Lockdown Versus Freedom

On a conflict between values.

Posted May 28, 2020

There is growing anti-lockdown sentiment both in the US and around the world. While two-thirds of Americans report concern that lockdowns may be ended prematurely, about a third worry that restrictions won’t be lifted soon enough. A vocal minority among those who wish to see their state (or country) re-open immediately have been staging protests for several weeks now. Many, as it turns out, are not so sanguine about social distancing measures and are eager to go back to work or otherwise resume their daily routines. Is there a good argument for not letting them do so?

Young people sporting DIY masks
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

The argument, if there is one, cannot be that even those who want an end to the lockdown should be compelled to stay home for their own good. When the consequences of our choices concern only us, we are generally free to take high levels of risk. Consider, for instance, the fact that for every 100 people who return safely from the Himalayan massif Annapurna I, 34 climbers die. Nonetheless, we do not ban climbing Annapurna.   

What this suggests is that if we could physically separate the people opposed to lockdown measures from the people in favor of those measures, there would be no good argument for preventing those who wish to go back to life as they knew it before the pandemic from acting as they please. The problem is that we cannot physically separate the two groups of people. If the restrictions imposed on the unwilling group are justified, this is the justification: an individual’s actions – in this case as in many others – pose risks to non-consenting parties.

The question is, what level of risk do those actions pose, and is imposing that risk impermissible. What we have here is a conflict between the right to act freely, on the one hand, and the duty not to endanger the life and health of others, on the other. Where freedom ends and the duty to keep others safe even at a cost to oneself begins is by no means obvious.

The first thing to note is that we cannot adopt a standard that would rule out very low risks. We cannot, for instance, say that any action a person takes that has a chance – however small – of killing or injuring another must be made illegal. Driving, performing a surgery, or cutting trees in the forest are all activities that may kill or injure an innocent person. We have to take precautions to minimize fatalities, but we cannot ban those activities altogether, not in the absence of suitable alternatives.  

On the other hand, if the probability that a given action will have a terrible outcome for a non-consenting party is very high, there is a good reason to stop the action, using force if necessary. Even protesters against lockdown measures seem to agree with this. They are generally not against quarantining people who have already tested positive (one sign at a protest rally read “lock up the sick, not the free”). What they are against is restricting the choices of people who have not tested positive (but might).

So we must allow people to impose some risks on others and we cannot allow them to impose very high risks. But what risk is it permissible to impose on others? This is the question we ought to focus on, or so I wish to argue. The question requires careful consideration and analysis. It cannot be answered with slogans, even clever ones.

How can it be answered? My purpose here is to draw attention to the question itself, not to advance a policy proposal. However, I wish to gesture at a way of addressing the problem, if not at an actual solution. When the issue of how to draw the boundary between permissible and impermissible risk is posed in the abstract, it is difficult to know what to say. Is it permissible to do something if my action has a one in a million probability of killing an innocent person? One in a hundred thousand? I don’t know, and probably, neither does the reader.

But we don't have to pose the question in the abstract. What we can do, instead, is estimate and compare the risks associated with ending the lockdown to levels of risk we already accept, such as driving. What is the probability you’d kill someone if you drive for an hour every day for a year? How does that compare to the risk you’d kill someone if you are allowed not to practice social distancing before a vaccine or a cure is found? Is the latter just as bad as the former? Three times worse? Twenty times worse? I suspect that if we knew the answer, we would find that we do, after all, have an intuition about where the boundary between permissible and impermissible risks lies. I think I would.  

Of course, it is not easy to estimate these probabilities, and we may need separate calculations both for different kinds of activities (for instance, going back to the office versus going to the beach) and for different ways of loosening restrictions (e.g., with or without aggressive mandatory testing).  

The alternative is to forgo analysis and insist – via protests and social media campaigns – that one’s preference becomes public policy. That's hardly a way to sound decision making. (In addition, the alternative has costs of its own. For instance, protests – being large gatherings – may involve high levels of risk, indeed, higher than the risks associated with going back to work or engaging in any of the other activities protesters would like to engage in.)

There are a few complications worth mentioning. One is that it is not only people's freedom of choice but their livelihood that may be on the line. For those who live paycheck to paycheck, the lockdown has severe economic consequences. How big of an economic hit should a person be expected to take in an attempt to protect the health of others? A second and related issue is that economic costs can lead to death also. For instance, if we produce less growth, we'll have less money for life-saving medical treatments. 

But all I can do here is flag these additional complications. I cannot discuss them in a short piece.    

Back to freedom and risk. The world is such, unfortunately, that our values conflict. Freedom comes at a price and the use of force in an attempt to minimize fatalities does too. We can adopt the rhetoric of either freedom or of saving lives as though one value dwarfs or even cancels out the other, but as I argued earlier, upon reflection, we actually agree that neither of these values is absolute. This is why almost everyone thinks driving should be allowed, and almost no one thinks a highly contagious person ought to be permitted to go around hugging people.

Once this is acknowledged, the question becomes not whether life or freedom have a price, but what price we should be willing to pay for either.