Variety is life, beware of the uniformity emerging from the pandemic

22 May 2020
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Thousands of millions of us are sheltered at home during the global health crisis brought on by the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.

Benjamin Constant once said: "Variety is life. Uniformity is death."

I suspect a lot of us agree with this sentiment, especially today.

What people around the world are discovering, while millions of us shelter in our homes is during the coronavirus pandemic, even with all the modern technologies keeping us linked together when we must be apart, there is one thing that humans tend to thrive on – variety.

Sure, our sojourn at home was relaxing – for a while – but over time relaxation has morphed into monotony. We tend to prefer a bit of variety.

That is one reason I love depoliticised markets or what some call capitalism. It’s a vibrant, flexible system of production, one where change is constant and variety can be truly astounding.

We see it, not only in the range of occupations possible, but also in the products we buy, the entertainment we consume, the food we eat and even in the people we hire for different jobs.

Sitting at home, day after day, we start to yearn for more choices. We want things we can't produce at home ourselves.

In our state of hibernation from this virus, we are starting to see a world of uniformity, one that is frighteningly similar to the economics of uniformity – socialism.

The socialist utopias were not known for producing much in the way of variety. From vehicles to healthcare to food everything had a grey uniformity.

It was a world in which choice was intentionally limited. There was no need to make choices as others had already made them for you.

They decided what was produced, how it was produced and who could have it. When it came to fashion, they chose the clothes. They chose the fabrics, the styles and what colours could be used.

In the dictatorships of the world, uniformity was demanded, not variety. That's why uniforms are so popular in unfree nations. And it wasn’t just the uniforms but people marching in unison – no one marching to their own drummer.

They needed to move in unison, dress in unison, chant in unison. Whether it was Mao Zedong's China, Fidel Castro's Cuba, Adolf Hitler's Germany, or today's North Korea of Kim Jong Un, individual choice was abolished.

Hitler told his followers: "There will no longer exist any individual arbitrary will, nor realms in which the individual belongs to himself. The time of happiness as a private matter is over."

Under capitalism, we see quite literally, the rise of individualism compared to the dirigiste systems which encourage uniformity or a herd mentality.

The paper Why Was There No Fashion Under Mao? highlighted how the Maoist regime looked upon individual choices in dress as a sign of rebellion against the dictatorship. While a personal style of dress was not itself criminal under the socialist regime "it certainly made being fashionable – or being seen as such – a dangerous proposition".

The authors put it this way: "Any public expression of difference could signal political disloyalty."

Socialism, or any form of authoritarian rule, tends to stifle individualism and thus suppress variety. In that sense, it is a lot like this pandemic where we suppress our desire for variety for one very important reason – to survive.

Of course, the virus doesn't "choose" to do this, it's just the nature of the thing. Authoritarianism, on the hand, is a choice people make.

As we wait for the pandemic to end and a return to the reality of "variety is life", some of the more authoritarian leaders in the world are once again preaching systems of economic control over individuals.

They want to stop peaceful trade between nations, reducing choices and thus pushing towards more uniformity.

Instead of allowing the dull sameness of isolation driven by a virus being replaced with politically induced uniformity driven by authoritarian politics, we should embrace the variety offered by depoliticised markets, which mean a free society.

The regimentation required by a disease should remind us of the importance of individual rights and freedom. That is something we should embrace and cherish, while rejecting the herders in politics who want to impose a universal dull sameness on us all.

This article was first published on City Press on 15 May 2020

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