Opinion: How culture war is destroying public reason 

By Nicholas Gruen

November 16, 2020


Lockdowns, border closures, masks, apps and eradication. Where do you stand?

One can’t sensibly address any of these issues without knowing more about context. But we don’t do context any more. Each of the issues is now its own little culture war within the larger culture war.

At the head of this queue is lockdown itself. One can reasonably argue that lockdowns generate more economic and human costs than benefits, including the deaths they cause. That’s not just in the countries locking down themselves, but also in low-income countries that trade with countries whose economies tank as a result of lockdowns.

I won’t be that surprised if those opposing lockdowns in a principled way end up being right in hindsight. I am surprised that those whom I respect and like – like Paul Frijters – don’t express themselves with more caution and humility, that they find it so hard to believe that they might be wrong.

After all, it’s almost impossible to specify the counterfactual – to say what would happen without lockdowns. That’s because so much of the economic impact comes from people locking themselves down rather governments requiring it. But that’s a separate matter. They are at least doing us a service in arguing the case (if not in the way they sometimes argue it).

Even here, however, I think it’s a great pity they argue their case in such high blown terms – as defenders of liberty. I won’t go into the detail I’d like to here, but to cut to the chase, one is at liberty to do things that don’t harm others, and during a pandemic one’s social distancing is precisely and predominantly in order to minimise harm to others. Would lockdowns be an offence to liberty if the virus killed 10% or 20% of the people it infected?

Wider considerations matter because, with lockdowns being as stupendously costly as they are, if one does them, it’s insane not to do them properly. Australia acted early and locked down effectively though as we know now, incompetence in Victoria’s hotel quarantine and protecting its health workers led to a second wave. As the culture wars began, the COVID yo-yo was born. Fortunately, the Victorian government stuck to its guns and was conservative in scaling down the lockdown as business ramped up the vitriol.

The populations of Britain, Europe and the US weren’t so lucky, as lockdowns were imposed late, reluctantly and often ended too soon.

Similar culture wars rather than careful thinking are replicated endlessly.


Initially, almost all governments around the world followed the World Health Organisation’s catastrophic advice against face masks. This continued until it became unviable – which it did for the Victorian government in its second wave. Having eschewed mandated masks even on public transport, the Victorian government then went all in and mandated mask-wearing in deserted parks.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Australia masks aren’t required even in high-risk situations. NSW’s premier begs citizens to wear masks on public transport but doesn’t mandate it. This pattern is repeated again and again. Masks are made into a civil liberties issue rather than a temporary public health safety measure.

That app

Google and Apple have good technology for tracing contacts whilst protecting privacy. Instead, the federal government spends millions on an energy-hungry but useless app. They then make it voluntary. We should use Apple and Google technology and mandate strict privacy protections including deletion of all data after say 45 days as a requirement of taking public transport or eating in a restaurant.

Instead, in the midst of an emergency that brought on devastation to our lives and our economy, it’s political business as usual on privacy. Meanwhile, we give our data away for half a cent in the dollar to Fly-Buys or to Facebook to chat with our friends.

State borders

Movement across state borders has been marked by the same kind of binary thinking. Lockdowns have been imposed by every state and federal government at great cost. But with the second wave in full swing in Victoria, the PM pled for open state borders in the name of federation and the economy. Yet to open to an infected state would be to put all the costs of the previous lockdown at naught. Still, this is no more absurd than the equal and opposite response of state governments since, which has been to close their borders to other states even when they have similar COVID spreads to themselves.

Still, after all this, I still think the British scheme “Eat out to help out” which was a 50% subsidy for eating out deserves some kind of award. Is it the most obviously stupid government program ever devised? Predictably, it is responsible for a substantial proportion of Britain’s COVID caseload today. I wonder if they’ve considered “Mud-wrestling to help out”, or “Group Sex and Sauna to help out”?

But Eat out to help out pales into insignificance against Britain’s latest lockdown, announced amid much gnashing of culture warrior teeth, and complete with a hoped-for duration that is obviously too short for it to be effective. The worst of all worlds. Here we go again.


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