Wartime comparisons keep getting into our thinking about Covid-19. Characterisations of the virus as an enemy in need of the sharp end of a British bayonet have been rightly ridiculed. The secrecy surrounding decision-making leaves the suspicion that someone in Government is convinced that the virus has spies listening in on SAGE meetings. But one area on which the smart money seems agreed is that Covid will lead to a lasting expansion of the state, as wars often do. Government, businesses, and lobbyists are already revising their calculations accordingly.

Is it inevitable? Should it be?

There’s no doubt that a pandemic, like a war, creates challenges to which the State is the only possible solution. Modern democracies don’t outsource wars to mercenaries and we can’t leave a pandemic to the market – though, of course, it’s Big Pharma that is leading the vaccine battalions to our rescue.

But while the pandemic is still far from over, a sleight of hand is well under way: if it’s Big State that will win the war, Big State should surely also be trusted to dominate the peace.

On the contrary, if we look at the bigger picture – health, economy, freedom and democracy – many of the problems we now face have been exacerbated by the state, which has more to do than it can cope with and too much power in too few – effectively unaccountable – hands. This would have been little different whoever was in Downing Street and is much the same across the developed world. Some systems – arguably the more decentralised ones – have worked better, but the final summation will likely reveal less difference than the breathless headlines suggest.

We should think twice before being seduced by the siren voices claiming that if something is so important as the myriad post-Covid problems will be, the state has to have responsibility for it.

This myth comes in two equally dangerous “mutations”.  First, “too important to be left to the market”/ “better cooperation than competition” excludes alternative approaches and limits diversity of producers, with the result that society has no means of evaluating what’s best. Whether it is a matter of public or private monopolies, if there aren’t any losers among the producers, it will be the consumers – all of us – who lose.

Secondly, “too important to be left to the politicians” is a route to technocratic overreach: when the State funds the services, the experts are simultaneously the producers. It is almost inevitable that, unelected and unaccountable, they end up marking their own homework and framing the debate over the allocation of public funds, while their own motivations are inadequately scrutinised. Too often, our elected representatives find it more comfortable to be guided by the experts, without challenging the professional interests which inevitably accompany expertise.

Is that too cynical? Then so is the NHS, which sees nothing wrong in offering financial incentives for GPs to prescribe certain treatments. There’s nothing wrong with professionals having motivations. It only becomes a problem when there aren’t effective checks and balances to safeguard the public interest.

Let’s remember that fighting the pandemic has brought massive schemes, many with results in inverse proportion to the grandiose PR. It has brought massive expenditure with “don’t you know there’s a war on?” levels of accountability. It has brought us unprecedented intrusion into our private lives and our ability to do our jobs, with Ministers being cast as ventriloquists’ dummies for their experts and officials, announcing over-complex and inhumane rules dreamed up in the Whitehall equivalent of an ivory tower.

For the government, the customer isn’t always right. We’ve been on the receiving end of moralising about private behaviour along with encouragement to report on neighbours: both must put the shivers down the spine of anyone who’s lived behind the Iron Curtain or read about its excesses.

Then there are the unimaginable attempts at censorship, because the Government and their experts have told us that there’s only one right answer….  When the social media giants acquiesce in censorship, you suspect something dangerous is going on.

If some of these horrors are the unavoidable consequences of the effort to deal with the pandemic, we should make sure they’re jettisoned immediately we’ve landed on the other side. The case for continuing them will largely be made by the producer interests and should be challenged.

How? In recent years, as social media has embellished the soundbite into the 45-second shareable video clip, it has seemed as though the statists had all the best tunes.  After all, it’s always possible to find another injustice which more state money, regulation and more state-funded professionals will cure. Supporters of freedom and the markets struggle to make their case: to an especially younger audience, talking about life behind the Iron Curtain or in Venezuela might as well be talking about life on Mars.

Now that’s all changed. Want to know what more Statism is like? It’s like permanent lockdown, just with higher taxes and no furlough. Do you want the state telling you when you can meet your family, when you can go to the pub, what kind of sexual relationship is ok, when you can work, whether your business can survive? Do you want the State to tax you more so they can hire more people to preach at you?

This is an unattractive future for all of us, but perhaps especially for the young. Unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s young adults don’t expect a job for life and have little confidence that today’s levels of pension provision will be there for them when they (eventually) retire. Whether employees or self-employed they know they have to be entrepreneurial about their own careers and lives. They don’t want nanny telling them what to do.

Finally, there is a market for freedom as well as a powerful and graphic story to tell.

David Landsman is a former Ambassador and now a company executive.