bookmark_borderExcellent article explaining why lockdowns are unconstitutional

I recently read an excellent opinion piece by David R. Geiger in Commonwealth Magazine entitled, “Governor’s COVID-19 orders are unconstitutional.” In this piece, Geiger explains in an eloquent, straightforward way why lockdown orders and stay-at-home orders – focusing on those implemented by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker – are wrong.

“The animating principle of our nation is the maximal safeguarding of human liberty,” Geiger reminds us.

Under Massachusetts laws dealing with public health and infectious diseases, he points out, “the only restraints on liberty the government may impose are temporary isolation of any ‘sick or infected person’ and quarantining of others in his household, in each case with compensation for resulting wage loss.”

To essentially quarantine the entire population of the state obviously exceeds these limits. Baker likely realized this and therefore decided instead to use the Civil Defense Act of 1950 to justify his totalitarian measures. But as Geiger points out, this law was intended to be used during wars, nuclear power plant radiation releases, fires, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters that physically alter the Earth in defined areas. Diseases don’t seem to fit this category.

Geiger lists all the ways that lockdown orders violate people’s rights:

Forced closures of businesses, schools, and places of worship; prohibitions on gatherings or of humans approaching or touching one another; and mandates that people cover their faces in public are radical and unprecedented, and unquestionably infringe both expressly enumerated and historically enjoyed rights. These include individuals’ rights to move about freely, associate with others as they choose, express themselves through their appearance, make decisions about their own health, educate their children, exercise their religion, and support themselves through their chosen occupation, and businesses’ rights to operate within the bounds of the law.

Government infringement on individual liberty cannot be justified by the mere existence of some degree of risk; rather, the individual’s conduct must pose a serious risk of significant harm. We do not limit freedom of movement by banning driving because it poses risk; instead, we prohibit only reckless or drunk driving. For this reason, Massachusetts’ public health statute does not authorize shutting down normal life due to the risk of infection, but instead restricts the liberty only of a person who is actually infectious, or his close household contacts who have a significant likelihood of being so.

Exactly! It’s one thing for the government to infringe upon the liberties of a person who actually has the coronavirus, but for the government to infringe upon the liberties of everyone merely because any given person might possibly have the virus is ridiculous.

Another favorite quote from the article (emphasis mine): “If some individuals are concerned about such risks they are free to protect themselves by keeping a distance or wearing a mask… But those who are willing to accept such risks in order to live life have a fundamental right to do so, and the fact that exercising this right may cause some increase in disease cases provides no ground to quash it.”

Geiger reminds readers of the “inherent harm in depriving Massachusetts residents of their fundamental freedoms,” something that proponents of lockdown orders tend to discount. “The people of the Commonwealth should rise up against them, insist that they cease immediately, and ensure that they never recur,” he writes.

I could not agree more. Everyone who calls lockdown opponents “selfish” or “irresponsible” needs to read this article.

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_borderCoronavirus is no excuse for totalitarianism

The global COVID-19 pandemic has caused untold suffering, from the lives lost to the economic devastation to the stress of routines being upended. But the most upsetting aspect of the crisis, in my opinion, is the curtailment of individual liberty. Local, state, and national governments have implemented increasingly strict measures to stop the spread of the virus, many of which violate people’s rights and therefore are morally wrong.

Many, if not most, states in the U.S. have enacted stay-at-home orders, meaning that all businesses are banned from operating, other than those that the government has deemed essential. Restaurant service, sporting events, and most retail shopping is banned. So are gatherings of more than ten people. People are urged, with varying degrees of coerciveness, not to leave their homes unless absolutely necessary.

As Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby writes in an excellent column, the amount of power that the government has seized merely by declaring an emergency is disturbing. “In Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker is empowered by state law to ‘exercise any and all authority over persons and property’ in whatever way he deems necessary to cope with the crisis. The law allows him to do virtually anything – from banning weddings to prohibiting travel to commandeering utilities to closing schools to throwing innumerable people out of work by declaring their jobs nonessential. Legislative approval is not required. Nor is a public vote. Nor is there any fixed date on which those godlike powers must be surrendered. Similarly sweeping emergency powers are available to governors in other states. Many similar powers are available to the president.”

Continue reading “Coronavirus is no excuse for totalitarianism”