The mortgage meltdown of 2008 was rough, but to me it seems that the last time life was so thoroughly upended was 9/11, nearly two decades ago. Since the first reports of positive tests for the new coronavirus (COVID-19) in Colorado on March 5, it feels like we’re living in a different world.
If you’ve been glued to your cable news or Twitter feed, you probably feel like you’ve been drinking from the proverbial firehouse. What’s a coronavirus, what’s different about this one, what’s its “R naught,” how likely are people to die from it, and what can we do, if anything, to beat it? For most of us the learning curve has been both steep and slippery, as even experts have struggled to get a handle on aspects of this disease.
Meanwhile, as government shuts down businesses across the state, the unemployment forms pile up, and people start to go stir-crazy from “social distancing,” a lot of us are wondering how far government should go in restricting people’s liberties. Is a heavy government hand really the only or best way to prevent needless death? And how should we weigh the harms of the disease against the harms of a devastated economy? Or is that question too horrible even to consider?
Bluntly, I don’t have many definitive answers. And anyone who promises you easy answers to these questions is, well, let’s just say they should get in line for some more toilet paper. What I think I can do is help set some context for fruitful ways to think about the questions.
Free-market advocates have pointed to the myriad ways that stupid government policies have hampered the response to the virus. For example, did you know that hospitals often have to (in effect) ask permission from their competitors in order to open new facilities and buy new equipment? Ridiculous. Indeed, one of the major steps that Governor Jared Polis and governors elsewhere took was to remove government barriers to the disease response, as by loosening regulations on hospitals and health professionals. The federal government notoriously tied up testing for the disease in bureaucratic red tape—a profound failure.
Free-market advocates also have pointed to the crucial ways that private enterprise has stepped up to address the problem. As economist Tyler Cowen puts the point, “Big business is helping America survive the coronavirus.”
But even if we grant that politicians and bureaucrats have done a lot of really stupid things, and that business leaders have done many wonderful things to respond, it might still be the case that an important response to the virus (maybe the most important response) is the one by government. That’s the key question I want to consider here.
First, though, I need to dispel a common confusion. A lot of people, whether Progressive, conservative, or libertarian, see the fundamental issue as government power versus individual freedom. Often pitting power against freedom is a useful way to look at things, but it isn’t the fundamental.
The fundamental is individual rights. Generally, although the form matters, government power exercised to protect rights is good, and an individual “freely” violating others’ rights is bad. The key point is there’s nothing inherently suspect about government power; it depends on how and for what that power is used.
What does this have to do with the coronavirus? Here is the key point, as put by philosopher Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado at Boulder: “Any individual who is at risk of carrying a communicable disease, such as COVID-19, is posing a risk of physical harm to others when he interacts with them.” This potentially justifies government intervention, depending on details. In some contexts, government best preserves liberty by stopping people from infecting others. Your rights to publicly breathe out your germs may end where another person’s lungs begin.
(Huemer actually is a libertarian anarchist. But he points out that most libertarians advocate government, and he thinks a private analogue to government properly may impose quarantines in certain circumstances. I’m not a libertarian but I broadly agree with Huemer about the just use of force. I also recommend a video from the Ayn Rand Institute on this topic.)
What this principle does not do is give us easy answers for specific cases. A great deal depends on how contagious and deadly the virus is. We continually impose all sorts of risks on others, as by accidentally passing along the flu or by adding another vehicle to a busy road. If we knew the new coronavirus were as deadly as other coronaviruses or even a common flu, we certainly would not be talking about shutting down a huge chunk of the economy because of it. Unfortunately, COVID-19 seems to be quite a lot more contagious and deadly than more-common viral diseases, although, due to lack of widespread testing, we are to a large degree flying blind.
If you were hoping for a pat answer for what specifically government should do here, I’m sorry, I can’t give you one. What I can say is that individual rights matter and should set the framework for how government responds. I do think that current circumstances warrant some restrictions of movement.
Meanwhile, we can cheer on the people working on the new antivirals, vaccines, and expanded testing that promise to make “social distancing” and government quarantines a thing of the past.