Re-opening the country is about freedom, not just the economy

A few weeks ago, when the U.S. first began to emerge from coronavirus-related restrictions, President Trump acknowledged that opening the country might result in more deaths than would have occurred it the country had remained locked down.

ABC’s David Muir asked Trump, “Do you believe that’s the reality that we’re facing, that lives will be lost to reopen the country?”

Trump replied: “It’s possible that there will be some because you won’t be locked into an apartment or a house… Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”

The ABC News article described Trump’s stance as “directly acknowledging there will be a real, negative human cost in prioritizing an economic revival over a more cautious approach in favor of public health.”

This is typical of the way the debate over reopening the country has been framed: as a trade-off between the economy on one hand and health and safety on the other hand. But it’s not just the economy that’s at issue: it’s people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. The paternalistic, authoritarian restrictions that governments put in place to slow the spread of the virus did not only completely destroy the economy, ruin businesses small and large, and take away the livelihoods of millions of people. They also violated the rights of every single person: the right to move about freely, the right to assemble, the right to protest, the right to privacy, the right to religious freedom, and the right to bear arms, just to name a few. Governments had no right to enact these restrictions in the first place; therefore they could not possibly end the restrictions too soon. If something violates people’s rights, then the sooner it stops, the better.

But far too many people have described even the first cautious steps towards reopening the country as reckless, immoral, irresponsible, and even (according to one acquaintance on social media) “sickening.”

Epidemiologists Dr. Abby Greenberg and Dr. Harvey Finkel expressed such sentiments in a Boston Globe letter to the editor. “Opening up society and businesses now, or soon, will lead to many deaths,” they wrote. “Death is permanent. Economic loss can eventually be recouped. Trading deaths for dollars is unconscionable. Inconvenience and boredom must be borne with equanimity.”  

But it is not a matter of trading deaths for dollars. Nor is it even a matter of trading deaths for freedom. Freedom is a right. If something is a right, it cannot be taken away, full stop. It makes no sense to even debate whether or not freedom should be traded for health, or safety, or even lives. It is never OK to violate rights, to any degree, no matter how many lives could be saved by doing so. Restoring freedoms that should never have been taken away in the first place is neither reckless, nor irresponsible, nor sickening, nor immoral, nor unconscionable. It is a fundamental moral obligation. Contrary to what Greenberg and Finkel argue, extending the lockdown would be unconscionable.

Furthermore, it’s not about “inconvenience and boredom.” It’s about the moral principle that people have the right to make their own decisions about their lives. It’s not about the specific things that are sacrificed in an effort to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus; it’s about the principle that people should be free to weigh risks and decide for themselves what sacrifices (if any) to make to reduce their risk. How dare Greenberg and Finkel (and the many other people who think similarly) reduce this moral argument against the lockdown to a complaint about inconvenience and boredom? How dare they demand that people “bear with equanimity” the trampling of our fundamental rights?

It is common to hear the argument that a particular policy position is correct because it “saves lives,” as so many people have argued with respect to lockdown orders. It is difficult for opponents to argue against any policy position framed this way without sounding like callous jerks. But the fact that something saves lives does not automatically make it morally right. This point is explained wonderfully in an article by Anthony Davies and James Harrigan entitled “No Policy Can Save Lives; It Can Only Trade Lives.” Here is an excerpt:

Regardless of whether we acknowledge them, tradeoffs exist. And acknowledging tradeoffs is an important part of constructing sound policy. Unfortunately, even mentioning tradeoffs in a time of crisis brings the accusation that only heartless beasts would balance human lives against dollars. But each one of us balances human lives against dollars, and any number of other things, every day.

Five-thousand Americans die each year from choking on solid food. We could save every one of those lives by mandating that all meals be pureed. Pureed food isn’t appetizing, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing. Your chance of dying while driving a car is almost double your chance of dying while driving an SUV. We could save lives by mandating that everyone drive bigger cars. SUVs are more expensive and worse for the environment, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing. Heart disease kills almost 650,000 Americans each year. We could reduce the incidence of heart disease by 14 percent by mandating that everyone exercise daily. Many won’t want to exercise every day, but if it saves just one life, it must be worth doing.

Legislating any of these things would be ridiculous, and most sane people know as much. How do we know? Because each of us makes choices like these every day that increase the chances of our dying. We do so because there are limits on what we’re willing to give up to improve our chances of staying alive. Our daily actions prove that none of us believes that “if it saves just one life” is a reasonable basis for making decisions.

In another thoughtful article, Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic argues that in addition to negatively impacting people’s quality of life, lockdown measures could negatively impact people’s life expectancy as much as, or more than, the virus itself. He cites the dangers posed by food shortages, the likelihood of suicide and/or drug use among those whose livelihoods are destroyed, and the impact of a crashing economy on the medical system:

The general point is that minimizing the number of COVID-19 deaths today or a month from now or six months from now may or may not minimize the human costs of the pandemic when the full spectrum of human consequences is considered. The last global depression created conditions for a catastrophic world war that killed roughly 75 to 80 million people. Is that a possibility? The downside risks and costs of every approach are real, frightening, and depressing, no matter how little one thinks of reopening now.

Anyone who thinks that the economic devastation caused by the government’s response to the coronavirus will simply be reversed in time might want to think again.

It is interesting that just three months ago, the idea of the government banning restaurants from offering dine-in service, sports teams from playing, and stores from opening would have been unthinkable. But now that most state governments has done just that, it is considered the default. Those who want to relax the restrictions bear the burden of proving that doing so is safe, and if they do not do that to the satisfaction of the medical and political establishment, they are attacked as irresponsible, greedy, and selfish. Yet it is those who want to extend the shutdown of our country who should bear the burden of proof; it is those who want to keep people imprisoned in their homes who are truly immoral.