November 18, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Lockdowns, a weird euphemism for locking up innocent people and forcing social distancing practices (masks, six feet, etc.) on everyone, is, of course, an affront to the Constitution, the Rule of Law, and natural or human rights. 

They also expose major fissures in progressive and conservative thought that classical liberalism can fuse. Basically, humans should be able to live and die as they see fit, so long as they do not purposefully harm others.

According to the COVIDAge Risk Calculator, I am just over 57 Covid years old, which is a function of my calendar age and my comorbidity — being a fatty. According to the calculator, if I get Covid I have about a 5.6 percent chance of being hospitalized, a 1.8 percent chance of going into the ICU, and a 0.28 percent chance of dying. Let’s round up and call it three in a thousand.

Knowing those risks, I still want to get Covid-19. Lots of other Americans behave as if they want to get this over with too, one way or the other. How can any U.S. government deny us? To paraphrase Leslie Gore’s 1964 song, it’s my party (life) and I’ll cry (take the chance of dying), if I want to. In fact, most of us, when not unconstitutionally forced to stay home, risk death daily.

Getting Covid is not a crime and of course nobody deserving of the appellation “woke” would dare blame the victim and suggest it is, or should be. It should be a crime to break quarantine (in the true sense of the word) if one has any serious infectious disease and it is a serious crime (bioterrorism) to willfully spread one.

But how can it be a crime to willfully contract a contagious disease and then self-isolate according to health guidelines? My body, my choice, right? Because there is a chance of death? But it is not a crime to commit suicide. It remains illegal in the U.S. to help someone to take their own life, but those who attempt suicide and fail receive help, not a summons. 

That said, many dangerous activities, like snorting cocaine or driving without a seatbelt, remain illegal, ostensibly because of the harms, like higher insurance premiums, they impose on others. But how does merely contracting Covid hurt anyone else? The harm is in the spreading, not in the contracting.

Ah, the lockdowners say, many Covid victims remain asymptomatic or subclinical, unknowingly spreading the virus. The safest thing is for everybody to stay home for 3 weeks, months, or years. That is empirically incorrect (read the AIER site for ample evidence of the harms caused by locking down) but also fails to recognize that nobody’s rights are absolute. While I have the right to kill myself, I don’t have the right to do it by flying a passenger plane into the side of a mountain or by firing a rifle bullet through my mouth into an adjacent apartment.

People have the right not to be exposed to an infectious disease but that has to be balanced against the right of others to be exposed if they so choose, be it out of a death wish or, more likely, a desire not to allow a low-risk event to ruin their cherished lives.

Whose rights should prevail in this case? Until March of this year, there was universal agreement that the rights of those who are not proven to be infectious trump those who want to play it safe. That made sense because those who fear death more than a lifeless life can join Joe Biden in the basement, no coercion required. 

Suddenly, though, many governments flip-flopped and claimed, without any public discussion or accountability for the results, that the rights of those who seek not to be exposed to the virus trump the rights of those willing to risk exposure. Many were suddenly forced to be the keeper of everyone else, like it or not. Just “do what you’re told,” as geronocrat Anthony Fauci recently chided. Such authoritarian impulses must prove ineffective unless total and unyielding (and probably even then will not work, as the Marine experiment shows). 

Consider, for example, why I will possibly contract and maybe die from Covid-19 in the coming days. I desperately need to consult an old physical book for a paper with Liverpool’s Andrew Smith that will expose the cause of one of the many mistakes the government made in the run up to the global financial crisis in 2009. A copy of the book is just 60 miles away, at a sister institution that will happily send me the source within 2 days. But then my local library will QUARANTINE THE BOOK for 3 days “for my safety.” A waiver is possible but will take longer than 3 days to obtain. 

So, instead of the infinitesimal risk of getting Covid from an inanimate object, I am driving to the sister institution — at night, a huge risk in this deer-infested region this time of year — to consult the book in person. I’ll be handling the book and a free scanner touched by unknown numbers of Covid-carrying undergraduates and breathing in their hot and sweaty exhalations through a mask of limited effectiveness. How much sense does that make from an economic or a public health perspective?

That we are driving each other bonkers and broke with silly rules that actually induce risk-taking is proof positive that we have it wrong now but had it right before March of this year: if you sally forth during a pandemic, you might get sick and die and need to own that; if you don’t want to risk that outcome, stay home.

As states begin to lock down/lock up again, our choice remains clear: one simple, tried and true rule that respects individual rights and liberties, or myriads of oppressive rules that work at cross purposes and are certain to be mocked now and in the future. Quarantining books, my word!

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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