it was difficult to escape. As with any organizing myth, rights frame our world in a particular way, limiting our perspective so that alternative paradigms– ones which might offer a better, truer or more useful rendering of our world – are obscured from view. Whereas the liberal vision compels us to see the world as an object of engineering and innovation to alter human behaviour and solve social ills, conservatives look to the practices of historically constituted communities to establish social and moral norms. 

There was already a simmering unease with human rights as the basis on which to build a just society before our current crisis. In his recent book, The Age of Entitlement, Christopher Caldwell notes how the language of rights inevitably paves the way for social balkanization and ethnic tribalism. The eminent Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel argues that an ever-growing number of rights does not guarantee an overall moral improvement. In his celebrated monograph After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre maintains that rights-talk is a species of emotivism, such that moral debates framed in the language of rights can never have a rational resolution.

The American philosopher, Mary Ann Glendon, is troubled by the uncompromising legal absolutism inherent in the language of human rights, and the juridical society which arises in its wake. According to Glendon, the intractable problem with rights is their adversarial nature, pitting one party against another, leading to zero-sum, juridical decisions. The divisive politics of identity have exacerbated this tendency. Under the umbrella of multiculturalism, various collectives – feminists, ethnic and religious minorities, the LGBT lobby − have transformed themselves into quasi-political parties, demanding their rights, and battling for political power and group entitlements.

Pre-Covid voices raised against the rights revolution (Clockwise from top left): Journalist Christopher Caldwell, Philosopher Michael Sandel, Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon and Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

That’s the philosophical backdrop. Let us now turn to practicalities. And from ground level, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that placing the language of rights and, by extension, Caldwell’s social balkanization and ethnic tribalism, at the centre of social discourse will be increasingly tenuous in the post-Covid age. We are facing a crisis in which nearly all members of society have found themselves affected in similar ways. Politicians, celebrities and sports stars are suffering in the lockdown alongside all the rest of us. It is a uniquely collective experience from which no one is exempted and no groups accorded special status. And set within this new firmament, previous liberal fixations now appear foolish, if not downright delusional. 

Writing in Spectator USA, Chadwick Moore makes short work of the “rapidly diminished and forgotten grievance industry of the American left” throughout the pandemic. Claims from tribal identity groups that the coronavirus world is deliberately homophobic or transphobic or racist or anti-women or anti-immigrant, as Moore details in lively fashion, simply can’t be taken seriously. Having constructed a thought-world in which every outcome is the result of overt or disguised discrimination, there’s no room left to account for a virus that spreads calamity without regard for labels or historical grievances. As Moore points out, with a society-wide crisis in full swing, no one is paying any attention to the “petty fixations of the social-justice bourgeoisie.”

Moore may be overstating his case. It is certainly too early to conclude that the 21st century’s obsession with group rights is about to wither and die. But the global pandemic presents the first real challenge to this orthodoxy’s seemingly impenetrable dominance. Consider a recent Canadian example of the phenomenon. Last week Marie-Claude Landry, chief commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and Karen Jensen, federal pay equity commissioner, issued a joint statement demanding that “Canada’s social and economic recovery efforts must take a feminist approach.” The reason for their highly political claim? “The COVID-19 crisis is having a disproportionate effect on women…women are among the hardest hit by the pandemic.” Quite true. If you divide the country by gender, women are in fact among the top two groups harmed by the virus. 

Left out of this calculation, however is the fact men are without question the hardest hit. Men face a substantially higher mortality rate from the disease; in several countries where sex-disaggregated data is available, the data reveal men are more than twice as likely to die from Covid-19. In the U.S., the male to female fatality ratio is 56:44. Claiming the coronavirus requires a feminist response because it’s having a “disproportionate” effect on women is nonsense. But this is what happens when your entire perspective on social relations concerns perpetual gender oppression. Landry and Jensen simply can’t help themselves; making feminist complaints is all they know. But such a blinkered approach to life has left them singularly unprepared for the collective consequences of a global pandemic. As seems appropriate, their claim received zero serious attention − we’ve all got more important things to worry about. The bigger question is whether anyone will have the patience for this sort of piffle once the world returns to normal. 

The stark binary of rights-talk is an equally unhelpful framework in which to arbitrate thorny ethical problems. Aristotle reminds us to look only for the degree of certainty the subject matter allows. This is sage advice for politicians, who rarely trade in absolutes but instead wrestle with varying shades of ambiguity, uncertainty and doubt. Public policy is seldom, if ever, a black and white matter. (Epidemiologists, essentially all of whose models were wildly  incorrect throughout the pandemic, might also like to imbibe a dram or two of epistemic humility.)

Keeney - Inset 5 (above)
Feminist arguments that Covid-19 is having a “disproportionate impact on women” cannot be taken seriously given male mortality rates. Canadian Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner Marie-Claude Landry (below).
Feminist arguments that Covid-19 is having a “disproportionate impact on women” cannot be taken seriously given male mortality rates. Canadian Human Rights Commission Chief Commissioner Marie-Claude Landry (below).

In other words, political dilemmas are just that, and politicians are frequently presented with equally fraught alternatives. Among the biggest: when should an economy be unlocked? There are obvious health risks in opening up the economy prematurely. But so too are there health risks by keeping it shuttered, including bankruptcy, depression and suicide. There’s also the grotesque consequences of denying people cancer and heart surgery and organ transplants in order to make room for Covid cases that never materialized. In deciding, politicians should certainly consult scientists. But this is not an entirely scientific matter. Instead, it is an ethical question in which science is only one source of guidance. The role of politicians is not to outsource the decision to the scientists, but to step back, listen to all the voices in the room, and then make a decision. 

The thrust of liberal politics, however, undermines this sort of decision-making. Our politicians have become accustomed to relegating decisions to various experts, especially the judiciary. The ascent of a rights-based public morality has meant that democracies have become de facto jurocracies. Here is how the British philosopher John Gray has summarized the situation:  

“If there is a single characteristic that typifies liberal political philosophy over the past quarter of a century, it is its domination by a jurisprudential paradigm…It has generated a series of intractable conflicts, which portend deepening division, growing ungovernability and even a sort of chronic, low-intensity civil war…the hegemony of a rights-based jurisprudence…has inflated the inordinate claims of liberal theorizing—that, since fundamental rights cannot be moderated, their judicial interpretation can only mean unconditional victory or complete surrender for the protagonists in the dispute. This is not a recipe for civic peace or a stable liberal civil society.” 

Recovering effectively from the Great Lockdown will require a new sense of collective effort that seems incompatible with Gray’s “low-level civil war.” And so the stark recommendations of public health experts must be tempered by the views of economists, psychologists, law enforcement, business leaders, and teachers. Perhaps we should even listen to – heaven forfend! − ordinary people, those whose lives have been dramatically and perhaps irrevocably altered. We are entering a new period, one in which the myth of human perfectibility is more tenuous than ever.

We can expect an equivalent clash over the morality of the market, with particular attention paid to wage rates. During the crisis, many workers earning the minimum wage, or close to it, have found themselves much in demand, and the beneficiaries of added remuneration. Grocery store clerks at several major chains across the country have been handed a temporary $2 per hour raise. Ontario recently announced that personal service workers in long-term care homes, group shelters and elsewhere will be receiving a $4 per hour raise for the next four months. In a time of unprecedented demand and uncertainty, such moves are entirely in keeping with market forces, and likely to be welcomed by both conservatives and liberals. 

But what happens when the crisis finally recedes, and grocery store clerks and personal service workers are once again revealed to be relatively low-skilled positions in ample supply? Conservatives would say the market should be allowed to speak again. Liberals, who claim to understand value better than the market via scientific calculations of ‘intrinsic value,’ will doubtless claim these temporary raises should be made permanent. Or become part of a larger campaign to dramatically raise the minimum wage across the board. This, however, threatens to drive a wedge between the marginal productivity of labour and actual wages − a serious practical barrier to any economic recovery.

Liberals see borders as impediments to global citizenship, conservatives as markers of national purpose: A resurgence of borders around the world in response to the pandemic suggests the conservative view is now on the rise.

Then again, perhaps no one will have to work ever again. Following the perceived success of the federal government’s temporary Canada Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB) − which provides $500 per week to all Canadian who have found themselves out of work because of the pandemic or the resulting economic lockdown – many long-time advocates are now arguing for the permanent establishment of a universal basic income scheme for all Canadians.  

Yet both empirical evidence and philosophical discourse point to substantial risks in removing the necessity to work from a vast swath of the population in the name of eliminating poverty. When Jean-Yves Duclos, currently president of the federal Treasury Board, was an economist at Laval University, he wrote that “guaranteed annual income schemes may increase the incidence of low income rather than decrease it.” (Emphasis added.) Some American experiments have shown substantial declines in household working hours, with wives reducing their work week by as much as a third and husbands by nearly 10 percent, when enrolled in guaranteed income programs.


Turning the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit into a permanent universal basic income presents both practical and philosophical problems.
Turning the federal government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit into a permanent universal basic income presents both practical and philosophical problems.

The 19th century German philosopher Hegel, widely regarded as a conservative thinker despite his connection to Marx, considered meaningful labour essential in any society of actualized freedom. Liberation from the need to work turns citizens into mere ’consumers’, an activity without ethical standing, and unworthy of respect from others. An economy and social system in which everyone rests their standing on the capacity to consume would thus be an ethical catastrophe. Societies must remain attentive to the problems of self-respect and dignity, both of which would suffer from a universal basic income. It would also be ruinously expensive unless all governments in Canada agreed to eliminate all pre-existing welfare and social assistance programs and bureaucracies at the same time. 

A further demarcation between liberals and conservatives is the role of the nation-state. As Mathew Preston recently argued in C2C Journal, surviving a plague requires “strong borders backed by strong nations.” Yet the logic of human rights binds liberals to a full-bodied universalism which regards national borders as impediments to freedom. The idea that ethical obligations can accrue by allegiance to a smaller-than-global constituency, such as family, community or nation, is anathema to the broader liberal project. Many progressive thinkers openly proclaim their allegiance to a borderless world, frequently prioritizing the needs of migrants and refugees over the needs of the native population. This development has strengthened the rise of populist parties in numerous countries.

Conservatives believe in national sovereignty, seeing borders as something more than mere impediments to human freedom. For conservatives, the nation-state provides the most robust means of ensuring peace, along with the political accountability that an enduring peace requires, and the associated rights and freedoms for its citizens. Current evidence suggests the conservative view is in ascendancy. Borders that were once deemed invisible or irrelevant – most notably within Europe’s Schengen Zone – have suddenly become not just visible, but entirely unmissable. Belgium, for example, dropped dumpsters and barricades onto previously free-flowing roads to act as makeshift border controls as the pandemic first unfolded. 

In a crisis, it turns out, borders matter quite a bit. While many issues regarding the nature of the Covid recovery are uncertain and likely to be bitterly contested, in the area of national borders it seems doubtful the globalist project will be able to pick up where it left off.

Frontline staff in the fight against the coronavirus have lately received the sort of spontaneous patriotic hero status accorded soldiers in times of war.

The morality of individual rights is one in which responsibility – to our family and friends, to our broader community or the nation — finds little purchase. It is a simple logical truth that emphasizing individual rights must necessarily lead to a highly individualistic society, one which correspondingly undermines shared notions of community. As conservative commentators have pointed out ad nauseam, individual rights need to be balanced by parallel responsibilities. Without this balance, people become shallower and more individualistic, irresponsibility becomes widespread, and a corrosive egoism contributes to the deterioration of the community. Here again, the conservative approach seems to be on the rise. 

Lockdowns and social distancing rules require comprehensive group action that places a renewed emphasis on our duties and obligations to others, such as wearing masks and practicing good hygiene. This is now promoted as something we should do for the national good, in conservative fashion. And in addition to temporary pay increases, front line workers engaged in the coronavirus fight – doctors, nurses, personal support workers – have lately been accorded the sort of spontaneous patriotic hero status generally given soldiers in times of war. This is not rights-talk, but the stirrings of an alternative language of public morality. 

The Covid era has seen a revival in the conservative principles of duty and obligation to others: A resident of a long term care facility in Brampton Ontario enjoys a window visit with family.

In many ways, the pandemic has pushed advanced democracies out of their ‘dogmatic slumber,’ exposing the fault lines of contemporary liberalism. Nations are suddenly compelled to grapple with the profound implications of the virus’ impact on public discourse, the labour market, national borders and, indeed, the very fabric of society. And on the basis of pragmatic needs, the emphasis conservatism places on incrementalism, empirical evidence and the weight of history could prove to be just the tonic the world needs for a successful recovery.

Perhaps most significantly, however, the pandemic exposes for public consumption something conservatives have always known. Contrary to the liberal vision, life can be tragic even as science and technology advances. In ethics and politics as in life, no gain is irreversible.

Patrick Keeney is Associate Editor of C2C Journal and a Visiting Scholar at Chiang Mai University in Thailand.

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