As the lockdown restrictions ease, current affairs programmes are full of people voicing opinions on whether they should ever have been put in place. Public figures such as Jonathan Sumption have eloquently put the case that such regulations, as well as being damaging, are an unjustified restriction on personal freedom that both infantilises and demonstrates contempt for the public. Given that our society will undoubtedly face pandemics and other crises in the future, exploring and questioning these arguments is a vital part of being prepared for those future emergencies.
The argument of the libertarians is straightforward and persuasive. Every adult individual should have the freedom to use their own judgement to determine their actions, weighing up the risks and benefits of the alternatives. Taking away this freedom implies that people are incapable of making such decisions and is therefore contemptuous. At the same time, it can be actively damaging to society, by taking away people’s sense of responsibility for the choices they make. Over time, people come to rely on the ‘adults’ in government to tell them what to do and lose the ability to make effective choices for themselves. This loss of ability might stem from a lack of confidence or a lack of experience or skills in making important decisions. As a result, freedom is not only directly and immediately curtailed by the restrictions imposed but also indirectly curtailed in the longer run as the capacity to act independently reduces.
Although these arguments against the Covid 19 restrictions are powerful and persuasive, they only consider one side of the story – what about the other side?
Individual freedoms are constrained in many ways that we are completely used to. For example, we have laws that mean that you can be punished if you drive along a motorway against the flow of traffic. Not many people would argue that we shouldn’t have such laws, and yet, it is obviously common sense not to drive along a motorway the wrong way, and the risks of doing so are clear. So why do we have those laws and why do most people accept them? Are they not paternalistic and infantilising in the same way that we are told Covid 19 restrictions are?
The reason we have laws that regulate motorway driving, and the reason that the vast majority of people accept them, is that someone who decides to drive along a motorway against the flow, is both making a choice for themselves (e.g., the excitement I get is worth the risk) and also making a choice for other people (those using the motorway correctly who will be endangered).
The person deciding to break the law might mitigate the risk, for example by choosing a quiet time of day and only driving in the slow lane. However, they are still making a choice on behalf of others about the risks that those others will face. And those others have no way to have a say in that decision.
In the case of motorway laws, the government is intervening to incorporate the risks to others into the choice of the driver wanting to go the wrong way. It can’t necessarily stop them every time. However, the perspective of those being put at risk is represented by the police who will try to stop them, and by the fact that if they still do it, they can be punished.
There is no infantilization here. Rather, the government is stepping in to try to balance the right to freedom of the individual with the right to life of others – because it is impossible for those others, driving lawfully along the motorway, to state their case themselves.
The same is true for Covid 19. When an individual makes a choice about their own behaviour based on their own common sense, that person is considering their own right to freedom and right to life, but they are also making a choice for others – a choice that those others have no say in.
In fact, it would be possible to argue that individuals choosing to break rules in a way that affects the rights of others infantilises the people affected – because they are making a decision about the rights of those people for them, without consulting them. They have decided that the other people who will face an extra risk are being over-cautious, cowardly or panicky, or that they don’t understand how to calculate risk properly.
From the arguments above a legitimate role for government emerges, in intervening to balance individual freedom against others’ rights in situations where those affected cannot themselves influence the choices made. This is the case with Covid 19 – one individual who breaks restrictions might cause, via a chain of infections, the deaths of people they do not know and will never meet.
Of course, we always need to be vigilant that those in power are not using situations such as Covid 19 to introduce regulations that suit some hidden agenda that has nothing to do with balancing the rights of different citizens. Government intervention (the intervention of society) in individual choices, while vital in mediating conflicting rights, will always be imperfect and requires scrutiny. There must be accountability around all decisions that constrain rights. However, the principle of intervening to curtail individual freedom to safeguard the rights of others is age-old and sound. There has always been debate about where the balance should lie between these two sets of rights, and that is both necessary and healthy – but it is a mistake only to consider the rights of the individual making a choice, while disregarding the rights of those affected.