The EU referendum revealed a new political dichotomy that was hidden from usual parliamentary politics under first-past-the-post.
It didn’t fall neatly along the traditional ‘right versus left’ axis, nor along party lines. For most Leavers, the implications of Brexit on the “measurable” (financial) took second place to the “unmeasurable” (values, identity, sovereignty).
This is why belligerent Remainers found their arguments about the purported economic benefits of EU membership so ineffective.
As with Brexit, so with coronavirus. A new divide has emerged, disrupting the fresh post-referendum alliances, blindsiding even the more astute political analysts. And just as before, both sides claim to have reason on their side, yet talk entirely past each other.
From forcing the closure of businesses and public spaces to restricting the movement and association of individuals, and now to mandating the wearing of facemasks, the current level of Government interference is pretty much unprecedented in British peace-time history.
It has split the country.
Broadly, those who support any of these interventions support them all; and vice versa. Whether it is lockdown, social distancing or facemasks, the likely epidemiological impact of each – the number of infections and deaths averted – is barely mentioned in debate.
One side tends to support almost any action, almost regardless of its intrusion, if it saves any lives. The other side disapproves of any action, almost regardless of its likely effectiveness, if it violates any liberty.
This sharp difference, as well as the frustrating mutual misunderstanding, is in part driven by the deeper war between the measurable and the unmeasurable.
Interventionists argue something along the lines of, ‘if it saves lives from COVID-19, we should do it’. To oppose such a policy with a clear positive measurable outcome, in favour of an unmeasurable quantity such as liberty, is for them inconceivable, impudent and even evil.
This position is tempting. After all, the measure of lives lost is a horrible number; we can all understand it. A loss of liberty, on the other hand, is impossible to enumerate. Advocating for its defence becomes ever harder under the barrage of statistics, charts and figures.
But to be unmeasurable is not to be without value.
Life is full of things – love of country for instance – which are cherished, yet unmeasurable. Some of the most resonant stories witness the sacrifice of something measurable (money, limb, life) for something unmeasurable (love, honour, freedom). These stories reveal a moral truth: that the gain or preservation of the unmeasurable, can sometimes be justly at the cost of the measurable – even of human life. And loss of the unmeasurable can of course lead, in turn, to loss of the measurable.
The liberty to leave your front door and associate with whom you want; these are unmeasurable rights that no sane person would freely renounce. At the very least, they must feature in the trade-off calculation for coronavirus policies, even if they do not tip the balance.
Consider the facemask dispute.
Along with the displeasure of being commanded to wear an itchy mask, there is a dehumanising aspect of a face covering that elicits a far deeper discomfort. Much of our daily life consists in face-to-face interactions with others: smiles and frowns are just two examples in the vast repertoire of non-verbal cues that we use to relate, convey understanding, and diffuse conflict. Faces are of such profound importance to us that we recognise them in inanimate objects and reproduce them in textual communication. The unmeasurable consequences of compulsory facemasks cannot be ignored.
The debate evokes the McNamara fallacy: a reference to the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara.
McNamara sought a strictly numeric approach for monitoring military progress, focusing on body count, weapons, bombs dropped. Based on these figures, American success looked inevitable, and yet defeat inched ever closer. Simplifying a complex situation purely to the measurable – while dismissing the unmeasurable – led McNamara to his resignation in 1967.
Despite this decades-old lesson, the unmeasurable has never been more threatened. Appraised not by calculation but by instinct, the unmeasurable attracts scorn from large sections of society, deeming it archaic and obsolete. In its place, we have witnessed the rise of the measurable, proceeding from the success of science and decline of religion. Numbers are pitted against sentiment; quantitative against qualitative.
The politics of coronavirus is only a skirmish in a greater war between the measurable and the unmeasurable. The winds are blasting behind the sails of the former.
We must always, however, defend the latter – even against an onslaught of data. Because sometimes that which is unmeasurable is, at the end of all things, immeasurable.
A longer version of this article is available on Lily’s blog, here.