It isn't 'freedom-loving' to break the rules

Boris Johnson has said that ordinary people's libertarian streak makes it hard for them to follow rules, but they seem to do a better job than elites

A man, not wearing a face covering, passes signs telling travellers they must wear face mask unless they are exempt, as he leaves Victoria station during the evening 'rush hour' in central London on September 23, 2020. The UK on Wednesday reported 6,178 new coronavirus cases, a marked jump in the daily infection rate that comes a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled new nationwide restrictions. / AFP / Tolga AKMEN
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What do Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Dutch rapper Famke Louise, Donald Trump and the British government have in common? They all have shown the desire to bend or break rules, regulations, customs or laws that the rest of us generally obey.

The secret swearing-in of Mr Lukashenko for his sixth term as Belarus’s President was greeted with street demonstrations and the refusal of the EU and others to recognise his claim that he won a fair election.

In the US, Donald Trump relishes breaking or bending traditional norms associated with the presidency. He has publicly refused to say whether he will accept a Joe Biden victory in November’s US presidential elections (although the grandees of his Republican party say they will indeed accept the verdict of the American people).

epa08703020 (FILE) - Then Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump speaks at the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS) General Conference & Exhibition, at the Baltimore Convention Center in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 12 September 2016 (reissued 28 September 2020). A report by the New York Times alleges that Trump paid 750 US dollars in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017.  EPA/JIM LO SCALZO *** Local Caption *** 53015058
US President Donald Trump has refused to confirm that he would accept his opponent's victory in November's presidential elections without challenging it. EPA

In the Netherlands, Famke Louise is a 21-year-old rapper with a million followers on Instagram. She became part of a campaign to refuse to observe coronavirus restrictions, including mask-wearing and social distancing. Ms Louise declared: “I no longer participate. Free the people.” This libertarian type of argument may be shaky but she is “saying no to all measures until the government can verifiably justify those policies”. The Netherlands’ Covid-19 cases have hit 2,000 a day, the worst since the pandemic began.

In the UK, Boris Johnson also attempted a libertarian argument when asked why the number of coronavirus cases was higher in Britain than Italy or Germany. He responded: “We have to acknowledge that (the UK) is a great and freedom-loving country and while the vast majority have complied with the rules there have been too many breaches.”

Critics pointed out that the country’s poor record is not because we are “freedom-loving” but because the Johnson government failed to provide adequate testing, tracking and tracing, and his own chief adviser Dominic Cummings breached the rules by driving 250 miles with his family while testing positive for the virus. Mr Johnson was complicit in Cummings’ rule-breaking by refusing to sack him. Moreover, when it comes to Brexit, Mr Johnson’s government has said that this “great and freedom-loving country” is now prepared to breach another pesky rule –  international law – through a new Internal Market Bill, a threat which has divided even his own Conservative party.

Dominic Cummings, special adviser to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, arrives in Downing Street in London, U.K., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will set out a new crisis plan to protect jobs and rescue businesses as the coronavirus outbreak forces the U.K. to return to emergency measures. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Dominic Cummings, special adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, famously broke the UK's coronavirus travel rules at the height of the country's lockdown. Bloomberg

What links these examples from four different countries is not vacuous rhetoric about freedom. It is power and privilege. Mr Lukashenko holds on to power because, for now, he can. Famke Louise used the power of celebrity and social media to say she will break the rules. Mr Johnson has the power of an 80-seat majority in parliament, and his adviser Dominic Cummings can break the rules with impunity because he has the support of that most powerful patron, the British Prime Minister himself. Mr Trump uses what some call the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to threaten chaos if he fails to be re-elected, because his is the most powerful job in the world.

But privilege and the power to bend or break rules can quickly disappear. In 1989 a US millionaire businesswoman, Leona Helmsley, gained worldwide notoriety as the “Queen of Mean”. For years, she dodged paying taxes because her enormous wealth meant she had the power to get away with it. She became notorious for uttering 10 words that summed up an attitude to life echoed by other privileged and powerful rule-breakers in 2020.

"We don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes," Helmsley said. This kind of arrogance ensured her "freedom" to break the rules ended with a jail sentence. The so-called "libertarian" argument is a con. It is often used by the powerful and privileged in ways unavailable to "the little people". Libertarian rhetoric about "personal freedom" and rule-breaking is merely a disguise for being selfish, like a driver caught speeding at 120 miles an hour claiming he is simply "freedom-loving".

A smartphone displays a screen from the newly released 'NHS COVID-19' contract tracing app in this arranged photograph in London, U.K., on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. Boris Johnson's British government has launched a track-and-trace system, aimed at allowing the country's economy to restart while suppressing the spread of coronavirus. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
The UK government has rolled out a contract-tracing app to combat Covid-19, nine months after the pandemic began. The government's critics have attributed the public's ambivalence towards the rules in part to the slowness of the government response. Bloomberg
Elites may find that the privilege and power to bend or break rules can quickly disappear

In 2020, we have enough problems without an epidemic of rule-breaking enabled by powerful, privileged people who seem to believe that laws, common decency and unselfish behaviour are, like taxes, "only for the little people". Most of us "little people" love freedom too. We dislike taxes, but we pay them to build a civilised society. Most of us "freedom-loving" people do not like wearing masks, but we accept it as a tiny sacrifice to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.  And no politician wants to lose an election, but they accept losing gracefully to retain public faith in democracy.

Right now, the "little people" have been increasingly finding a voice. After a wave of public criticism, Famke Louise now regrets her "libertarian" statements. The "little people" of Belarus refuse to be cowed into accepting Mr Lukashenko. And for Mr Trump and Mr Johnson there are very choppy waters ahead, in Mr Trump's case over his public exposure as a less-than-successful businessman. Even Mr Trump and Mr Johnson's political allies have been reduced to tepid declarations of support. In a US election year, amid a global pandemic, and with Brexit hanging in the balance, the "little people" around the world still can make themselves heard.

Gavin Esler is a UK columnist for The National