“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”
From the Preamble of the US Declaration of Independence
I have written a few articles about the current COVID 19 pandemic. I examined whether governments are competent to protect us from viruses. The idea that governments are able to protect us from a pandemic is fundamentally mistaken. I also looked at how dangerous COVID 19 really is. The data seems to suggest that what we are dealing with looks more like a normal flu than a killer virus.
These are important topics and they are widely discussed. But there is a more fundamental question that needs to be examined. Can it be justified to lock entire populations up in order to prevent some people from dying? I think this is very questionable. In fact, I am going to argue that these policies are wrong.
The above quote is taken out of the US Declaration of Independence. It was inspired by John Locke’s moral philosophy, and it is still one of the best summaries of the idea of individual liberty. Every person has the natural right to live his or her life in any way he likes. No person, or institution, has the right to interfere with another person’s liberty. The only limitation to someone’s liberty is that it ends where someone else’s liberty begins.
I consider this idea fundamentally and universally correct. That is why I am going to take it as a foundation for my criticism of the lockdown strategy.
The little limitation, that my liberty ends where someone else’s starts makes individual liberty philosophically complicated. Where exactly does someone else’s liberty start? There were many attempts to answer these questions. Most libertarians stress the importance of private property to draw the borders between the liberty of different people. Not everyone is happy with that though. An example of a different approach would be Jan Lester’s libertarian philosophy, which argues from liberty itself.
I am not going to go into the details of this debate. I have done that in other articles. But I don’t think it is necessary to have a precise answer in order to apply the philosophy of individual liberty to the lockdown policies. I am going to assume that in order to force a person to change their lifestyle, the burden is on the person arguing for that to show that someone’s behavior is threatening, or outright infringing, on someone else’s liberty.
The argument for a lockdown is that it saves the lives of some people. Some advocates of this policy even go so far as to say that if only one life is being saved then it was worth it. There are problems with this argument, and I am going to show why the whole idea is in fundamental violation to the idea of individual liberty.
Let me start by saying that it seems legitimate to argue that one person infecting another person with a damaging virus violates the liberty of the person who gets infected. No matter where one wants to draw the borders between two people’s liberty, it seems uncontroversial that damaging the body of another person is in violation of that person’s liberty, and therefore not legitimate.
Assuming this is correct, it seems then save to say that if someone is proven to be infectious for other people, then these other people have every right to force the infected to stay away from them. This is the original idea of quarantining someone.
What is being done at the moment, however, is something else. We are quarantining everyone, infectious or not. The argument is that we don’t know who is infectious, therefore, we need to lock up everyone. This is essentially collective punishment.
But that cannot be legitimate. The burden of proof has to be on the person infringing on someone else’s liberty in order to justify any, let alone very severe, violations of these liberties. Just arguing that a violation of someone’s health is potentially possible does not seem to be enough. Many things are possible, but in order to justify violations of someone’s liberty, damage needs to be, at the very least, very likely.
If someone threateningly points a gun at me, I have every right to use violence to stop him from doing that. That is true even if there is a small chance that he would not actually pull the trigger. The danger is real and it needs to be assumed that he will likely follow through. Therefore, taking action against him is justified.
But what about a person who merely owns a gun? Do I have the right to use violence against him, because there is a possibility, however remote, that he might use it against me? In other words, would I be allowed to use preemptive actions, just in case? That seem absurd. I need to have good reasons that my life and liberty is in danger, and even then I would only be able to take enough action to avert the danger, not more.
Let us apply this to COVID 19. Yes, it is possible that someone is infectious without knowing it. Put how likely is that? For all we know about epidemiology, at every given time, it seems correct to assume that the vast majority of people are not infectious. Therefore, the likelihood that a random person could transmit the virus is not very large.
In addition to that, even if someone were infectious and were to give the virus to another person, it is not clear that that actual damages the newly infected. The vast majority of the infected have no symptoms at all, meaning they don’t get ill. Therefore, they do not get harmed. The likelihood of anyone getting seriously damaged by any other person at any given time is therefore very small.
If it was justified to violate the liberty of people for a very small possibility to harm someone else, then liberty would have to be abolished completely. Consequently, that is what politics is doing with the lockdown at the moment. The call for general security has always been the biggest threat to liberty. Benjamin Franklin famously said that “those who give up liberty for security deserve neither”.
There is always a small possibility that almost any action will end up harming someone else in some way. Even the wings of a butterfly could famously cause a storm that then kills people. Is that an argument against us breathing?
In order to justify locking up people to protect others, there needs to be a clear proof that the people who are being locked up are very likely to cause unjust harm to these others. That is simply not true in a pandemic like the one we see at the moment. On the other hand, what we do know is that the lockdown is a very strong violation of everyone’s liberty. It does cause enormous financial, psychological and even physical harm.
That means that a lockdown is completely disproportionate to the threat. That is why we do not close down society for any of the other viruses that are spreading in the population all the time. That is also why we are not closing down all roads to prevent deaths from road accidents, and many other things. We accept that those things might seriously harm some people, but the threat is too small to justify violate the liberty of everyone.
This is definitely true for a flu virus, which only seriously harms very few people. But let us say there was a much more deadly virus that was infecting a majority of the people simultaneously. In reality that is impossible. Deadly infectious diseases kill their hosts and therefore spread more slowly than mild ones. But let us just assume that it was possible for such a virus to exist. For such a virus one could make the case that violating everyone’s liberty to some extend would be a proportionate and justified measure to take.
In that case we are facing another problem though. In order to take self defense actions, one would need to show that these policies actually succeed in protecting people from the virus. With the lockdown, this is not clear at all. In fact, epidemiologists like Dr. Knut Wittkowski argue that lockdowns leads to more deaths. If the policy succeeds to spread the epidemic out over a longer timeframe than that gives the virus more time to find the vulnerable. The data, however, actually seems to suggest that the virus spreads almost as freely under lockdown than without it.
Another questionable aspect of the lockdown is that it spread fear in the population. It is not clear how scaring everyone is helping solve the problem. In fact there is good reason to believe that this makes things significantly worst.
So not only is a lockdown disproportionate to the threat, it also does not seem clear that it actually works. We can see now that this policy cannot be justified in the name of self defense of the vulnerable. There is, however, another argument for the lockdown. Some people argue that we are obligated to help the vulnerable. We owe it to the weak that we protect them.
But do we really? Do we have an obligation to help others? In many countries there are laws that prosecute people who fail to help others in need. I don’t think such laws are legitimate. Don’t get me wrong, I think it is noble and right to help others in need if possible. But there is always a cost to that help.
And it is precisely because there are costs involved which makes me think that there is no real obligation to help others. If there were, then that would give the person in need some kind of ownership over the helper’s life. Non of us really seems to believe that to be true. If we truly believed that we have an absolute obligation to help others, we would spend every minute and every penny on helping the people who are still in need.
We would not go to the pub in the evening and spend a few bugs on beer, having fun with our mates. Instead, we would spend all of our time and money to organize help for the people in the world who still need it, of which there are plenty. But none of us seems to do that. In our limitless selfishness, we often spend our money on personal amusement, while there are still people suffering in the world. How dare we.
We dare, because it is our life. Yes it is nice to help people, but primarily there is nothing wrong to prioritize enjoying one’s own life, as long as our actions do not actively hurt other people. Sure, if it is not too much of a hassle it would be cruel to not help certain people. If I am on a boat and see a drowning person, I would need to be a psychopath in order to not spend a few minutes rescuing that person.
But other people have no right to my life. I decide who I want to help, and how much I want to spend on helping others. I like to think that I am a generous person, but I will not give up my whole live in order to help others. That is asking for too much. It is asking for me to be a slave.
Applying that to the pandemic, yes it is absolutely a good thing to ask people to maybe change their behavior in order to save some lives. If useful, most people will comply with this, as most people have no interest in hurting others. But unless it can be proven that someone has a dangerous infectious disease, everyone needs to be free to determine how far they want to go in complying with those demands.
No one has to sacrifice their lives for others in any way. And certainly no one has to sacrifice their lives in a major way that would cause them substantial costs, and would change their lives permanently for the worse. In this aspect, too, the current lockdown policies are therefore very much immoral. They are giving some people the power over other people’s lives in order to protect their own interests.
And that is already the most generous interpretation. It is not even clear whether this lockdown in particular is actually in the interest of the vulnerable either. They too would probably benefit much more from living in a functional and free society and not in a police state that damages the foundations of our all well being.
If we assume Lockean natural rights of everyone to their own liberty, then the only possible conclusion can be that the lockdown policies are completely immoral. They are both disproportionate and don’t even seem to work. Therefore, they need to end in its entirety immediately.