Toby Young

The luxury of being pro-lockdown

The luxury of being pro-lockdown
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I’ve just written an essay for the People’s Lockdown Inquiry, a new collaboration between Buckingham University, the Institute of Ideas and the Reclaim party. The question I’ve puzzled over in my contribution is why the global elite became such enthusiastic supporters of the heavy-handed, statist approach to managing the coronavirus crisis — stay-at home orders, business closures, face masks — and passionate opponents of less draconian alternatives, such as those set out by the signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration.

Choosing between these two positions is far from simple, with powerful moral arguments and compelling research evidence on both sides. Yet most members of the upper professional class across the western world treat the question as if it were a no--brainer. Supporting the interventionist approach is just something everybody does, darling, like turning left when you get on a plane and spending Christmas in the Caribbean.

For cynics like my friend James Delingpole, the answer’s obvious. It’s because these 21st-century robber barons are making money out of the pandemic. According to Robert Watts, who compiles the Sunday Times Rich List, more people have become billionaires in the past year than at any other time in Britain’s history. The combined fortune of these Masters of the Universe has grown by more than a fifth, and the rest of the 1 per cent haven’t done too badly either, thanks to massive government expenditure. Across the developed world, central banks have pumped money into the economy, boosting asset prices and further enriching the plutocratic elite. What’s not to like?

This is clearly a factor, but I think there’s something else at play, too, which is that supporting non-pharmaceutical interventions is a high-status indicator, a way of advertising that you’re in the same club as tech titans like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos and eminent public health scientists like Anthony Fauci and Neil Ferguson. It’s a sign of your membership of the cognitive elite. You may not be a virologist or an epidemiologist, but you’ve picked up enough of the lingo — herd immunity, R number, vaccine escape — to give a plausible impersonation of an expert at dinner parties.

Perhaps more significantly, challenging Covid orthodoxy is a low-status indicator. In the eyes of our meritocratic overlords, there is no intellectually respectable opposition to the policies embraced by nearly all western governments, bar Sweden. Rather, anyone who opposes the interventionist approach is a ‘conspiracy theorist’ who thinks Covid is a hoax and the symptoms of the disease are caused by 5G masts. For them, scepticism is indistinguishable from denialism and anyone who flirts with it is aligning themselves with Piers Corbyn, Alex Jones and David Icke. At Davos this year, saying you think Sunetra Gupta might have a point would have been like announcing you were a member of the mob that stormed the Capitol on 6 January.

In short, being pro-lockdown is a ‘luxury belief’. That’s a term coined by a doctoral student at Cambridge called Robert Henderson. In an article for the New York Post, he defines ‘luxury beliefs’ as ‘ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class’. The example he gives is the belief, prevalent in the 1960s, that monogamy is outdated and marriage a source of patriarchal oppression. That doesn’t cost the rich anything because most of them are brought up in bourgeois two-parent households and enter into stable, monogamous marriages. But as the credo of sexual liberation trickled down to the working class it has wreaked havoc, leading to illegitimacy, crime and poverty.

This is where Delingpole goes wrong, I think. The reason Davos Man has outsourced his opinions on the pandemic to the World Health Organisation is not because the policies recommended by Tedros Adhanom enrich him. Rather, it’s because they cost him nothing. He can just as easily work in the shepherd’s hut at the bottom of his garden as he can from his corner office. His children are provided with a full timetable of lessons via Zoom, courtesy of their private school, and if he feels like a holiday abroad he can charter a private jet. Becoming a cheerleader for lockdowns is a way of signalling that he is among the tiny elite of successful people for whom there is zero cost associated with them.

The same goes for woke gobbledegook, as well as the ‘climate emergency’, but that is another story.