The speed with which the universal rights and freedoms characteristic of the open society were suspended in deference to speculative, unorthodox and unfounded disease control theories should warn us that the hard-won achievements of the open society can be exchanged for the subjective experience of a little more security.1
That most of these freedoms have been restored in many parts of the West does not take away from the fact that we now have a dangerous precedent that most Western governments and opinion leaders have yet to condemn or repudiate; a precedent that may well be invoked in a future crisis, whether real or fabricated.
The architects of lockdowns, vaccine passports and vaccine mandates, who introduced the infrastructure of a “papers, please” society, seem to have a superficial understanding of the values that make Western societies worth living for. to be lived.
Those who oversaw the introduction of lockdowns and compulsory vaccine apartheid, despite their insistence that these were only emergency measures, helped to accelerate the relentless erosion of civil rights during the pandemic, with highly questionable, and at best speculative, public health benefits to be gleaned in return.
Fundamental civil rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of association, the right to demonstrate, privacy of home, the right to access public places and services, and even the right to informed consent to treatment medical, have been pushed aside in the name of public health, with no clear evidence that such rights violations would make a substantial difference to the medium to long-term burden of disease, and little or no serious public debate on the social and moral costs of these draconian measures.
Many of our political leaders, opinion leaders and fellow citizens have forgotten who we are. We are, or certainly aspire to be, free and open societies, in which each citizen moves about as he pleases and can, for the most part (except in cases of criminality, delinquency and gross incivility), access the same places and public facilities as his fellow citizens, without being regularly confronted with frowns from eyebrows, insults or systematic discrimination.
Until we understand what it means to live in a free and open society, and why it matters to ourselves, our children and our grandchildren, we are likely to continue pushing speculative projections and strategic goals technocrats before the freedoms of citizens.
So what exactly does it mean to live in a free and open society?
Historical precedents for a free and open society
The notion of “open society” was developed by a number of 20th century thinkers, including Henri Bergson and Karl Popper, and more recently recapitulated by Gerald Gaus.2 My interest here is not to recount the history of the concept, but to highlight some of its salient features, as an ideal that has been central to the way of life of modern constitutional democracies, and manifested , to a greater or lesser extent, at very different historical times, including Greek antiquity and the first modern Italian city-states.
Of course, to the extent that the social systems of ancient Greece or early modern times relied on slavery and/or restricted the public status of women, we cannot say that these were truly free and open, in the full sense of the term. However, insofar as they incorporated a certain cultural diversity and social and economic mobility and were based on a form of shared civility that transcended local customs and feudal allegiances, they embodied some characteristics of free and open societies.
How could we understand a free and open society today?
In our contemporary context, a free and open society could be understood as a society in which:
- people of different races, ethnicities, religions, cultures, moral and political commitments and lifestyles peacefully and civilly sharing social spaces like streets, cities, schools, workplaces, restaurants, theaters, cinemas, etc. ;
- social participation and access to shared spaces such as public services and hospitality are not systematically denied to specific social groups based on group markers such as ethnicity, religion, gender, l age, health or political affiliation;
- there is a strong preference for forms of social cooperation that involve horizontal agreements between individuals and groups rather than top-down vertical orders;
- individuals enjoy a generous latitude to freely dispose of their person and their property as they see fit, within certain limits of law and civility;
- people are generally free to express their opinions without fear of reprisal or censorship;
- social life is regulated by General rules who appreciate broad public legitimacy and therefore are not perceived as excessively partisan, coercive or unilateral in their operations;
- individuals are generally free to move about in society as they please, as long as they do not engage in delinquent, reckless or criminal behavior; and
- all members of society are respected as equal rights holders and enjoy equal protection of the law, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, social origin, gender, age or political affiliation.
Benefits of a Free and Open Society
All of these characteristics of free and open societies, taken together, not only benefit the individual members of these societies; they also serve to strengthen the public legitimacy of our economic and political institutions, promoting a safe, just and inclusive social order.
On the one hand, individuals feel safe from arbitrary violence and domination by private and public actors, which makes them more positively disposed towards their shared civil order, seen as a source of personal and collective security.3
On the other hand, belonging to a particular social, ethnic, religious or political group does not automatically reduce a person’s access to social life or expose him or her to abusive treatment. just because of who they are, what they believe or who they associate with. Members of an open society, despite their diverse ethnicities, religions, lifestyles and social allegiances, can happily endorse the values and institutions of their common political and social order rather than feel alienated from them. In short, a free and open society, to the extent that its core values are genuinely respected, can enhance the legitimacy of its governing institutions by being a safe and welcoming place for people from a wide variety of political backgrounds and backgrounds. . life.
A free and open society is a delicate and rare achievement
A free and open society, in which citizens of widely diverse ethnic, religious, political and cultural backgrounds live under the same political institutions, observe the same ground rules and treat each other as political equals, is a delicate achievement. , and certainly not one to be taken for granted.
Indeed, there are relatively few times and places in history where people of different religions, ethnic backgrounds, political ideals and cultures have managed to recognize each other as political equals and to share the same social space, same government and same general narrative. of political legitimacy.
Far more frequently, people have lived in rigidly hierarchical societies, with limited social mobility, and been bound into tightly knit social enclaves, tribes, or classes, with limited openness to other groups and cultures. Very often, different social and political groups adopted attitudes of mistrust, animosity and even violent rivalry towards each other, and those who managed to rise to the top rejoiced in their political and social superiority over the rival classes and social groups.
It is perfectly conceivable that we could fall back into a closed and unfree social order, although the specific type of unfreedom it entails would probably be very different from what we associate with, say, feudal societies in which local rulers can rule over their subjects with relative impunity.
What could the collapse of a free and open society entail?
It’s impossible to predict exactly how an unfree society would function in a technologically advanced post-industrialized world, but the Covid pandemic has given us some useful clues.
It is highly likely that those willing to accept the demands of new-fangled despots, whether those stemming from public health, ecological conservation, or political correctness, will be left relatively undisturbed in their daily lives, even if they “freely” inhabit a cage of bureaucratic regulations; while those who are not so “cooperative” can be plagued with fines, restricted access to public places, reduced banking services, and who knows what other kind of heavy and intrusive measures the technocrats and their political masters manage to achieve. to propose.
In many parts of the world, the discriminatory public health regime imposed in the name of saving lives has been largely removed and, at least for now, life seems more or less “normal” again (although we see still absurd remnants of the Covid regime around, such as countries requiring visitors to receive Covid vaccines which are largely ineffective in curbing infections).
But the ease with which entire nations have embraced harsh forms of medical coercion and apartheid should remind us that a free and open society is a rather precarious achievement and one that we will likely have to struggle to defend for the foreseeable future.