Liberty and responsibility in the time of pandemic

(Image source)

We are now over a month into nationwide lockdowns (or in some cases “cargo cult lockdowns”, as Balaji Srinivasan calls them) here in the United States due to the SARS-CoV-2 (aka “coronavirus”) pandemic. While I agree with physical distancing in response to the pandemic – I put out the idea that people “stay home for the next month” back in early March before lockdowns in the U.S. started – I share some concerns that liberty-minded folks have raised about the use of lockdown policies by the government. I’m writing this post to think through these concerns and comment on some of the opposition to the lockdowns that I’ve seen spring up since the lockdowns began, particularly in my home state of New Hampshire.

At risk of generalizing, I want to first try and group together the forms of lockdown opposition that I’ll be commenting on so that it’s clear what I’m referring to. There are two main groups, with some overlap in practice:

  • “The lockdown is wrong for health reasons”. This group opposes the lockdown because they don’t believe that there is any health risk to most or all people to re-opening and resuming life as it was before the lockdown.
  • “The lockdown is wrong for political reasons”. This group opposes the lockdown because they don’t believe the government should have the power to order private businesses to close or otherwise restrict their business practices in response to the pandemic.

“The lockdown is wrong for health reasons”

I won’t comment much on this argument except to say that I do not agree with this group’s assessment of the situation at this time. We have already seen at least one new outbreak following the relaxing of distancing in Seoul, South Korea. I do think people living and working in sufficiently distanced environments (such as rural or desert areas) may be an exception, especially if other precautions are taken such as mask wearing. But for the vast majority of Americans living and working in urban and suburban areas, or other tight quarters, I think it’s too soon to resume life as it was before the lockdowns began. According to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, most Americans agree.

“The lockdown is wrong for political reasons”

This argument I have mixed feelings about.

On the one hand, in principle, I agree that, as a response to the pandemic, the government should not be able to force businesses (under the threat of death) to close shop or otherwise heavily restrict how they serve their customers (such as in states like New Hampshire where restaurants can now only do takeout or delivery, if they stay open at all). Businesses and their customers should be free to make their own risk assessment and decide whether or not to mingle in close quarters, and accept any negative consequences as they come.

Perhaps in a world where people didn’t rely on governments to force a pandemic response onto everyone, a voluntary system for implementing widespread physical distancing and other necessary measures to fight a pandemic would emerge. In such a world, businesses might have pandemic clauses included in their liability insurance policies requiring them to implement some sane measures to help slow the spread of novel viruses or else risk losing their insurance coverage. Customers might voluntarily choose to shop exclusively by delivery or takeout, or only visit grocery stores that implement distancing measures. Hospitals might refuse to treat coronavirus patients who are known to have violated distancing and other health requirements, to prevent healthcare resources from being exhausted by people who are reckless during a pandemic. I’m not saying it would be perfect (the current response hardly is either) only that there are alternatives to government-enforced lockdown that could still keep most people safe.

On the other hand, we don’t live in that world. In the world we live in, governments have either monopolized the pandemic response role or crowded out alternatives in the healthcare, insurance, and regulatory industries. Laws have been passed giving governments sweeping emergency powers to react to sudden disasters such as pandemics. And nearly all of society is set up to rely on governments to use those powers responsibly, with few to no fallback options available if governments fail in their response. Hospitals have limited resources to treat waves of pandemic patients, relying on the government to supplement with additional supplies and convince the public to effectively distance to keep case counts within the available treatment capacity.

In the real world that we actually currently live in, rewinding back to early March, before lockdowns started in the U.S., how would liberty-minded people opposed to government-imposed lockdown propose that people in urban and suburban areas respond to the pandemic? Would they really take the chance that people voluntarily adhere to distancing measures and not get them sick or overwhelm the health system?

Evidence already shows that, in our current political reality, voluntary measures wouldn’t work very well: while the U.S. got its first confirmed coronavirus case in February, and countries around the world were instituting distancing policies as early as January, people in the U.S. largely ignored the pandemic until states began issuing stay-at-home orders in late March. Similarly, although all scientific evidence and common sense says that wearing a mask is one of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus in confined spaces, Americans did not start wearing masks en masse until the government told them to.

So now we’re over a month into nationwide lockdowns, and many people are itching to get “back to normal”. With no coronavirus vaccine expected for up to 18 months or longer, people are understandably concerned about the economic impacts that the lockdowns will have if we must maintain these conditions for that long. But when the alternative is a return to constant fear of infection and overwhelmed hospitals, resulting in the worst of both worlds as people both retreat back to distancing and suffer the risks created by those who don’t, lifting the lockdowns and reversing distancing guidelines seems to me irresponsible.

Again, yes, in principle, governments should not have the authority to forcibly close businesses. But we do not currently live in a world where voluntary-yet-effective protocols for responding to an emerging pandemic exist. To leave the social response to chance in the current political reality is to guarantee mass death. Much as I would love to live in a stateless society with appreciation for free markets and personal responsibility baked in at the core of people’s value systems, such that most people would do the right thing in a pandemic without being forced to, that is evidently not the society we live in. And so we must do the best we can with what we’ve got, which today means using the established protocols that governments have adopted to enforce distancing and suppress the spread of the virus.

What comes next

Personally, I will continue physical distancing and wear a mask whenever I go out until there’s a vaccine and it seems like most people have gotten vaccinated. I will begrudgingly tolerate reasonable lockdown policies as long as governments are humane about it until testing coverage improves and we’re able to confirm that there are no new cases of community spread in my area, under the condition that people be prepared to lockdown again if new cases appear. I generally believe that governments should find non-violent ways to enforce the lockdown in all but the most egregious cases where people are genuinely putting the health of others at risk and a forceful intervention is the only means available to prevent harm (and even then, the use of force should be proportional to what’s needed to neutralize the threat, not over-the-top Rambo-cop types of responses). On that, I’m relieved to see that so far the New Hampshire state and local governments seem to be taking a reasonable and measured approach to their pandemic response and lockdown enforcement.

I also support measures to ease the economic burden of these lockdown policies, such as the suspension of rents and debt service, for those put out of work, for the duration of the lockdown and for at least a few months after as people re-adjust to re-opening. It wouldn’t be fair to tell people they can’t earn income while at the same time requiring them to continue paying these bills. Combined with unemployment insurance, stimulus payments (paid for via tax cuts), personal savings, and charity, I think the vast majority of people who lose their income due to the business closures should be able to cover their basic needs long enough to make it through the pandemic.

Politically speaking, I think Americans are overdue for a rude awakening regarding the system of statism that we have lived under our entire lives. As if it weren’t obvious enough before the pandemic that the State is a cancer on society and statism-as-religion must be tossed into the dustbin of history, serious government abuses and failures during the pandemic response should be eye opening. And governments have not only exacerbated the pandemic with their interventionist policies, they practically gave birth to it; as Kevin Carson argues, it is our globalized economy, architected by corporations and subsidized by governments, that created the environment that made it possible for the virus to spread so widely and so quickly in the first place. We should absolutely be skeptical and resistant to government power grabs during this turbulent time, but we should also think about how we can transcend the imaginary “need” for government going forward.

Sensible distancing requirements are necessary to keep the healthcare system functioning and prevent avoidable deaths for now. But we should not accept that government-enforced lockdowns are the only – or even the best – defense against a pandemic of this scale should we ever face one again.  We should endeavor to build and rely on stateless systems for managing the response to emerging biological threats, from coordinated physical distancing to income safety nets to healthcare supply reserves to vaccine development to testing, tracing, and isolation programs and everything else we need. It’s clear that we cannot rely on the government to carry out these necessary tasks properly, and by allowing governments to monopolize the role of “pandemic response coordinator” and crowd out alternative solutions we allow our society to be less resilient to this kind of disaster than we otherwise could be.

Rather than simply protest and complain about the current government response, let’s imagine how we could do better and build the alternative. Then, god forbid, next time there’s a pandemic maybe we won’t end up the collective victims of a systematically broken and incompetent institution of government.