Fear and Economic Hardship, Not Freedom, are Winning the War in SA

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Life or death Lockdown

Editor’s Note: This article was originally submitted as a right of reply to the Daily Maverick, which chose not to publish.

The economic devastation in South Africa, concretised in finance minister Tito Mboweni’s emergency budget, shows us that socialism — not libertarianism — is winning. I wish it weren’t so. South Africa is turning into yet another socialist success story, to be written down in the annals of history. “Success” for a socialist, of course, meaning equal misery, poverty, and repression to be shared by all. Ismail Lagardien is deeply concerned about the potential harm that could accompany the lifting of South Africa’s lockdown. But it does not follow that being concerned about the threat of COVID-19 should necessarily entail a summary suspension of people’s freedom.

As we have seen over recent months – and will see into many years to come – the economic hardship caused by the lockdown is not mere abstract theory. Hardship and suffering always follow when a government restricts people’s economic freedom.

The hard lockdown approach enacted by the South African government on 27 March 2020 has caused massive economic and psychological harm. Where GDP growth barely scratched 2% before COVID-19, we can be sure it has been effectively wiped out. As the New York Times points out, according to Mboweni, our economy “is expected to decline by 7.2% this year, its worst performance in nearly 90 years.” In the first quarter of this year, unemployment sat at 30.1% – before the economic storm caused by the lockdown. What will the unemployment be after this lockdown has been completely lifted, after months of businesses being prevented from maintaining even the smallest semblance of activity?

How can anyone with concern for their fellows, people who need to resume some semblance of normal life, still argue that the draconian, arbitrary rules and regulations should remain in place?

It is disappointing that Lagardien lumps the Free Market Foundation and Institute of Race Relations in with the so-called “alt-right.” Philosophically, classical liberalism (or libertarianism), represents the  opposite of the racism and xenophobia of some elements on the right. Classical liberalism is premised on the primacy of individual rights, whereas many on the right and left fall prey to collectivist thinking, and attempt to place other considerations, most notably group rights, above individual rights.

The underlying premise of Lagardien’s piece – that people are incapable of thinking and acting responsibly, and needing the state to do these for them – will find much resonance with some on the right, much to his dismay. Insofar as some on the left and right push for collectivist and statist ideas, they have much more in common with each other, and very little with classical liberals.

Lagardien is correct when he writes that “There is no example, anywhere in the world, or in the history of the past 100 years, for what South Africa, or any country in the world, for that matter, faces with the Covid-19 pandemic.” However, it is because of the unknowns of the novel coronavirus, that governments should have acted on the side of caution before upending people’s economic habits and their very lives, for the cause of fighting the virus.

As the lockdown descended on South Africa, fear and emotion ruled the day. Not once was an objective measure of failure or success presented to South Africans.

One of the ostensible goals of the lockdown was to give the public healthcare sector time to prepare for the inevitable flood of COVID-19 cases. Yet, between 27 March and 3 June, only 207 critical care beds, and 350 ventilators, were added in the public health sector. South Africans’ time and sacrifices were hardly well-used.

The science shows that a lockdown could not contain the virus as much as just give the government breathing room to prepare medical facilities to deal with it. Initially the impression the public had was of a government with real control over the situation; but time, and the various irrational regulations, proved the initial faith in government to be severely misplaced.

In 2018, 63,000 people died of tuberculosis; in 2019 71,000 people died of Aids-related illnesses; about 78,400 people died in 2016 of cardio-vascular disease aggravated by hypertension; and in 2019, 90,000 people died from diabetes. COVID-19 is more serious than a ‘normal’ influenza but like ‘flu it dies either through vaccination or in the absence of finding one, it has to wear itself out. It may come and go over years, so we cannot keep shutting down the economy.

This country’s economy was in dire straits before COVID-19; now it is comatose, as a result of the draconian lockdown.

It would be difficult to argue that the regulations on winter clothing were  rational. Why weren’t takeaway services, with the necessary healthcare precautions, and e-commerce, allowed? Especially for taverns in the townships, that are even more in need of consistent sales and trading?

The false alternative that countries had to choose between the health of the people, or their continued ability to earn a living, gripped governments around the world – and led them to fall into this trap.

Lagardien’s diatribe against classical liberalism amounts to a strawman. Classical liberals do not care about “profits” on their own, but rather what they represent — we care about the freedom to seek, or not seek, profits, or any other goal. Our so-called “market fundamentalism”, furthermore, is nothing less than a solid understanding of the way in which economies function. Classical liberals understand that if government interferes in the market, inefficiencies at best, and suffering at worst (as South Africa has come to experience, even before the lockdown) result.

To presume that any part of the economy can be ‘stopped,’ and then easily ‘restarted,’ misunderstands how economic activity between people takes place. The economy is a living organism, composed of millions of people going about their lives interacting with each other, and the smallest interference by government in the organism disrupts people’s actions, relationships, and decisions.

When we talk about the ‘economy’ we should not focus only on the large corporations listed on the JSE. The economy is the woman trying to run her small auditing business; the economy is the university student trying to make extra money as an Uber driver; the economy is the older lady on the street corner selling fruit to commuters heading to and from the taxi rank. When the government restricts people’s economic freedoms, it impacts negatively on all these instances of the economy, and billions more – in both obvious and subtle ways.

It is difficult to give government any benefit of the doubt. In a country with food insecurity issues, and an already limited ability to earn a living because of high barriers to employment, a hard lockdown has served only to expose the cracks that we as classical liberals have warned about, for decades.

The alternative is not between profit on the one hand and people on the other. The alternative is between freedom, growth and agency, and poverty, stagnation and despair. The hard lockdown was a bourgeois solution. Many (though by no means all) wealthier South Africans could continue working from home. The poor and working classes could not.

On top of preventing people from earning a living, the lockdown has meant brutal physical effects on poorer South Africans. Writing on 1 June, Ferial Haffajee noted that

“South Africa has arrested more people than any other country during the lockdown. Over 230,000 people have been arrested for violating the draconian measures put in place to keep people safe while 11 South Africans (all black men, like George Floyd, the American killed by police) have died in police action”

Draconian government measures always affect those who are less well off, more negatively. Those of us concerned with the massive, brutal ill-treatment of our fellow South Africans, should press even more for the ending of the lockdown and the deployment of the armed forces.

Now that many people’s earning ability have been wiped out by the government-imposed lockdown, one would hope the advocates of said lockdown will take ownership of the climate of fear they created, and the hardships inflicted upon middle class and poorer people in South Africa.

When an unprecedented curtailing of people’s civil liberties, and most importantly of what should be their sacrosanct right to earn a living for themselves and their families, is imposed almost overnight, it rests on those of us concerned with human agency, dignity, and both economic and emotional wellbeing, to stand in front of even the most noble, well-intentioned politician or bureaucrat, and yell, “Stop!” This is our lot as classical liberals.

In South Africa, where the government controls increasingly more aspects of our lives, any action it takes will have ripple effects that the originators probably never even considered. The market is, simply, individuals trying to interact in peaceful ways, trying to trade their own time and expertise, goods and services, with others – to their own betterment, and of greater society as a secondary consequence.

Lagardien, while not saying so explicitly, attempts to paint classical liberals as wealthy and probably white, and then as part of those arbitrary groups as willing to see thousands succumb to COVID-19 in South Africa’s townships. But he, unlike us, is not aware of the classical liberals who live in Madadeni and Khayelitsha, who agree that the lockdown has caused far more destruction to the poor in their communities than COVID-19 has been able to, or will ever be able to.

Before pushing an already-crippled economy off a cliff, the burden of proof rests on the government to consider any negative effects before it acts. Through the last few months, it has become clear that myriad rules and regulations were not thought through nearly well enough. Instead of track-and-trace, a more nuanced approach, government wielded a hammer. The consequential unemployment, grinding poverty, starvation, psychological hardships and suicide, will be with us for years to come. We may be heading out of lockdown, but the economic apocalypse caused by government’s reaction to the virus is only beginning.

It is tragic that Lagardien speaks disparagingly of “freedom” and “liberty”, which he places in scare-quotes. These were hard-won, after centuries of struggle and sacrifice. Individual liberty is intimately tied with economic prosperity, and should be considered something sacred, for all people.