Opinion

Debate: life vs liberty

Life- Roshan Panesar

Life is a good thing and it is worth fighting for. 

Choosing to preserve and prioritise life may be a difficult choice. It may, as now, be an arduous choice fraught with economic and social risk. To some it may even be an unfashionable choice. But it is the right choice. 

This is not just for the obvious reason that liberties, pursuits and protections cannot be enjoyed by the dead. It is because not prioritising life over other objectives paves the way for deleterious consequences. 

The likes of Tucker Carlson, Alex Jones and Peter Hitchens may tell you that the road to dictatorship begins with a disregard for liberty. Not so. The road to dictatorship is embarked upon when it is life that is not prioritised. 

In People’s Republics, Democratic People’s Republics, middle-eastern kingdoms,  theocracies and military juntas something other than the life of the people is prioritised: the supreme leader, the party, the sacred text, the nation or even simply the wealth and power of those in charge. For challenging any of the above, the individual may invite a midnight visit by the security forces, arrest, show trial and death. 

The road to unfreedom and murder begins with the prioritisation of an idea – or any objective –  in place of people. This is the case, somewhat ironically, even if the idea is as venerable as liberty. 

Unlike the grounded, measurable, quantifiable good of people’s lives, liberty – as an abstract idea – is fungible, and can mean different things to different people in different circumstances. 

The present crisis demonstrates this. 

The entire country under house arrest may be an affront to our liberties, but it is one which is necessary to prevent increased infection and increased death. If we were to hold that liberty could not be abrogated ever and that those who wanted to roam now as they usually would were allowed to do so, what would be the cost? If the lockdown was brought to a juddering halt and the government prodded us to go back to normal, how many people – not through choice, mind you – would become infected? How many would die just so a happy few could enjoy their liberty?

This is why the drafters of the ECHR made a stipulation that liberty has its limits. Indeed, these are limits we accept every day in observing our legal systems, contracts, relationships and duties of care, regulations, codes of conduct and so forth. We do this so we can live fulfilled lives in peace and security. 

Of course, this is not to say that liberty should be paid no attention. It is, of course, a human right for a reason. But when we are asked to choose between the living and an idea, we should stand shoulder to shoulder and choose life.

Liberty- Madeleine Ross

Life without liberty is meaningless. Without individual choice and freedom, is life really worth living? ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ is a quote from Emmeline Pankhurst, the indomitable suffragette, who fought for civil liberties for women fearlessly. Throughout human history, activists have sacrificed their life and liberty so that we might live the lives that we choose to.  

What would life be without liberty? We don’t have to look far to find historical examples. Slavery, feudalism, disenfranchisement – the consequences of stripping people of dignity and choice linger in our society. For us, used to a set of well-enforced rights and civil liberties, the realities of a life without liberty are unimaginable.  

For most of us, the past few weeks have been tedious and frustrating. But to say that the lockdown is a loss of liberty is ridiculous. Our liberties have not been lost – they’re still enshrined in law just as they were before the beginning of the pandemic, and we can rest easy in the knowledge that as soon as possible, restrictions will be lifted. Alongside protecting the NHS and trying to minimise the loss of life, steps are also being taken to minimise the loss of liberty; essential services are being maintained as well as possible.  

If we felt our fundamental liberties were at permanent threat, we would probably react very differently. When abortion rights in some Southern states and Northern Ireland were threatened, organisations such as the ACLU and Amnesty International mobilised quickly to protect women seeking procedures. When fundamental liberties are threatened, liberty becomes a very valuable commodity. Something that people sacrifice life for.  

But we are privileged. We don’t appreciate the liberties that we possess, and we don’t always exercise our rights to the full. We take it for granted that we can vote, and go to large public events, and get an education. The current crisis has hindered these things only for the present – for most, the overriding wish is that we return to normal life as quickly as possible.  

This isn’t really a case of liberty vs life. We haven’t sacrificed any liberties – we’re just at home for a bit. And that’s boring, and tedious, but it isn’t a threat to our rights. We will, when the lockdown ends, return to normal life. This isn’t a question of whether life or liberty is more valuable than life, it’s a test of patience.