The argument for lockdowns in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is that governments ought to enforce them because they decrease both infections and strain on health-care facilities and thus decrease overall deaths. If we had widespread testing, the argument goes, we could, perhaps, quarantine the sick and not interfere with anyone else’s freedom.1 But we don’t, so we must lock down everyone in an attempt to achieve similar results.
This argument is compelling to many because of the incredible, irreplaceable value of human life. Life is the most fundamental of values; being alive is a prerequisite for achieving any other value. And for most of us, other people are among our top values—especially our friends, colleagues, and loved ones, not to mention the countless strangers whose ideas and work enhance our lives in myriad ways. So, if lockdowns preserve human life, the thinking goes, they must be the right thing to do.
The problem is that lockdowns actually make living impossible.
Living requires physical health, of course, but, for us humans, it also requires harmonizing a complex network of other values, which in turn requires a near-constant stream of context-dependent decisions: Should I make dinner or eat out? Should I go to college or take a job? Should I drive or bike to work today? Should I move to a new city or stay close to my family?
For the most part, we all want similar things: fulfilling work, strong relationships, fun hobbies, and, of course, all of the basic necessities of life: food, clothing, shelter, and so on. But the optimal forms of each—and the best means to achieve them—depend on the individual and his situation. A pandemic changes one’s situation, but it doesn’t change the underlying fact that what is best for any individual depends on his values and his context.
Under any circumstances, achieving our values requires that we be free to weigh risks and rewards, make our own decisions, and act accordingly. Recognizing and securing such freedom is the purpose of a government premised on the individual’s right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
True, the government’s job of protecting rights legitimately can include quarantining the sick and even locking down the healthy under certain circumstances. For instance, in 2013, jihadists bombed the Boston Marathon and subsequently engaged police in a firefight in nearby Watertown. When one of the terrorists fled on foot, officials decided that the best way to protect the rights of locals was to lock down a twenty-block area while SWAT teams searched for him.2 The nature of the threat was clear, and although it may have inconvenienced some Watertown residents, the lockdown was a short-term, rational response to that threat.
Not so for COVID-19.
Months into a global pandemic, we still know relatively little about the nature of the threat. It appears to be deadlier than influenza and disproportionately affects the elderly and those with underlying conditions such as lung disease, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.3 But doctors also suspect many other variables. Further, estimates vary widely as to how many people have been infected and, without knowing this, we can’t know how deadly the disease is.4 Whereas a well-armed killer on the run in a densely populated city might warrant putting life on hold for a few days, the spotty data on COVID-19 does not warrant forcibly shutting down most of the country for months on end.
Among the things we do know is that it would be catastrophic to sustain these lockdowns until a vaccine is available (we still don’t even have widespread testing in the United States). Given this, it’s unclear whether we’re “flattening the curve” or merely delaying the peak while depleting the resources we’ll need to deal with it. What is clear is that healthy people at low risk from the virus are suffering now—and they’re being forced to suffer by those whose job it is to protect their rights. Whereas many (if not most) who get the disease may never even know it, the same cannot be said for those experiencing the government’s “cure.” Barred from taking the actions necessary to support their lives, many are now worse off than they would be taking their chances without lockdowns.
What also is clear is that your choice to leave your house does not physically interfere with your neighbor’s decision about whether to leave his. Without lockdowns, many would freely choose to shelter in place or otherwise drastically limit risk in accordance with their values. My ninety-one-year-old grandmother, for instance, would rather have the chance to see her children and grandchildren in the future than gather with her neighbors today and risk getting sick. And my aunt, who’s been doing my grandmother’s grocery shopping, would rather limit her time outside the house and take other reasonable precautions than risk her own health or her mother’s. They would do essentially what they’re doing now, whether or not bureaucrats forced them to.
Others, though, would take more risks, ranging from minor to substantial, perhaps going to the beach, running a business that some deem “inessential,” or traveling to complete a bucket list before an inoperable cancer takes its toll. People take all sorts of risks in pursuit of happiness, from eating raw fish, to driving cars, to climbing mountains, to sailing around the world, to engaging in casual sex. To be sure, failing to weigh the new risks entailed by the pandemic—including those we may pose to others and the fact that hospitals may be too overwhelmed to treat us if we become ill—is irrationally shortsighted.
Even more shortsighted, though, is paralyzing the country and violating rights on the premise that otherwise, too many people will need medical care at the same time. Whether evidence ever supported the idea that hospitals generally would be overwhelmed by this crisis, the evidence doesn’t support it now. Relatively few hospitals have been overwhelmed. In fact, doctors and nurses across the country are being furloughed.5 This, too, is the consequence of central planners disregarding people’s rights to act on their own judgment—in this case, the rights of hospital owners and administrators. Apparently, they cannot be trusted to gauge demand and resources in their own areas of expertise. So, in addition to instituting demand-reducing lockdowns, politicians and bureaucrats across the country have stepped in to ration care—canceling “elective” procedures, including (among other things) cancer surgeries and organ transplants of all sorts.6
This mess is largely premised on another “right,” which apparently trumps all others: a supposed right to health care. The unstated and grotesque rationale is that we all have a right to the time and effort—and, therefore, lives—of doctors, nurses, paramedics, and health-care professionals of all sorts. To ensure that everyone gets his “fair share,” bureaucrats must finely tune both the supply of health-care workers and the demand of patients. Not surprising, as with every statist attempt at central planning, this one is failing to solve the problem at hand. As with achieving any value, running hospitals well requires that people be free to judge their situations, make their own decisions, and act accordingly.
In fact, that’s what life requires. The statist responses to the COVID-19 pandemic—especially mass mandatory lockdowns—don’t keep us alive; they keep us from living.
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1. Carriers of deadly diseases who are capable of and likely to infect other people thereby pose a direct threat to the health and lives of those others. Given that the legitimate purpose of government is to protect its citizens’ rights, I think such carriers legitimately can be quarantined. Setting thresholds for lethality and contagiousness of diseases is a technical matter to be determined by medical and legal experts.
2. Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Stephanie Simon, “Gunfire Heard in Search for Boston Marathon Bomb Suspect,” Reuters, April 19, 2013, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-explosions-boston-shooting/gunfire-heard-in-search-for-boston-marathon-bomb-suspect-idUSBRE93I0GQ20130419; note that I’m not speaking here about Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s subsequent request that Boston residents voluntarily shelter in place.
3. Safiya Richardson et al., “Presenting Characteristics, Comorbidities, and Outcomes among 5700 Patients Hospitalized with COVID-19 in the New York City Area,” Journal of the American Medical Association, April 22, 2020, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2765184.
4. John P. A. Ioannidis, “A Fiasco in the Making? As the Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Hold, We Are Making Decisions without Reliable Data,” Stat, March 17, 2020, https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/17/a-fiasco-in-the-making-as-the-coronavirus-pandemic-takes-hold-we-are-making-decisions-without-reliable-data/.
5. Alia Paavola, “171 Hospitals Furloughing Workers in Response to COVID-19,” Becker’s Healthcare, April 7, 2020, https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/finance/49-hospitals-furloughing-workers-in-response-to-covid-19.html.
6. “State Guidance on Elective Surgeries,” Ambulatory Surgery Center Association, April 13, 2020, https://www.ascassociation.org/asca/resourcecenter/latestnewsresourcecenter/covid-19/covid-19-state; Joanne Lipmanfor, “Cancer Surgeries and Organ Transplants Are Being Put off for Coronavirus. Can They Wait?,” ProPublica, April 6, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/cancer-surgeries-and-open-transplants-are-being-put-off-for-coronavirus-can-they-wait; Kaylee Remington, Cleveland.com, April 10, 2020, https://www.cleveland.com/coronavirus/2020/04/what-are-elective-surgeries-and-why-are-they-postponed-amid-coronavirus-hospital-leaders-explain.html.