bookmark_borderAttorney General Barr is 100% right on Covid restrictions

Attorney General William Barr recently expressed the same sentiments that I have been writing about for a long time on this blog: that the restrictions on people’s freedom of movement and association that have been implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic are a violation of individual rights.

“You know, putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders, is like house arrest,” Barr said during a Constitution Day speech at Hillsdale College. “Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

Unsurprisingly, various authoritarian politicians and commentators criticized Barr’s remarks.

Joe Biden asked rhetorically, “Did you ever, ever think, any of you that following the recommendations of the scientific community to save your and other peoples’ lives is equivalent to slavery, people being put in chains?” 

Rep. James Clyburn called Barr’s comments “the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful things I’ve ever heard” and pointed out that “slavery was not about saving lives,” while “this pandemic is a threat to human life.”

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe called Barr’s comments an “obscene comparison” and called Barr “an evil fool.”

Sunny Hostin of The View tweeted, “Statements like these make you realize many in this country know nothing about what it truly means to be oppressed.”

“If you think that this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history, I’d suggest you read up on the Alien Sedition Acts,” complained historian Jon Meacham. “I’d suggest you talk to the Japanese Americans who were interned during the Second World War. Talk to the victims of Joe McCarthy. Talk to the victims of one of Barr’s predecessors, A. Mitchel Palmer, who led raids in 1919 and 1920 as part of the first Red Scare. And talk to the Black folks who, in my native region, lived under apartheid until about 60 years ago… We’re talking about scientifically uncontroversial public health measures. This is not some ideologically-driven plot on behalf of the public health officials, and the alleged deep state, to change American lives. It’s to try to save American lives because of a global pandemic.”

It is disturbing that so many prominent individuals believe that telling people they cannot leave their homes for any but essential purposes is no big deal. Let’s address their arguments one by one:

First of all, contrary to Clyburn’s and Tribe’s claims, Barr’s comments are neither ridiculous, nor God-awful, nor obscene, and Barr is neither evil nor a fool. Rather, Barr’s comments are correct, and he is a good and intelligent person for making them. It is the criticisms of Barr that are ridiculous, awful, and obscene, and the people defending lockdowns who are evil. As for Clyburn’s allegation that Barr’s comments are “tone-deaf,” I do not understand this criticism. What is relevant is whether the content of a statement is right or wrong, not the tone in which it is expressed. Barr’s statement was right, and desperately needed. Therefore, it was right of him to make it.

Second, there is the argument, made by Biden and Meacham for example, that because stay-at-home orders were “scientifically uncontroversial” and recommended by experts in public health, they do not violate civil liberties. But the fact that something is recommended by the scientific community has nothing to do with whether or not it is an intrusion on civil liberties. One can accept the claim that stay-at-home orders are the best way to slow the spread of the virus while at the same time believing that they are morally wrong. This is because factual claims and moral claims are completely different and independent. Science is a great way of gaining factual knowledge, e.g. how the world works, which things tend to be correlated with each other, which are the best ways of achieving particular outcomes. But science cannot tell us anything about moral right and wrong, e.g. what constitutes justice, which rights people have, whether or not a particular action violates civil liberties. Only philosophy – thinking logically about a topic – can do that.

Similarly, Barr’s critics make the argument that because stay-at-home orders were motivated by the desire to save lives, they do not violate civil liberties. But the motivation of an action has nothing to do with whether or not it violates civil liberties. Clyburn is correct that slavery was not about saving lives, while the pandemic is a threat to human life, and saving lives is the motivation behind the lockdown measures. But this is irrelevant. Meacham may be correct that public health officials are not motivated by any sinister desire to destroy people’s freedoms. But regardless of their motivation, destroying people’s freedoms is what they are doing. Restricting liberty in the way that governors around the country have done during the coronavirus pandemic is morally wrong regardless of its motivation and regardless of how many infections it prevents or lives it saves.

Then there is Hostin’s claim that opponents of stay-at-home orders “know nothing about what it truly means to be oppressed.” Actually, it is defenders of stay-at-home orders who know nothing about what it means to be oppressed. Remember, we are talking about state and municipal governments telling their citizens that they cannot walk around at parks or beaches, go to church, buy guns (a right explicitly protected by the Constitution), or get together with other people. We are talking about state and municipal governments forcibly closing all sorts of businesses, from restaurants to sports teams to barbershops to book stores to clothing stores. We are talking about governments telling their citizens that even for those few “essential” purposes for which they are allowed to leave their homes, they must do so as seldom as possible and avoid stopping to browse or chat. We are talking about governments requiring their citizens to disclose their recent contacts and whereabouts for contact-tracing purposes. That this is oppression is an understatement. Anyone who cannot see this has no idea what oppression is.

And finally there is Meacham’s list of incidents from history that he claims are worse intrusions on civil liberties than stay-at-home orders. Some of the items on the list are, indeed, violations of civil liberties. But none of them are worse than the restrictions on people’s freedoms that have been implemented during the coronavirus pandemic. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, for example, was certainly wrong, but it affected 112,000 people, while the coronavirus restrictions take away the liberty of every single person in America (approximately 320 million people). The Alien and Sedition Acts, McCarthyism, and Palmer’s raids did violate the rights of the individuals targeted, but this is nowhere near as problematic as stripping away freedom of movement from the entire populace. No one would defend Jim Crow laws, but if it’s wrong to force people to use segregated restaurants, stores, and beaches, isn’t it even more wrong to ban people from these places entirely? In scope and scale, in terms of the number of people harmed, the number of rights taken away, and the areas of life affected, none of the historical events mentioned by Barr’s critics matches the wide-ranging deprivation of freedom inflicted by governments in response to the pandemic.

To sum up, the arguments against Barr and in defense of stay-at-home orders are ignorant, illogical, offensive, and wrong. Barr should be commended, not insulted, for speaking out in defense of the Constitution and individual rights. However, there is one respect in which I disagree slightly with Barr’s comments. I would get rid of the “other than slavery” part, because I believe that stay-at-home orders are worse than slavery. Kudos to Attorney General Barr for condemning these restrictions as the egregious violation of civil liberties that they are.

bookmark_borderLawsuit planned against MA flu shot mandate

A group of over 5,000 people are planning to file a lawsuit challenging Massachusetts’s new requirement that all children and teens get a flu vaccine in order to attend school. The group, called Flu You Baker, is gathering signatures for a class action lawsuit that it plans to file next month.

Governor Charlie Baker implemented the requirement in August in an attempt to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the Department of Public Health website, everyone who will be going to a day care or school, from 6 months old to high school seniors, is required to get a flu shot, even if they are planning on attending school remotely. Additionally, college and grad school students under age 30 are required to get a flu shot if they are attending classes on campus.

Dr. Larry Madoff of the Department of Public Health explained: “It is more important now than ever to get a flu vaccine because flu symptoms are very similar to those of Covid-19 and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve health care resources.”

“I don’t believe in government overreach,” Vincent Delaney, and organizer of the lawsuit, said to NBC Boston. “I believe it should be between a parent, their child, and the doctor.”

Renee Viens, a mother who signed onto the lawsuit, told the station: “This should be a parental choice because this can become a very slippery slope. If people are forced to take the vaccine, then what’s next? Is it the Covid vaccine that’s going to be forced on us? I just don’t think this is good precedent to set.”

I support this lawsuit 100%. Just as the government does not have a right to take away people’s freedom of movement and association in order to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed, it does not have the right to invade people’s bodies in order to prevent the medical system from being overwhelmed. Nor do people have the right to have the bodies of other people invaded in order to reduce their own risk of catching the flu. What is particularly disturbing about this flu shot requirement is that it applies to students attending private schools as well as public, and even more bizarrely, applies to students who will be learning online. Plus, this requirement is more onerous than the already existing requirement that public school students receive vaccines for hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. Unlike these vaccines, which a person generally only needs to get once and then never needs to worry about again, the flu vaccine only lasts for a year, so students will need to get it every year. This is a significant quality of life issue and a clear case of government overreach. Like with any medical procedure, whether or not to get a flu shot should be an individual choice.

bookmark_borderRe-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.

bookmark_borderThere’s nothing ugly about individual rights

A few weeks ago I read a letter to the editor in the Boston Globe which I strongly disagree with. Numerous people in our society seem to share this viewpoint, particularly with respect to the coronavirus pandemic, and I find it deeply wrong. In a letter published on May 16, 2020, Jeffrey Halprin of Natick wrote:

I read selfishness disguised as patriotism in the comments of a gun shop owner who sued to reopen, when he said that “the second Amendment should not be suspended during a health pandemic.” I realized how close the connection is between the quarantine protesters and the gun lobby. Both are all about “me” instead of “us.”

Guns make it easy to sit in a high window and randomly pick off dozens of people listening to county music in Las Vegas. Not my problem. Uncontrollable virus racing through nursing homes, hospitals, and neighborhoods? Ditto.

The Second Amendment, written, ironically enough, to protect the community, with a “well-regulated militia,” is now the cover that people use to turn their back on the community so that they can sell a few more guns.

As for the people who turn their backs on the request to pitch in and sacrifice until we find a way to keep the virus from randomly picking off their neighbors? What an ugly way to live.

In this letter, Halprin is harshly criticizing gun shop owners who fought for their right to open, as well as protesters who have been bravely standing up to authoritarian government policies in general. His criticisms are baseless.

As inconvenient as it may be to those who value the community above all else, people have rights. Specifically, people have the right to live their lives as they please, so long as they do not violate the rights of anyone else.

People are not obligated to take on the problems of others and make them their own. Mass shootings such as the one in Las Vegas, as horrific as they may be, are not the fault of innocent gun owners. They are the fault of the mass shooters. Innocent gun owners are not required to “pitch in” to solve this problem by sacrificing their freedoms.

Similarly, people are not obligated to sacrifice their freedom of movement, assembly, speech, or religion, their privacy, or their livelihoods in order to lower the risk of virus transmission for the community as a whole.

A world in which people are required to put the needs of others above their own would be a truly ugly place to live. Halprin is demanding that each person “pitch in and sacrifice” by giving up a certain amount of freedom for the sake of the community. But how much does he think people should be required to sacrifice? Where is the line drawn between being sufficiently community-minded versus unacceptably selfish? And more importantly, what is the purpose of demanding that everyone pitch in and sacrifice for the sake of the community, when by doing this you are depriving every member of the community of the right to live according to his or her own preferences and values, the very thing that makes life worth living? This might create a safer society, with fewer shootings and fewer cases of the coronavirus. But it would also create a society in which people are not free to live their lives in the way that makes them happy, in which people are not entitled to use their time and energy on what they believe is important, and in which no person’s life truly belongs to him or her. The fact that other people are sacrificing for your benefit, just as you are sacrificing for theirs, does not even begin to make up for the loss of freedom and self-determination. All that is accomplished by requiring people to put others first, is to create a world where everyone is worse off.

Freedom is not something that should be pitched in and sacrificed. It is something that rightly belongs to each individual. The honorable thing to do is to defend one’s rights, as gun store owners and anti-lockdown protesters are doing, not to meekly give these rights up.

A world in which each person is free to make his or her own decisions and live in the way that best suits him or her is best for all people. There is nothing wrong with valuing the “me” instead of “us.” Nor is there anything wrong with focusing on one’s own self, as long as one does not harm other people in the process. The idea of individual liberty is simple, logical, fair, egalitarian, and beautiful. To insult people who are bravely standing up for their rights, because they have not demonstrated what you consider to be an adequate amount of concern for the community? Now that is ugly.

bookmark_borderProtests against authoritarianism: it’s not about haircuts

I often see causes that I believe in dismissed as petty or unimportant. People who object to their rights being violated are accused of “whining.” What the people who make these types of arguments do not understand is that it’s not usually about the specific thing, but about the general principle behind it.

An example of this is the recent protests against authoritarian measures designed to slow the spread of Covid-19. The other day, while listening to the radio, I heard a medical ethicist who was being interviewed refer to these protesters as “the people who want haircuts.” Separately, in a tweet that I saw today, someone described these protesters as “whining ’cause the barbershop closed during a pandemic.”

These criticisms completely miss the point. It’s not about barbershops. It’s not about nail salons, or restaurants, or malls, or gyms, or parks, or casinos, or even churches (although those who argue that their religious freedom is being violated by the lockdown orders have an excellent point). It’s about individual liberty. It’s about the principle that freedom should not be sacrificed for the sake of safety. It’s about the principle that individuals should be able to make their own decisions about their own lives and to decide for themselves what amount of risk they are willing to take.

Supporters of gun rights face similar criticisms. We are called “gun fetishists” and “gun kissers,” and ridiculed for being irrationally obsessed with our “murder toys.” But it’s not about the guns. I have never owned a gun and have only used one a couple times, but it would be difficult to find a more ardent supporter of gun rights than me. Just like with the lockdown protests, it’s about the principle that freedom should not be sacrificed for safety. It’s about the principle that an object should not be banned, or made more difficult to obtain, simply because some people choose to misuse it. It’s about the principle that the correct response to a crime is to punish the person who did it, not to punish innocent people by taking their freedom away.

These moral principles are important. Without them, people would not have any freedom at all. Barbershops and guns are just examples of instances to which the moral principles apply. Personally, I can do without a gun and I can do without a haircut. But the government should not be able to take the freedom of owning a gun or getting a haircut away from people. Once a moral principle is violated in one case, there is nothing to stop it from being violated in other cases as well. Think about that before accusing protesters of “whining.”

bookmark_borderThe most offensive tweet I have ever seen

Over the years, I have seen numerous ridiculous and offensive things on Twitter. But I may have found the most offensive tweet yet. In the below exchange, Bethany Mandel very reasonably explains her opposition to Covid-19 lockdown orders. Joe Lockhart responds by… calling her a killer. Yes, you are reading that right.

Continue reading “The most offensive tweet I have ever seen”

bookmark_borderGun rights supporters are not prostitutes

In today’s Boston Globe, Kevin Cullen wrote what is possibly the most offensive column that has ever been written, by any author, in any newspaper or publication.

“If only we really could throw a red challenge flag in the Congress to demand that the paid prostitutes for the NRA would be forced to sit and watch a ceaseless loop of video, replaying every school shooting since Columbine,” he writes. “Maybe a long, extended viewing of this madness, like a video waterboarding, would persuade the frauds in Congress to do their duty.”

He accuses members of Congress of “taking NRA money like gimlet-eyed hookers” and calls people who support the Second Amendment “morally bankrupt,” “utterly corrupt,” and “as nuts as Nikolas Cruz.”

It is infuriating to read and hear again and again, in newspapers, online, and on TV, these repeated personal attacks on people who support gun rights. Some people believe that the answer to mass shootings is to pass laws restricting individual rights in order to make our society safer; some (including myself) believe that individual rights come first. Regardless of what you believe, there is absolutely no reason to call people who hold different opinions “prostitutes” or “hookers” or to suggest that they be subjected to torture. This type of language is beyond offensive and unacceptable.

Enough with the all-too-common assumption that members of Congress who oppose new gun control laws are acting either out of cowardice, or because of donations from the NRA. Has it ever occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible for another person to actually hold an opinion that is different from your own? As difficult as it is to believe, some members of Congress actually believe that their duty is to uphold individual rights, not to sacrifice them in the name of safety. As shocking as this may be, it is possible for a human being to engage in deliberate, rational, independent thought and arrive at a belief that is different from yours. The fact that someone has different moral beliefs than you does not make them insane, corrupt, or morally bankrupt (sticking to one’s beliefs in the face of insults and criticism is the exact opposite of morally bankrupt), and it certainly doesn’t make them a prostitute.