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January 3, 2022 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Let lovers of liberty resolve this New Year to turn against collectivist groupthink and return to the basic principles of economics and common sense that made America’s first 245.5 years relatively happy and prosperous.

Readers sometimes complain that my words and sentences are too long. I believe them, because telling assertions often go uncontested or ignored as if readers did not understand the point. So this post is going to reit … go over several points that I made early in the pandemic. Again, very slowly, so that maybe even a few collectivists will start to get it.

  1. Americans are allowed to die if they want to. Suicide is not a crime, so I can eat a bullet or smallpox pie if I want, so long as I do not endanger others in the process. That also means that Americans can engage in risky behaviors that might kill them, like drinking alcohol in a crowded bar, even during a pandemic. They can skydive, bungee jump, base dive, free ski and free dive, and so on. Yeah, they might die but they might also live a fuller life than those who prefer cowering on the couch. Their bodies, their choice.
  2. Americans are presumed innocent until proven guilty. They must be accorded due process. That includes authorities collecting evidence of wrongdoing only if they can show “probable cause.” Sticking with the drinking analogy, Americans can’t lawfully drive until sobering up because drunk driving endangers others. But the crime is driving under the influence, not going to the bar or having drinks. If there are no symptoms of drunkenness, individual drivers cannot lawfully be stopped or tested for DUI. If symptoms appear, relatively objective tests ascertain the degree of impairment. Drinking during a pandemic might induce an infection that could be spread to others, but until there are symptoms and a test proving infection, there is no lawful cause to restrict individual freedom of movement, or even a visit to another bar. The NFL and other organizations are finally pushing back on the notion of asymptomatic spread of Covid, but science aside, punishing people on the mere possibility of illness was always morally and legally dubious.
  3. Americans are allowed to harm each other in minor ways. Right now, my neighbor is running his leaf blower. I could ask him to stop until I am done writing but I cannot legally compel him to do so until 11 pm. We might talk about leaf-blowing etiquette and such but if my neighbor incidentally infects me with a contagion in the process, that is on me, not him. He can block traffic on a narrow road to make a left turn, beat me to the good stuff when shopping for Christmas presents, and insist on keeping a tree that obstructs my view of fireworks, etc. But I can do the same to him. Creating minor harms for others is part of life, summed up by the credo of live and let live.
  4. American law generally follows the negative externality cost reduction principle laid out by economist Ronald Coase. In simpler terms, while I have a right not to be infected by others, they also have a right to go about their business. And vice versa. Generally, the party who can most cheaply reduce the harm is the one legally and morally bound to do so in a free country. If I have symptoms, like snot oozing from my nose, it is right that I stay home and rest up, and also the best thing for my health. So my harm mitigation cost is lower than that of keeping others locked away from my snot in their homes. If I have no symptoms, by contrast, others have the lowest cost of mitigation. That may mean that they stay healthy and boost their immune systems by eating a freaking vegetable or piece of fruit every now and again. Maybe hit the gym instead of the buffet. Or, if they face high risks, it may mean that they stay home while the asymptomatic masses roam the earth unimpeded.

Points 1 through 4 are not easily contested individually. Together, they constituted “common sense” until March 2020. Lockdowns violated them then, and mask and vaccine mandates do so now. 

Point 1 means that each American can decide for himself if he wants to risk Covid infection by not taking a vaccine. Not that such people are being suicidal, as many have strong natural immunity because they have already recovered from Covid. Others believe that the risk from the vaccine is greater than the risk from the disease. One need not be an anti-vaxxer to conclude that. Covid is still a mild illness for most. Top lawyers say that nobody has financial responsibility for harm created by the shots, records related to them are being sequestered for years and even decades, and media censorship of adverse reactions appears rampant. So the whole thing smells too fishy for many to stomach. Don’t blame the victims of the complete loss of trust in public health authorities.

Point 2 relates to the non-exemption of those who have acquired natural immunity. Vaccine mandates expose them to a positive risk, even if it is a low one, despite the fact that they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they cannot spread Covid. Doctors can test for immune resistance to Covid, so why do policymakers not take natural immunity into consideration? And why don’t policymakers give those without immunity organic options for acquiring it, like variolation? Omicron appears to be so weak that it may be less risky to be infected with it than to take one of those new-fangled shots that nobody wants to take financial responsibility for. At least give people the option of “boosting” via natural immunity instead of the synthetic stuff.

Point 3 is about the way the socioeconomic world functions. Americans constantly create minor inconveniences for others. If you don’t believe me, try driving on any part of the New Jersey Turnpike at just about any hour of any day. But authorities don’t shut the dangerous thing down, they fine those who drive too fast and recklessly. The same principle should be/have been applied to Covid policies.

The point about Coase, Point 4, is key. When rights conflict, the party with the lowest cost of ending the conflict or reducing the harm should be the one to act. That varies with the context. Unvaxxed people can spread Covid to vaccinated and boosted people. But the latter can also infect the former. So we are really in the same situation as during the pre-vaccine stage: If you have symptoms or have tested positive, stay home and get well. If you don’t, it is up to other people to protect themselves by staying healthy, staying home, or getting vaccinated, as they see fit after consulting their personal physicians, not some talking head on TV or some distant government “official.”

Policymakers could be, and should be, teaching our children these basic lessons in economics and common sense so that nothing like the last 21 months ever happens again. Instead, they waste time on “call it what you will” collective victimization studies, creating a generation of people expecting direction from on high instead of following what sociologist David Riesman called the inner-directed personality

The United States may not be at the end of the end, but it could well be at the beginning of its final act if lovers of liberty cannot find a way to clobber collectivist groupthink and foster understanding of the concepts that constituted the core of the nation’s long period of initial success. Let’s make achieving that goal a New Year’s Resolution.

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright

Robert E. Wright is a Senior Research Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research.

He is the (co)author or (co)editor of over two dozen major books, book series, and edited collections, including AIER’s The Best of Thomas Paine (2021) and Financial Exclusion (2019). He has also (co)authored numerous articles for important journals, including the American Economic ReviewBusiness History ReviewIndependent ReviewJournal of Private EnterpriseReview of Finance, and Southern Economic Review.

Robert has taught business, economics, and policy courses at Augustana University, NYU’s Stern School of Business, Temple University, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere since taking his Ph.D. in History from SUNY Buffalo in 1997.

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