Many Americans are still under stay-at-home orders, and the chosen productive endeavors of some have been condemned as “non-essential.” As a result, their lives have been upended. Their savings have been depleted, they no longer have income to provide for their families, and for some, lifelong dreams have been irreversibly crushed. These are the victims; not of the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, but of the government’s response to it.
Some states have lifted their lockdowns. Some have loosened their restrictions, while others chose to not impose a lockdown in the first place. Even the states with lifted or loosened restrictions have threatened to reimpose their restrictions if cases of COVID-19 increase.
The virus doesn’t care about jurisdictional boarders, and all of these states are part of the same country. Why, then, is there such a difference in response from state to state? There must be a standard by which such decisions are made. It is apparent that these governors are not acting on the same standard.
By what standard does the government have the authority to impose or to end a stay-at-home order or lockdown? Should Americans continue to forfeit our freedom—to work, pursue our values, and to live as we choose—until SARS-CoV-2 is eradicated? Should one abandon one’s productive aspirations and turn to unemployment checks, relief packages, bailouts, subsidies, and other government programs as one’s means of income until a proven vaccine is widely available?
These lockdowns were executed and are being enforced by state governments, but the question of a standard applies to all levels of government.
The United States government was established not as a limitless ruler of subjugated citizens, but as a protector of individual rights and bound by a constitution which limits its powers.
Clearly, the U.S. Constitution does not grant the federal government dictatorial power, and by the incorporation doctrine, the 14th Amendment limits the power of state governments correspondingly.
The distinguishing virtue in the founding of this country is the recognition of individual rights; the idea that each and every individual has a right to his own life. The standard, therefore, by which U.S. federal and state government should act is simply to protect individual rights.
The government’s response to the pandemic has succeeded in exploiting people’s fear—both rational and irrational—to evade the standard of individual rights, and without most of us noticing, a different standard has been tacitly substituted in place of individual rights; the public health.
On the surface, public health might appear to be legitimately interchangeable with individual rights. Afterall, what kind of person wouldn’t advocate for public health? But although practitioners in the field of public health serve the legitimate functions of finding causes of—and recommending specific behaviors to prevent—diseases and injuries, this is not the purpose of government. Public health practitioners may recommend policies to government, but it is the task of government to factor such recommendations when defining and enforcing laws; laws based on the objective standard of protecting individual rights.
The standard of measurement for public health is different depending on which aspect of public health the government is acting on and from which public health practitioner the government is taking its cues. Furthermore, permitting federal, state, and local levels of government to govern by the standard of public health broadens the power of government and demands just about any action that results in preventing death, illness, or injury from external factors like COVID-19. The more a government action is purported to prevent people from contracting the virus or from dying due to COVID-19, the more it is regarded—by the public health standard—as “the right thing to do.”
Governors can, by the public health standard, keep people on lockdown indefinitely. A governor may claim that we must slow the spread, flatten the curve, and remain on lockdown until he or she is comfortable with the numbers. Under the standard of protecting the public health, the primary criterion for a governor to criminalize legitimate human activity is the potential that such activity could increase the number of COVID-19 cases.
This puts some Americans at the mercy of their state or local government’s comfort with “the numbers.” This could mean the number of new cases over a given period of time, the number of virus-related deaths within a time frame, the model projections, the total number of existing cases, or any set of numbers inside any set of parameters that a particular governing body has chosen as the standard by which to measure its actions at that particular time.
The standard of individual rights, by contrast, is not malleable. It isn’t subject to the whim of anyone, including those with political power. By the objective standard of individual rights, one has a right to one’s own life, and that standard applies equally to each and every individual. It logically follows that no individual’s rights can come at the expense of another’s.
The right to one’s life doesn’t mean only that one has the right to not be murdered. It doesn’t mean that it is right to imprison an innocent person—one who hasn’t violated the rights of another—so long as he is provided food and water to sustain him. Preventing one from taking the actions necessary to further one’s own life is a violation of one’s individual rights. As Ayn Rand put it,
“Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)”
But how can individual rights be protected during a pandemic? Is one violating another’s individual rights by freely opening and operating his “non-essential” business? Is one violating another’s individual rights by shopping, attending a concert, eating at a restaurant, or getting (or giving) a haircut?
One might conclude that in the context of this pandemic, the aforementioned actions do, in fact, violate another’s rights because one could unwittingly spread the virus. Testing has proven that many people with the virus are asymptomatic, and studies have indicated that they are still able to spread the virus to others. Moreover, pre-symptomatic individuals may not realize they are spreading the virus until their symptoms appear days later. In view of such facts, it’s easy to see why some would conclude that these lockdowns prevent or reduce the chances of innocently vulnerable people from getting sick and, therefore, do adhere to the standard of protecting individual rights.
I argue, however, that while the force of criminalizing “non-essential” work and other legitimate human activity might slow the spread and consequently reduce the chances of the virus being transmitted to vulnerable individuals, it prevents individuals from pursuing their legitimate values and living their lives according to their own judgement. The lockdowns, not legitimate volitional human activity, are violations of individual rights and are, therefore, antithetical to the standard by which government actions should be measured.
The act of going to work, visiting a store, getting a haircut, exercising at a gym, or conducting any other legitimate human activity does not in itself transmit the virus. According to information from the CDC and WHO, and reports on multiple scientific studies, the virus is spread primarily from one person to another through “respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.” Relevant experts recommend that people maintain a minimum distance of six feet from one another to prevent this type of transmission. It has also been suggested that one can contract the virus by touching a surface on which the virus exists and then touching one’s mouth, nose, or eyes. To prevent that type of transmission, experts recommend individuals avoid such actions, wash their hands frequently, and use hand sanitizer.
The CDC published a list of conditions and risk factors for serious illness from COVID-19. Although there are outliers, the overwhelming majority of serious or terminal cases have possessed one or more of the known conditions or risk factors.
The existing knowledge and expert recommendations should be regarded not as reasons to live in fear or to cease all human activity, but rather as a means of empowering individuals to take appropriate precautions to protect themselves, carry on smartly, and get on with their lives.
Many people have come to accept as valid, the accusation that leaving people free to live and carry on with their lives victimizes the vulnerable; that by working, socializing, and playing, people are callously endangering those at high risk of suffering from COVID-19. In reality, however, only actual criminal actions victimize the vulnerable; not people going to work at a “non-essential” retail store or multiple families spending leisure time at a park or the beach, but rather one person violating the private property of another or acting in a way that directly endangers another’s health and, thus, another’s life.
Identifying and defining the actions that constitute endangerment of another’s life is a more challenging task in the context of this pandemic, but that is what must be done. The existence of a pandemic does not nullify the standard of protecting individual rights. The unique circumstances demand strict adherence to the standard. The fact that the existence of COVID-19 adds layers of complexity to identifying and defining the proper course of action is precisely why it must be done. This is the responsibility of government.
A lockdown is not a solution. At best, a lockdown should be regarded as a temporary interruption of human activity for a briefly defined duration. The purpose of which is to stall the spread long enough for the government to actively assess the facts and determine the actual solution; not the solution to stopping the virus, but the solution to protecting individual rights given the presence of the virus.
When government is acting by the standard of protecting individual rights, individuals should be free to assess their own risks, act on their own judgement, and accept the consequences of their own actions; in other words, free to take personal responsibility for their own health and safety. For elaboration on that idea, I invite you to read my previous blog post, “What Happened to Personal Responsibility?”
I argue that putting an end to all lockdowns is vital. Businesses should be free to reopen and enact their own health and safety policies for their employees and their customers based on rationally informed risk assessments, and all individuals should assume personal responsibility for their actions. One should be free to assess one’s own risks and choose whether to work and whether to enter any legitimate place of business.
Federal, state, and local governments should adhere to the standard of protecting individual rights and define specific actions which—considering the complete context unique to this pandemic—are a violation of another’s individual rights. Those who choose to threaten the lives of others through carelessness or deliberate action should be prosecuted as criminals. Any other standard is un-American and inimical to human life.