Prof. Jan Majchrowski: What is the State? Reflections in time of a pandemic

On the state, its role and functioning in times of crisis. This situation also applies to the countries of Carpathian Europe.

          Let me write - for the sake of reflection - a few words on a subject I have been dealing with professionally for almost thirty years - the State. What does the state seem to be, seen from the perspective of the current pandemic?

          According to a still nineteenth-century view, the state is primarily a type of organization. This is certainly true. It is also true that especially nowadays we are experiencing its indispensability, its necessity; that we undoubtedly perceive that the organization and order introduced by the state are better than chaos, than anarchy, which - if it prevailed today - could inevitably doom us. This is probably what the vast majority of citizens think - because they obey the inconvenient restrictions, bans and burdensome regulations in their absolute majority, and not just because there are sanctions for not obeying them. If people massively ignored these orders of the authorities and these regulations, no police would be able to stop, catch and punish them. However, people understand that such insubordination has disastrous consequences for everyone. The example of countries whose citizens (especially at the beginning) did not care much about such regulations proves that the "do whatever you want" attitude leads to self-destruction, to catastrophe, which can then be measured in thousands of people killed by the virus; often acquaintances, friends, and close family members...

          And here I would like to touch upon the issue of freedom of its citizens, which is very important in every country. In the current dangerous situation one can hear and read (and even on the front pages of some newspapers) that the time of "sanitary fascism" has come in Poland, that the rights of citizens are being violated and restricted, etc. There was also pressure on our country to close the borders (until those who criticized it did not do the same at home). Meanwhile, the youth (and not only the youth) in the more "progressive" societies of Western and Northern Europe reacted to the news about the call of the state authorities to certain behaviors, to avoid gatherings and social events, with a mockery in the form of a "coronavirus-party" with the participation of numerous amused participants. One did not have to wait long for the results... This is what happens when freedom is identified only with one's own right, when it is only "mine" and when it does not refer at all to others. It is an individualism that sees only itself: there is only me and my right to do what I want. And no one has anything to do with what I do. It's my life, my business, my choice. How often the same type of thinking (or thoughtlessness) was also presented in our country. The slogan: "Do what you want" has become a symbol of this "liberal" way of existence.

          At the other extreme is not at all slavery, totalitarianism, statism, authoritarianism, fascism, etc. At the other extreme there is freedom, but a different kind of freedom - a wiser, responsible freedom. It is a republican freedom, which wants to realize the rights of the individual, but does not forget that he is not alone, that he lives in a community and that he is responsible both for himself and (to the best of his ability) also for the community. It is a freedom which understands that it is not possible to do whatever one wants, because this is no longer freedom, but freewill, and sometimes even cowardice. The limitation of freedom is inherent in its very meaning. There is no freedom without responsibility, and there is no freedom without limitations, just as there is no free movement without the law of gravity, which impedes and yet makes it possible. Without the limitations imposed by the authority established by free men over themselves, they would not be free, for any thug could terrorize anyone. Hence limitations, hence law, hence the State, and that which constitutes its essential distinction from other organizations - coercion.

          Who is right? Today it is not a question of a theoretical dispute between liberals and republicans (let us leave totalitarians of all sorts, including the recently proliferating "totalitarian liberals" aside). Today, this is a question that can be settled... empirically! For we will see which societies will emerge victorious from the fight against the virus, when it turns out that this fight is not only a question of money and wealth, but also a question of responsibility for oneself and for others, the ability to sacrifice for the community and the readiness to respect the recommendations of democratically established own sovereign state authority, independent from other states, protecting the interests of its own citizens. This is the first point - on reflection.

          There is a second one as well. Let us return once again to the classical definition of the state. An organization? Yes. But is it only one? The word has been mentioned several times here: "community". That's right, community. Especially at the time of traumatic trial, when it turns out that there are people who are ready to act for others: in voluntary work, to take interest in the fate of a lonely old lady living two floors above, to sew masks as part of a relief effort, etc. etc. This is when a community that does not say: "This is what the state, institutions, authorities are for...". Then people feel connected to other people and they don't even know why. This is a very important dimension of community. But there is also a dimension that includes the political and economic decision-makers who are already deciding the fate of thousands.

          "Be prepared that many of your loved ones will die." These words could be taken as very unsublime encouragement, were it not for the fact that they were accompanied (at the time) by a policy of continuing to live a "normal life" (let us add: especially economic). After all, the United Kingdom, the City of London, could not be impoverished by this crisis. Business was to go on. People were to consume, others were to produce, and still others were to make money out of it all. Students were to go to school, students were to go to university, etc. Only some (the elderly, the weak, the sick) could die. Well, well, "Get ready...". Out of all this, "society" (but was it a "community"?) was supposed to come out stronger, healthier, more resilient and probably... younger. And economically strong - against the backdrop of dwindling neighbors who would waste their energy on saving every old lady who would produce nothing and consume very little. We wish Mr. Johnson good health today... even though he is not our relative.

          In Sweden (one of the most social-liberal and "progressive" countries in the EU), life is still going on almost "normally", schools are open, and old people "have to look out for themselves". (Those locked up in old people's homes were literally locked up in the process). Swedish society is one of the oldest in Europe, with a very long life expectancy. It is a reason to be proud and - maybe for some - to worry... There is a chance that a kind of eugenics (for which nobody is responsible, because it is a virus that does it, not the authorities) will allow to get rid of this economically unnecessary social ballast, just as for many years in some of the richest countries of Europe unwanted children were got rid of, especially those sick - e.g. those with Down's syndrome. Just as, for many years now, in some of the richest countries of Europe, unwanted children, especially those with Down's syndrome, were disposed of (abortion), the mentally handicapped were prevented from having offspring (sterilization) and, in general, sick people were allowed not to bother their relatives and the state any longer (euthanasia). Underlying such thinking was the conviction that the state is a company, an efficiently operating business that is supposed to bring profit to the holders of a majority stake, and not a community, a family, linked by emotional ties, where one should help when needed without asking what one will get in return.

          We face two such visions of the state. Those who want to defend everyone in the time of a pandemic, because they want to be guided by a sense of solidarity that cements the community, are completely misunderstood by others, who call them (for example, a few days ago from the tribune of the Sejm) - "idiots". After all, today's crisis can be a great opportunity for good business - all you have to do is not to hold back the economy - let it continue to grow. Those who turn out to be the weakest will lose out...

          Here, too, the question can be raised as to which of these visions will prevail and which, in the long run, will prove to be the right one. Perhaps those who want to "waste" their GDP on the weaker ones will come out of this crisis economically more weakened than those who will let thousands of their less resourceful and weaker citizens die, but they will not stop the spiral of demand and supply. Only that they will do so as a very limited liability company, whose shares are best sold at the most opportune moment, because such a company in itself is only worth as much as someone will pay for it. And the family, the family and the national community that constitutes the state - turns out not to be for sale....

          So who, in the long run, will survive and not just the coronavirus?

Prof. UW Dr. Jan Majchrowski

Easter AD 2020



Parliamentary committees

Law and Justice



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