Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Why Lockdown Libertarians are Wrong

Libertarians have been divided over whether governments should have locked down entire populations to stop the spread of Covid-19. Perhaps that split is not surprising - the libertarian movement has always been a broad church with a range of views from a religious-conservative right to an anarchist left. Most libertarians agree that some government is desirable but that its role should be limited to protecting the genuine rights of individual citizens. They also agree that rights don't exist at the discretion of governments, but rather the opposite - that governments exist at the behest of individuals, each of whom has their own inherent rights that can't be taken away. As Thomas Jefferson wrote so eloquently in the US Declaration of Independence:
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. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...
The last sentence is perhaps the most important - the only legitimate function of governments is to protect individual rights and governments should be limited to this function. In other words, we delegate to governments the powers to protect our rights and nothing more. This begs the question, what are the legitimate actions of government in protecting our rights? Almost everyone agrees that stopping the initiation of violence against us is a legitimate action of government, even if that requires the government to use violence in our defence. If someone is intent on murdering us, we accept that the government can use force to detain or, if necessary, even kill that person. But what about someone intent on infecting us with a deadly disease?

The case of Typhoid Mary in the United States was a classic legal case in the early 20th Century. Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid, then a very deadly disease. Public health authorities asked her to self-isolate and she refused, continuing her work as a cook, infecting hundreds and causing the deaths of at least five people. Ultimately, she was forcibly detained for the remainder of her life. Few people today would dispute that the authorities were right to detain her - she was a real danger to the lives of people she came in contact with and she refused to voluntarily remove the deadly threat she presented to others.

Covid-19, like typhoid, can be spread by asymptomatic carriers of the disease. However, Covid-19 is far less deadly than typhoid, with a global case fatality rate (CFR) of 1-2% (which drops exponentially with age and is decreasing rapidly across all ages as vaccination rates increase). This compares with an untreated typhoid CFR of 10-20% (and even when treated with modern antibiotics, typhoid still has a similar CFR to Covid-19). Typhoid Mary's case was exceptional precisely because they locked her up, and even in her case that was a controversial decision at the time. With Covid-19, governments are locking up entire populations (at least to the equivalent level of house arrest).

I agree that extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and that threats to life not only justify but require governments to act to safeguard us. The alternative is anarchy and I am not an anarchist. I agree that someone who is infected with a deadly disease should be detained if necessary to protect everyone else. However, I do not accept that governments have the right to lockdown entire populations in response to Covid-19 for the following reasons:
  1. Covid-19 is not a sufficient threat to justify such an indiscriminate response
  2. Lockdowns are an ineffective public health response and there are alternatives
  3. Lockdowns are a slippery slope that will be very hard to reverse.
I will address each of these reasons below.

We live in a time when the precautionary principle seems to apply to many public policy questions, whether it is climate change, natural disasters or public health. The problem with this principle of almost complete avoidance of risk is that the costs of mitigation are never considered and the alternatives often dismissed. Thus in New Zealand we have spent billions of dollars earthquake proofing buildings since the Christchurch quakes, when that money would almost certainly save more lives if it was spent on improving cancer treatment or building safe roads. The optimal risk management involves weighing the threat against the cost of mitigation and the alternatives. There are a number of considerations that have not been adequately considered in decisions on Covid-19 policy, including:
  • the vast majority of people being locked down are not infectious
  • Covid-19 does not represent a deadly risk to all but the most vulnerable in the population
  • the economic, social and health impacts of lockdowns are huge
  • there are alternatives to the wholesale abrogation of individual rights.
A more reasonable response would be to protect by isolation only those most vulnerable - the elderly and those with co-morbidities - and let the rest of the population go about its business. This is the approach taken in Sweden, Israel and a few other countries, which, although they have experienced far more deaths than New Zealand, have a lower Covid mortality than many countries with the most draconian lockdowns. It is also the approach recommended in the Great Barrington Declaration, which has been signed by thousands of epidemiologists and public health experts worldwide. The authors of the Declaration have pointed out that the costs of the lockdowns, even on people's health, almost certainly exceed the benefits in saving lives.

Finally, there is the slippery slope issue. Already public health authorities concerned about influenza and climate change policy advocates are pushing for lockdowns to be adopted to mitigate those risks. You may think it is unlikely that the public would accept such responses to those issues, but eighteen months ago no one thought the citizens of Western countries would accept the Covid-19 lockdowns. It has always been much easier to give up freedoms than to reestablish them and we forget that the liberal, rights-based order is a rare phenomenon in human history that sits on a fragile foundations. We can and do regress, as the people of China and Russia are discovering to their cost today, and dictatorial governments always have sound reasons to justify their policies.

Rights-based freedoms should not be given up cheaply and in my view preventing Covid-19 amongst the general population does not justify the cost, particularly as the CFR trends towards zero. What is done is done but we need to ensure we are not captured by the sunk cost fallacy and continue the lockdowns for fear of losing the benefits. We need to evaluate our Covid policies objectively from this point on. Australia has shown the way in determinedly coming out of lockdown and I hope the Ardern Government has the courage to do the same.

In the meantime, libertarians need to rediscover their principles.