Quotes Suitable for Framing: Jonathan Sumption

When human societies lose their freedom, it’s not usually because tyrants have taken it away. It’s usually because people willingly surrender their freedom in return for protection against some external threat. And the threat is usually a real threat but usually exaggerated. That’s what I fear we are seeing now. The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying. . . The symptoms of coronavirus are clearly serious for those with other significant medical conditions, especially if they’re old. There are exceptional cases in which young people have been struck down, which have had a lot of publicity, but the numbers are pretty small. The Italian evidence, for instance, suggests that only in 12 per cent of deaths is it possible to say coronavirus was the main cause of death. So yes this is serious and yes it’s understandable that people cry out to the government. But the real question is: is this serious enough to warrant putting most of our population into house imprisonment, wrecking our economy for an indefinite period, destroying businesses that honest and hardworking people have taken years to build up, saddling future generations with debt, depression, stress, heart attacks, suicides and unbelievable distress inflicted on millions of people who are not especially vulnerable and will suffer only mild symptoms or none at all, like the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister.

Jonathan Sumption, former Supreme Court Justice in the United Kingdom, and author of an acclaimed multi-volume history of The Hundred Years War which I have read with enjoyment and edification.  He understands that the reaction to the coronavirus has been far more dangerous than it is.  The coronavirus is a simple natural disaster, they come and go.  The reaction to it is a man made catastrophe that threatens to be an evil turning point in the affairs of men, at least short term.

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11 Comments

  1. I’m trying to think of an example of what he’s talking about over the last four generations. And I’d like Mr. Justice Sumpton to define his terms.

  2. Climate change, ecological bogeymen of all sorts. The media has been expert at generating hysteria against largely phantom menances. Since Sumption is something of a liberal he would probably put Communism and Islamic terrorism on the list.

  3. Just my anecdotal observation, but generally speaking, and among those overreacting, are more liberals than conservatives. In my extended family, this is 100% true. For instance, I have a “Catholic” sister who doesn’t believe God is a father, who also thinks Governor DeSantis is evil for not closing down churches.

  4. Climate change, ecological bogeymen of all sorts. The media has been expert at generating hysteria against largely phantom menances. Since Sumption is something of a liberal he would probably put Communism and Islamic terrorism on the list.

    No, no no. I’m trying to think of an example of an authoritarian regime which arose from supposed ‘external threats’. I can’t think of one in Latin America. I can think of examples which arose from the vicissitudes of local politics or from the manifest incompetence of constitutional regimes, but not the causes he states. I suppose the incremental destruction of parliamentary government in Japan over the period running from 1929 to 1938 might be an example, but in that case, there was no ‘external threat’ that wasn’t a function of collective projection.

    And what’s a ‘free’ society. Constitutional government isn’t a novelty, most places, but as the modal way of doing business, it is something that’s hardly a generation old most places. Recall Ernest Lefever’s formula: “The first duty of a government is to govern; the second is to govern justly; the third is to govern democratically”. You might regard the ruin of constitutional government in Uruguay over the period running from 1968 to 1973 as a tragedy, at least until you conducted a performance review of their political class. Ditto Chile during the same period.

  5. among those overreacting, are more liberals than conservatives.

    I haven’t seen much over-reaction per se, just a certain haphazardness which has led to some ill-advised measures which can be reversed. It seems that the people truly in danger have (1) respiratory issues already (e.g emphyzema or a history of cigarette smoking whose severity is measured in consumption volume and recency in time) or are (2) over 60 and have a high body-mass-index. It’s been pointed out by neo-neocon that the discussion of diabetes as a risk factor has been odd, because diabetics aren’t much more common among the deceased than they are among old people generally. Diabetes is correlated with excess weight, which diminishes one’s respiratory capacity.

    One problem has been the supply-chain back ups which have prevented protective equipment from reaching willing customers.

  6. Aaannd. I find I’m behind by volume in his history of Hundred Years War –again.

    On topic I disagree with this:

    The pressure on politicians has come from the public. They want action. They don’t pause to ask whether the action will work. They don’t ask themselves whether the cost will be worth paying.

    At least for our side of the pond. Unless by “public” we are meant to understand “political class,” by which I mean elected and unelected officials and their associates, dependents, and assorted hangers-on.

  7. If there is no commonly perceived external threat, a made- up internal one will do.

    None of the Southern Cone militaries made up an internal threat ca. 1971. Those threats were very real and quite crippling.

  8. Made up internal problems like America being deeply racist country. Throw in “Russia”, phobes of every type etc

  9. Made up internal problems like America being deeply racist country. Throw in “Russia”, phobes of every type etc

    What that generates is systemic corruption of institutions, higher education and federal agencies in particular. It doesn’t generate ‘tyranny’ except in the metaphoric sense. (Well it does on a small scale in regard to the conduct of student affairs apparatchiks).

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