The great pandemic: is freedom under threat?

Adela Cortina, Carlos Rodríguez Braun and Pedro Schwartz

The Rafael del Pino Foundation organised, on May 2020, the live dialogue through the entitled "La gran pandemia ¿está la libertad amenazada?" in which Adela Cortina, Carlos Rodríguez Braun and Pedro Schwartz participated.

Adela Cortina has been Professor of Ethics and Legal, Moral and Political Philosophy at the University of Valencia since 1986, as well as Director of the ÉTNOR Foundation, for the ethics of business and organisations. In 1969 she joined the Department of Metaphysics at the University of Valencia. A scholarship enabled her to further her studies at the universities of Munich and Frankfurt, where she came into contact with the philosophy of Jürgen Habermas and Karl-Otto Apel. Back in the newly democratic Spain, in the second half of the 1970s, it made him consider the need to seek an "ethics for all", making this science the subject of his study and dedication from that moment onwards. His abundant production includes "Ética mínima" (1986), "Alianza y Contrato" (2005), "La escuela de Fráncfort: crítica y utopía" (2008).

Carlos Rodríguez Braun is an expert in economic thought and liberalism with international recognition for his publications and conferences. This Spanish-Argentinean PhD in Economics is characterised by combining academic rigour with a desire to disseminate information. He is a member of the National Academy of Economic Sciences of Argentina and Professor of History of Economic Thought at the Complutense University of Madrid, and combines the publication of books and academic articles with collaboration with the written and audiovisual media. He is a reference and opinion maker on economic, political and social reality, as well as a defender of globalisation and liberalism. He is currently a columnist for La Razón, Expansión, Actualidad Económica and Libertad Digital and participates daily in Onda Cero Radio. He has published articles in prestigious journals such as History of Political Economy, American Journal of Economics and Sociology, European Journal of the History of Economic Thought or the Journal des Économistes et des Études Humaines, and he is also an evaluator and sits on the advisory boards of scientific publications in Spain and other countries.

Pedro Schwartz holds a PhD in Law from the Complutense University of Madrid and a PhD in Political Science from the London School of Economics (LSE). He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Centre for European Policy Studies, and of the Mont Pèlerin Society, of which he was President from 2014 to 2016. He is on the Academic Advisory Board of the Liberales Institut in Zurich and is an Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute. He writes regularly for Expansión, Actualidad Económica, ABC and Financial Times.


On 7 May 2020, the Rafael del Pino Foundation organised an online dialogue entitled "The great pandemic: is freedom under threat?", with the participation of Adela Cortina, Professor of Ethics and Legal, Moral and Political Philosophy at the University of Valencia; Carlos Rodríguez Braun, Professor of History of Economic Thought at the Complutense University of Madrid, and Pedro Schwartz, Professor of Economics at the Camilo José Cela University. Adela Cortina began by warning that, when talking about the state, it is necessary to specify what kind of state we are talking about, because the state in China is not the same as the state in the United States or the European Union. In the case of the EU, it is a social democratic state governed by the rule of law, which tries to link the dimensions of democracy and freedom with a social element that is fundamental to its functioning. In this sense, there has recently been a deconsolidation of liberal democracy that may have been reinforced during the pandemic with further regression. Social fractures also contribute to this recession, which means that democracies may decline. There is no trade-off between democracy and freedom, but social fractures help liberal democracies to decline. With the pandemic, de-globalising tendencies have been increasingly favoured. In the face of globalisation, there have been nationalist and pro-independence reactions, of closing down. This is totally contrary to freedoms. The pandemic has reinforced nationalism and independence. People are increasingly seeking a certain security in more closed environments, which will accelerate the process of deconsolidation of liberal democracies, which is very bad news. The pandemic has occurred in a dictatorial country. Due to a lack of transparency and a failure to communicate in time what was happening, many more people have died than should have died. This is further proof that totalitarian states are unacceptable, that our great task is to achieve a social liberal democracy in which freedoms are lived, but also economic, social and cultural rights are respected. What we must do now is to strengthen this social liberal democracy and extend it universally, because it is the only way to ensure freedoms, social rights and transparency. Should the state occupy spaces that do not belong to it? Unfortunately, Adela Cortina fears that it should. That is why it is very important to make it very clear what the limits of the Constitution are, what are the contents that cannot be crossed in any way. Pedro Schwartz recalled what the then German Minister of Economics, Ludwig Erhardt, said to Hayek. Hayek was concerned about the term social market economy, to which Erhardt replied that he should not worry, because the market is social. The weak point of all that we have been building in our democracies is an ever-widening social net, which puts more and more in the hands of the authorities education, health care, the vital minimum, all those things we call social. This is what has been damaging democracy and the market. That's why going deeper into the social part is a profound mistake. It is unnecessary, dangerous for liberties and for the market. The social democratic idea of a social and market economy is an idea that has been failing and that, as the social part has been growing, more and more damage has been done to individual freedom and to the possibilities of growth and transformation. Europe has become a soft, beautiful, calm, secure continent, unable to do what needed to be done with the coronavirus. The state has failed with the coronavirus because it did not have a contingency fund, especially in some countries like Spain, Italy or France. What they had is debt. The social dimension has been exaggerated, it has gone too far and it hurts states. It was damaging to education, because it was of poor quality, to health and to everything that had to do with economic freedom. Carlos Rodríguez Braun indicated that, in effect, spaces had been occupied by the state. It was difficult to imagine a scenario to the contrary. All crises encourage states, all illiberal forces, to take advantage of the situation to legitimise the expansion of the state over freedoms. The question is whether we will later recover these freedoms that we have been losing. But there is a note of optimism. In these situations there is always talk of the crisis of freedom. The other day, a man said on television that the crisis of the coronavirus comes from capitalism. But the crisis comes from a communist country and the capitalist countries are trying to deal with it. There is always a tendency to think that it is capitalism, the market, freedom that is bad. But Carlos' feeling is not like that. With freedom, capitalism, the market, democracy, the old Mark Twin saying that the news of his death has been frankly exaggerated. Pedro Schwartz pointed out that much of the social progress, the improvement of the underprivileged classes, the situation of women, is not due to legislation, to intervention, but to the spontaneous movement of capitalism. Women have the possibility of being in the labour market thanks to the technical and social advances produced by the free market. Adela Cortina replied that everyone is always talking about capitalism in order to blame it or to re-found it. But today our subject is not capitalism. Linking it to the coronavirus crisis is nonsense. What has happened is unexpected and we had no knowledge about the spread of the virus and how to stop it. Sometimes things happen in life that have neither economic nor human causes. The big mistake is that it happened in a place where absolutely nothing was said and the lack of transparency is disastrous. In a democratic country someone can stand up and ask what is happening to us because in a free society these things do not happen so easily. In democratic societies there are no famines because there is always someone who criticises, who says that this cannot be. The issue is not capitalism, but freedom. But people must have a basis of livelihood to ensure that they can exercise their freedom. That has been the task of social democracy, to say that there are goods so basic that they cannot be left to the market because then people cannot exercise their freedom. The coronavirus shows, once again, that it is important to be prepared. It really has caught us all bewildered and unprepared, astonished that even the most powerful have no chance of countering the coronavirus. But now we have a lot of researchers looking at how we can have a vaccine, because it is a global problem. Pedro Schwartz responded by wondering what is going to happen next. Because people are saying we have to go back to the management system of the countries that are dangerous. More market, more economic freedom and less intervention is what we must defend, because there are times coming when people will take advantage of this to go backwards. The future lies in more freedom. Carlos Rodríguez Braun commented that fear is a powerful political lever because it tends to deactivate the impulse to freedom that we all have insofar as it terrorises us. Fear is a force against freedom and democracy because it inhibits our ability to make considered and correct choices. In order to talk about the dangers to freedom, we must incorporate fear and add that this social democracy, which is precisely what calms people's fears, can increase them to what extent. For example, there is a sudden collapse and tax revenue collapses. States then want no alternative but to raise taxes because they have a complicated horizon for public debt. A democracy that reassures its citizens should not have debt. The second point, which also has to do with fear, is why there is so little individual saving. Social democracies tend to discourage it. This is a tragedy because the person who saves is in a position to be less afraid than someone who is in the hands of power because he or she lacks the means or the savings. Pedro Schwartz stressed, in this respect, that it is a contradiction that pensions are paid for with debt. What was needed was to have saved something during the time when there was more income. Who is going to pay this debt? Not future generations because the average term of the debt today is seven years. We are going to pay it ourselves. In the end, taxes are going to be raised to pay for something that should be financed by savings. Adela Cortina referred to the dilemma between security and freedom. The two things can be perfectly reconciled. There are people who say that it is a dilemma that leads to the need to opt for security. Experts say that there seems to be a return to this desire for security that leads countries to totalitarianism because it gives the impression that a country like China, which has achieved the obedience of all its citizens, is more secure than one that leaves room for freedom. This is a false dilemma, but a freer country is safer than the other way around. When there is more freedom, more possibility for criticism, more transparency, there is more security. Moreover, totalitarian regimes are also inefficient even in sustaining life because they reap it when it suits them. That is why we must be very careful with these drifts towards the desire for security because this security dilemma is totally false. In this case of the coronavirus, it is being planted with great clarity. There are a number of people who are resorting to this type of pandemic to say that we must seek security. Then means of population control, such as artificial intelligence, would be wonderful and we could save their lives. Look, no. It is very important to see to what extent means that can be very helpful in some ways, can become means of real control of the whole citizenry. In some countries this is already happening and in others it may happen. This is one of the great issues we are entering into with de-escalation, in which there are more and more ways of knowing where those who can infect, those who cannot infect, where you can have them located. It is an issue that we have to study very carefully and be very careful lest one day we realise that we are being studied by the police. In Spain, people have been extraordinarily mature rather than fearful. What we have is enormous confusion because not even the specialists know very well what to do. The only thing people do is follow orders because they have no alternative. They have followed the guidelines when they have seen that it was reasonable, they have not obeyed the arbitrary. We are not prepared to obey what is arbitrary, but what is reasonable. That's why we have to give people reasons and explain. If de-escalation is done in one way, explain why. That is promoting freedom. He also insisted that a social base is fundamental, and even more so with the unemployment that is going to come our way. The coronavirus has created a terrible situation and, in addition, there are more and more people who cannot find jobs because they do not have the necessary skills and do not even have the level. Pedro Schwartz responded that one thing to bear in mind in this discussion is the unintended effects. What happens with good intentions is that you get the opposite. For example, the decision to have a high minimum wage, or to have a social minimum income for everybody, causes unemployment. This contradiction between good intentions and bad consequences is the main criticism of this social dimension. Carlos Rodríguez Braun pointed out that we always want all freedoms, political, economic and civic. The problem is when they collide. The question of the social and democratic rule of law has problems and contradictions. Freedom can suffer to the extent that there is a dynamic that leads the state to grow. This is what we have seen in our time, paradoxically because democracy means that the people choose. The very dynamics of modern democracy have led us to states that are getting bigger and bigger, regardless of crises, and therefore conspire against economic freedoms. There is a contradiction here because people like to use their assets as they see fit. Democracy is the greatest legitimiser that political power has ever had and the proof is how states have grown without popular protests to raise taxes, because people do not want to pay more taxes. Adela Cortina believes that the issue of democracy and freedom is fundamental, because they are not opposed to each other. Moreover, the only way to realise political and civil liberties is through democratic government. Democracy is the least bad of all possible systems of government. But what we mean by individual autonomy and popular sovereignty have been at odds with each other from the beginning. The question is how do we get a political organisation in which everyone can realise their autonomy if not through some kind of sovereignty, which, in the end, is representative government. We elect representatives to make decisions for us as long as we can control them. That's where the point is when Benjamin said that as countries grow and people get richer, they appoint their administrators to run their public affairs so that they don't have to deal with them directly, so that they can devote themselves to what they are interested in, which is private life. But, in the end, he warned that, if you put everything in their hands and do not control them, one day even their private freedom will have been taken away from them. There is no better way to realise civil and political liberties than in a democratic society in which you elect representatives who are held accountable and who are not left to take a series of measures in time of pandemic that are irreversible. There is no way to organise a political system in which citizens can be free except through a democratic society, which does not mean majority rule, but how majorities are generated, whether through debate, deliberation and so on, or through manipulation and deception, and then how politicians are held to account. That is essential to understanding where we are. Political freedom consists of being able to participate in public issues, to be able to make demands on public issues, and for that we need the most important thing in a country: a lucid and mature citizenry. For Pedro Schwartz, the key to this issue is that we have appointed administrators who turn out to be unfaithful. Their unfaithfulness has consisted in the fact that, under the pretext that they have a majority, they are increasing the area in which they rule. The current state is getting bigger and bigger and only stops growing when economic growth starts to fall, when people are poorer. This has happened, for example, with the state in Sweden, when there was so much state intervention that, in the end, they decided to appoint a government to try to stop the growth of the state somewhat. The fundamental issue of representation is that we are represented by a well-considered, well-discussed system, and that the state does not go too far. The essential issue in a democracy is how to prevent the state from growing. Keynes said that if state spending went beyond 25% of national output, freedom would end. Now we are at 45%, 50%, 52% and it is claimed that other countries in Europe spend more. The fundamental question is how to reduce the state, because it is financed by our taxes and taxes are a way of reducing our freedoms. Adela Cortina agreed that the state does not have to be a big state. But, at the moment we are in a situation that is going to be terrible, because the number of unemployed has increased atrociously, the number of companies that have had to close is terrifying. At the moment we have to use our strengths to try to see how to solve the problems, because it is not at all easy. If we talk about a minimum income, the last thing we should be talking about is one of those populist cribs that stop people from working, but that will secure their vote. That has to be avoided by all means. You can't build a country like that, or in that way. But at the moment, with the level of poverty and misery that exists, which will need to be supported, Adela Cortina sees very clearly that the state has to be social. What we must not allow in any way is to take advantage of the situation to make the state grow beyond constitutional limits, to occupy spaces that do not belong to it, to make issues by decree that do not belong to it. The limits must be clearly defined. It is one thing to have a situation of exception, in which you cannot abandon helpless people, but you must not enshrine that situation. This is where the political parties of the opposition and the citizens have to be very vigilant, realising whether or not they are being occupied, so that we do not find that one day even our private freedoms have been taken away from us. Carlos Rodríguez Braun referred to civil liberties. The idea of threat is visible in privacy. When you see the capacity of states to control us, it makes any liberal shudder. It's like 1984 (George Orwell's dystopian novel), where television is not used to watch but to be watched, monitored and controlled. This is reinforced in the pandemic, with the citizen permanently asking the state for authorisation, because the state controls the citizen in what he does, just the opposite of what a free society should be. What is true for opinions is also true for the economy. The invasion of the state will tell you how much you have to produce, what things you have to produce, whether it is going to close the economy because one activity or another has to be protected. These two issues can be linked in the sense that the expansion of the state is legitimised. But it seems to me that there is a popular reaction, a protest by the people against the invasion of their private lives. Adela Cortina commented that the EU has produced a series of documents on the use of artificial intelligence that are very interesting because they defend the individual's right to privacy, the right to intimacy. This is something that must be made known and the right to privacy is a right that must be respected above all else. When you get into the issue of the pandemic, it is a very sensitive issue. There are scientists who are working with artificial intelligence to try to see how to get out of the impasse and it is not easy to try to see how to avoid contagion using these means, but there may come a time when we go beyond respect for privacy. This is not an ideological issue, but a technical problem where we have to try to look at respecting people's privacy. But there is another freedom that can be quite damaged in times of pandemic, which is freedom of expression, because there is the world of networks and measures can be taken to curb freedom of expression. You can't agree with that because you can't curb freedom of expression at all. To curb freedom of expression in any country is to put an end to what is most radical in human beings. It is unacceptable to take advantage of pandemic times to limit freedom of expression. Pedro Schwartz added that there is one area where there is not as much sensitivity to personal freedoms, and that is education. Certain ideologies enter into what is taught in schools and high schools. They decide, especially nationalism, what is to be taught, how history is taught and what is said about what is happening in society. But that is not all. Our entire education system is subject to intervention, intervention by those people who do not consent to a different way of looking at education. What is this about textbooks being decided by a directorate-general? That is something that nobody has to decide. There is a decision that it is very necessary for someone to monitor what children are taught, and that is not for families to decide. Carlos Rodríguez Braun pointed out that the situation strengthens anti-liberal forces. Protectionist forces have emerged. But if you compare this protectionist wave with any time in the past, it is incomparable. In the 1930s the economies of the world were shut down. The United States was shut down. England, the mother of free trade, was closed. Interventionism at the microeconomic level was of a depth that we cannot imagine. Now, indeed, illiberal forces are returning, but on a much smaller scale. Trump launches protectionist speeches and is rebutted by public opinion. In the 1930s, when the government shut down the American economy, everyone was in favour. Not now. In Spain there have been attempts to move forward on markets, price controls. As soon as this discussion appeared, dissenting voices began to appear, warning that it was better not to control the economy because we already have experience of what happens in fascist countries, in communist countries, where everything is regulated and things go wrong. There is a little reason for optimism there. Pedro Schwartz also said that the current situation is better than in the past, except for some moments in the 19th century. But it is important to know and not to say that free trade has been the main way to reduce poverty. Poverty has not been reduced by NGOs. Poverty and inequality in the world have been reduced by free trade. The UN Security Council has said so. In 1990, 47% of the world's people lived on less than two dollars a day. Now we are told by the UN that it is 14% in 2010. Economic freedom is the main way to reduce poverty and inequality. If people eat, that is what reduces inequality. The level of poverty has gone down a lot despite the increase in population. We don't finish telling people that. Poverty and inequality are not increasing, quite the opposite, thanks to free trade. Adela Cortina added that protectionism solves neither economic nor political issues. But the coronavirus has shown us, once again, the interdependence that exists between everyone on Earth. In some cases, that interdependence leads to countries being highly dependent on each other for some very fundamental goods, making freedom quite difficult. The EU is dependent on other countries for such fundamental issues as antibiotics, for which we are totally dependent on China, face masks, etc. Doesn't the EU need to be somewhat self-sufficient? If we don't have enough pharmaceutical companies, and we are always depending on others, we are slaves, servants of others. Pedro Schwartz criticised this view with the example of a pencil, where the EU depends on the outside for graphite, wood, glue and, if it has a metal with an eraser, that eraser might come from Burma. In everything we depend on others and that is called trade. What Adela Cortina advocates, she said, is public intervention in production and limiting what we trade with others. It is a sensible voice, but it goes in the direction of limiting economic freedom. Carlos Rodríguez Braun added that Adela's opinion is a fairly generalised way of thinking that appeals to common sense. The problem is that common sense sometimes leads us to make mistakes in economic matters. The rhetoric used by Adela is denigratory towards buying abroad, saying "we are in the hands of". These are not the relationships that exist in a free society, and the moment they are restricted, people's freedom is curtailed. Adela Cortina clarified that one has to buy and sell. But there are a series of substantial goods that a country has to have a certain degree of self-sufficiency. Otherwise, in the end you have to bow to whatever the other wants. You have to have free hands to be able to make decisions at certain times. Carlos Rodríguez Braun ended by recalling a great liberal thinker, Anthony de Jasay, who said that the state will limit itself when it suits it. He described in very few words a certain logic of the politics of freedom that should be analysed, instead of thinking that the state is exogenously limited. No constitution has ever guaranteed any freedom, because freedom is not in the laws but in the hearts of women and men. But if the state can limit itself in its own interest, then the question of public opinion comes in, which is always necessary for freedom of expression. Public opinion can change and Carlos's hope is that there are some trends that point to a greater appetite for freedom and less tolerance for the incursions of political and legislative power into our freedoms as a whole. Pedro Schwartz's optimism stems from technology. The technological advances we are seeing, as negative as they may be, are giving power back to individuals. Those technologies that may now seem disruptive to our habits are becoming easier to use and that is giving us more freedoms. Such technology always produces fear. It did so in the 19th century when it began to be used to replace human labour. But we humans learn new ways of producing. The freedom to speak increases because we have the technology. Finally, more than optimism about the future, Adela Cortina is interested in virtues, which are those habits that are worked on day by day, that are exercised day by day and that are excellences of character. He thinks that one excellence of character is very important, and that is hope, because hope brings with it commitment. It is not a question of thinking about whether the future is going to go well or badly, but whether we are committed to it going well. There are many things in the hands of freedom and responsibility, and if we take responsibility for our future, and try to make things go better, there is hope that things will go well. Increasingly, there is an enlightened, lucid citizenry that realises that things have to change. Then there is that side that must also be taken into account, which is habits. In this sense, there is hope that things will go better because there is a large number of people who can generate these habits and who will not allow anyone to take away our freedom because, together with solidarity, this is the most interesting thing we have.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for the comments, opinions or statements made by the people who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their sole responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio González, are the result of the debates held at the meeting held for this purpose at the Foundation and are the responsibility of the authors.

The Rafael del Pino Foundation is not responsible for any comments, opinions or statements made by third parties. In this respect, the FRP is not obliged to monitor the views expressed by such third parties who participate in its activities and which are expressed as a result of their inalienable right to freedom of expression and under their own responsibility. The contents included in the summary of this conference, written for the Rafael del Pino Foundation by Professor Emilio J. González, are the result of the discussions that took place during the conference organised for this purpose at the Foundation and are the sole responsibility of its authors.