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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | When lofty collective notions trample our individual liberty

Concepts like ‘the greater good’ could be used to justify clamps on freedom in a post-covid world

How important is individual liberty to you? All of us may have to face this question once the covid-19 pandemic is over. For, the one thing that can be predicted with great certainty is that once the virus subsides, people all over the world will be left with less individual liberty than they enjoyed earlier.

Right now, much of it has been taken away from us. We are not allowed to venture out of our homes unless we have a very good reason to. Even then, stringent restrictions apply. Of course, the vast majority of us have accepted the new constraints without protest, and rightly so, since in times of a national emergency, we recognize that individual rights come a distant second to the greater good. But some of those rights may never return to us.

Most of the liberties that we are likely to lose will concern our privacy. The covid crisis could end up making surveillance an integral part of our lives. And not just surveillance by the State—which will certainly rise. Keeping a watch on our neighbours has become a custom during the epidemic. Some of us have been calling up the police, without a second thought, to complain about people jogging in the open or walking their dogs. It doesn’t matter that we have lived alongside many of these people, perhaps even partied with them, for years, maybe decades. This attitude is possibly getting hardwired within us, and could remain a basis of human interaction even when the current epidemic is a distant memory.

Trust plays a key role in all our dealings and relationships. It is a critical ingredient of social capital and the successful functioning of most human systems, from close family to gigantic factories. Individual liberty and the “inalienable" rights of a human being too are derived directly from trust, that a person will not misuse his freedom to harm others.

Hopefully, covid-19 will be contained soon. But the demands to restrain the behaviour of others look set to continue. Post-covid, many of us may take the laudable idea of “greater good" to sanctimonious heights that will only reflect less tolerance. Once we have begun complaining to the authorities easily about threats—true or imagined—and seeing these complaints being taken seriously, it will be a habit hard to let go of.

In the new mistrustful society that is on its way, we could easily end up trampling on the individual rights of others, even though they don’t really harm us. Landlords will be throwing tenants out because they do not approve of their lifestyle. Residents’ welfare associations, often run by retired underachievers with too much time on their hands and a lust for power, could stop children from playing in their colonies’ parks. Some people will raise a shindig every time someone in their neighbourhood hosts a party that goes on beyond their bedtime. And others will simply fabricate lies to paint anyone they dislike as a bad citizen insensitive to others’ comfort or safety. Since in most cases the ones complaining might be able to take some sort of moral high ground, however illogical or selfish that may be, they will prevail in all likelihood, because the majority will be scared of shadows. Picking your nose in your workplace could lead to an official reprimand.

Governments will love it. They will overtly seize more power to keep tabs on citizens, demand and use more personal data, and we will accept that increased power, happily or naively. Some of the covid-related restrictions on our movements will become permanent. And like many laws, they will serve little useful purpose except as tools for the bureaucracy and law-and-order machinery to hassle or punish people for personal motives, to show off their power, or just get cheap thrills. The number of forms to fill up could well multiply. The same will be true for the business and corporate sector, which does not lack petty-minded rule-makers.

A wave of de-globalization and high nationalism is already upon us. The pandemic is being fought at the level of individual nations, and in a country like India, also at the state level. We hear regular calls for global cooperation, but for most people, it’s just noise. We have decided that we are competing with other nations in this fight against the virus, and many of us cannot but feel a bit of schadenfreude when we see our country doing better than some others. Within India, do most people in one state really care if some faraway state has more covid-19 cases than their own? Don’t they actually look down on that state and its inhabitants and feel superior?

The stark reality is that we are entering a world which will openly be about every nation for itself, every state for itself, every human social unit for itself. We will have less empathy for others’ views and rights. Covid-19 is, perhaps irreversibly, breaking humanity into compartments, which are further getting compartmentalized—a future based on mistrust, where the lofty concepts of “greater good" and “sacrifice" will be used to justify significant curtailments of individual liberty. And we will probably abide meekly. Because though the threat would have died, our new fears and insecurities will live on.

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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