The New York Times recently published an article criticizing Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic for not being authoritarian enough. Instead of ordering individuals to stay in their homes and businesses to close, Sweden chose a policy of educating its citizens about risks and allowing them to make their own decisions. Restaurants, bars, stores, gyms, and parks have remained open, and people have been free to go about their lives with few restrictions.
The article by Peter Goodman of the New York Times states: “Not only have thousands more people died than in neighboring countries that imposed lockdowns, but Sweden’s economy has fared little better.” The article criticizes “the assumption that governments must balance saving lives against the imperative to spare jobs, with the extra health risks of rolling back social distancing potentially justified by a resulting boost to prosperity. But Sweden’s grim result — more death and nearly equal economic damage — suggests that the supposed choice between lives and paychecks is a false one: A failure to impose social distancing can cost lives and jobs at the same time.”
The article quotes Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, who says: “They literally gained nothing. It’s a self-inflicted wound, and they have no economic gains.”
This viewpoint completely ignores the importance of liberty and individual rights. The main problem with lockdowns and other restrictions on people’s movement and activity is not that they hurt the economy (although that is a big downside); it is that they violate people’s rights. People have a fundamental right to move about freely and to decide for themselves how they wish to balance safety with quality of life. It is morally wrong for the government to order people to stay in their homes and to ban activities because it believes they are too dangerous for people to be allowed to do. So contrary to Kirkegaard’s claims, Sweden did indeed gain something: approximately four months of its citizens living in freedom, with their fundamental rights being respected! Unlike other countries, Sweden refrained from trampling on the rights of its people. That is not nothing.
The tradeoff that governments face when deciding how best to respond to a pandemic is not between safety and economic prosperity. Nor is it, as Goodman’s article suggests, a no-brainer of protecting both safety and the economy as opposed to doing nothing and allowing both to suffer. It is a question of whether or not to sacrifice individual liberty for the common good. And the answer to this question should always be, NO! Individual liberty is not simply a consideration to be balanced against other considerations, such as safety, health, or the economy. Respecting individual liberty is a requirement. As soon as one begins speaking of balancing individual liberty with something else, individual liberty has lost. Rights are absolute, and respecting them is mandatory, regardless of the effects on health, safety, and the economy.
Another claim made in the article is that the virus itself, not restrictive government policies imposed in response to it, is the cause of economic damage. Goodman points out that even in countries such as Sweden that have not forcibly shut businesses down, many people have been voluntarily avoiding businesses because of concerns about catching the virus. He cites a study by the University of Copenhagen which found that people over 70 in Sweden reduced their spending more than they did in Denmark, indicating that they considered shopping to be more risky without government-imposed social distancing measures in place.
But that is exactly what is supposed to happen. People have the right to make their own decisions about which risks, if any, they are willing to take with regards to the virus. This means that people who are comfortable going to stores and restaurants should be free to do so, while people who are not comfortable should be free to stay home. If the fact that the government is not trampling on everyone’s rights makes some people feel less safe, and therefore causes them to decide to stay home, then so be it! People’s decisions to curtail their activities may have the same economic result as forcible shutdowns, but the fact that one of these things is voluntary and the other is not, makes all the moral difference in the world.
By not violating the rights of its citizens, Sweden has done the right thing. The results of this policy, whether measured in lives lost or economic damage, are irrelevant. If a policy violates individual rights – as the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders implemented by most countries do – then it is morally wrong, regardless of how many lives are saved. By assuming that the result of a policy is the only thing that matters, the New York Times article is ignoring the most important thing in the world: individual rights.