America is allegedly the land of the free. But since March, millions have lived under statewide mandatory lockdowns. As the lockdowns are being lifted, we should reflect on how to approach any resurgence of cases — and the next pandemic. Must we resign ourselves to renewed lockdowns that treat liberty as a dispensable luxury?
America can do better, but only if we understand what it means for the ideal of freedom to serve as a beacon guiding government’s actions. It does not mean trivializing the threat of infectious disease or inaction in the face of it.
To be guided by the ideal of freedom is to recognize government’s indispensable function in the face of infectious diseases — a function it has to date fallen far short of fulfilling. The nature and scope of that government function is at the core of a new paper by my colleague Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute, “A Pro-Freedom Approach to Infectious Disease: Preparing for the Next Pandemic.” Key ideas from that paper, if implemented, would save lives and protect individual liberties.
To be guided by liberty does not mean allowing individuals to recklessly endanger others. The freedom that matters is the individual’s right to be free from the physical interference of others. This means freedom from murder, robbery, battery, and the threat of infection from another’s disease. So a government dedicated to protecting liberty rightly has the power to quarantine individuals who threaten to infect others with a dangerous disease.
Taiwan is an exemplar of this approach. After the 2003 SARS-CoV-1 outbreak, the Taiwanese government began actively monitoring for new infectious threats. Having begun investigating the 2019 SARS-CoV-2 outbreak weeks before the WHO, Taiwan moved rapidly to screen travelers from mainland China. The results are telling: “As of June 18, Taiwan reports 446 coronavirus cases and 7 deaths. Restaurants and shops are open, and schools were closed for only two weeks in February.”
But to protect liberty during a pandemic, government’s powers to contain infectious disease need to be “carefully specified and circumscribed by law” — yet no existing U.S. laws adequately do so. This means specifying the power to impose quarantines only when “an infectious disease rises to a certain level of severity” and there is evidence that someone might be a carrier. This rules out indiscriminate, whole-population lockdowns that really do violate personal liberties.
We need laws, argues Ghate, that specify the level of infectious threat that warrants coercive containment. Some infectious diseases, like the common cold, pose little threat and don’t warrant intervention. But diseases like Ebola and Covid-19 do. Degree of contagiousness, severity of symptoms, level of immunity in the population, and ease of detection and prevention should all factor into whether and when mandatory testing, isolation, and case tracking are appropriate.
But the proper goal of the government of a free people is not to save every life whatever the cost. It is to leave individuals free to choose or avoid risky behaviors according to their own priorities in life. Unknown threats to health will always exist, and free individuals have to be the ones to bear responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. This is true whether it concerns the choice to drive a car or the choice to operate or frequent a business.
Objective infectious-disease laws would put individuals on notice that they are free to act as long as they do nothing known to threaten the freedom of others to live without dangerous infection. Most will take reasonable voluntary precautions against such threats. Those who don’t can be legally sanctioned for their recklessness, especially if they provably cause someone’s serious illness or death.
The lockdowns are symptoms of the urgent need for proper infectious-disease laws. Having underprioritized preparedness and monitoring of disease, government officials panicked when they realized they were behind the curve. Without objective laws to guide or restrain them, they reached for the bluntest weapon they could find: the sweeping lockdowns.
America should not abandon its title as the land of the free, not even in the face of a pandemic. The value of liberty should serve as a beacon to guide government, even in the fog of a crisis. But to know how to follow this beacon, government needs the tool of objective law. Our new challenge is to codify this law, to make sure reckless panic-driven lockdowns never happen again. But it’s a challenge we should be willing to face, if we are the land of the brave.
This article was originally published by the Southern California News Group.
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