INTERVIEW | 22.12.2020

“Freedom can only be protected by long-term thinking”: Christoph Möllers on Covid and Democracy

We are in the year 2030 and look back at the year of Covid – what will be the verdict of history for democracy?

It will be a very mixed verdict – but democracy might not be the deciding factor on how to solve the problem of the pandemic. We see democracies performing very differently. So far, we don't really have an explanation for that.

What could be other explanations?

We see countries like Taiwan performing well. This is an Asian democracy. China also seems to cope very well. Then again, we don't really know because there is no transparency of information. We see the United States not really getting much done and being highly problematic for democratic reasons as well. Europe is performing somewhere in the middle range. At the end of the day, we will get a complex picture about borders, density of population and many other things.

Do you see a problem in the democratic political process itself?

There were certainly problems, especially with the involvement of parliament, for example in Germany. Normally we have amazingly high standards when parliament has to be integrated, which decisions have to be made by parliament. And this was somehow a bit forgotten. There were very generous clauses that were not really detailed enough to back all the major intrusions into individual rights.

What is there to learn in this crisis about how to change or think differently about democracy?

We have been talking about sustainability now for decades – but this crisis has taught us that sustainability is something very concrete. It's really about our own freedom. It's not something abstract. It's about us not leaving our homes and being somehow imprisoned – because we haven't been thinking sustainably enough. This is an important lesson.

We have to include collective needs into our notion of individual rights.

And what could be the consequence?

We really have to think about long term planning – not as an intrusion upon freedom, but as securing our freedom. The whole rather bureaucratic process of planning for a coming crisis has to be opened up. It has to be politicized. We have to compare different threats to freedom, different threats to life. Only when we have a certain degree of comprehensiveness, when we can compare things, we can politicize them.

Should we think differently about freedom itself?

Freedom is a very fuzzy concept and full of internal contradictions. On the one hand, there is the bodily and rather short-sighted concrete freedom of pursuing our desires and needs. And on the other hand, we have to think of collective freedom – which is much more abstract and long range. The pandemic demonstrates that freedom can only be protected by long-term thinking. This is also true for climate change, as the next problem that will come. We haven't so far discussed it so much in terms of freedom. I think it's quite helpful to include this thought in a more general framework about what we actually mean by being free.

It seems that in the present liberal discourse there is a very narrow view of what freedom really is.

When you look at the pedigree of liberal concepts of freedom, you see that we often use a very narrow concept of liberalism. For thinkers like Thomas Hobbes or later John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, it was quite clear that freedom has something to do with collective action and being able to make collective decisions according to a standard that includes everybody.

This has somehow been forgotten.

The pandemic has shown that we need to look very closely at what kind of actions actually are protected by individual rights and freedom. Then we will see that there is an idea of freedom that protects only the things you already have. Which is sometimes a bit perverse. Why do you have a right to inheritance, but not a right to be educated in kindergarten? We have to think about how we can institutionalize collective action in individual rights. We have to include collective problems and collective needs into our notion of individual rights.

Freedom is also a central argument in the concept and design of the market economy that we call capitalism.

Yes, capitalism is a key issue in the discussion about freedom and I am very ambivalent about it. Obviously, there is something quite liberal in protecting everything you want. But capitalism is also a problem and one of the reasons why we now think in a very short-sighted manner about individual rights. We have a lot of traditions for thinking differently about freedom, traditions of republicanism. Not everything has to be reinvented to come back to a more inclusive concept of individual rights and to a more action-oriented concept of collective democratic practice as part of a broader concept of freedom.

Collective freedom implies responsibility.

The pandemic has brought this discourse about responsibility back. And it is important to frame individual decisions with regard to the pandemic as something that has to do with solidarity. We are doing something together as a democratic community. We are not looking at the state giving us orders. But it would be a misunderstanding to confuse solidarity with the appeal that you must not criticize the government. We have to have an open debate about the success of our performance. In Germany, we have a strong majority backing the decisions – but we do not always have a culture of dissent. That makes it difficult to draw a strict line between people who are not happy with what's going on and some crazy loonies or those denying the crisis itself.

Is consensus still the goal of democracy, as learned in post-war Germany?

We are still trying to cope with polarization. West German society was a very consensual project. This consensus somehow ended with the rise of the AfD [Germany’s far-right political party]. But actually, the AfD is not a dissenter. The AfD is system opposition and wants to abolish liberal democracy. The point is: We are still not used to robust conflict within the system. We need robust conflict that is still loyal to a minimum of liberal democracy.

One last question. Can you complete this sentence: For me, the problem of the pandemic is personal because –

I need good reasons not to see my friends.


Christoph Möllers is Professor for Constitutional Law, Humboldt University Berlin, and Senior Advisor THE NEW INSTITUTE

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