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Lockdowns and the Presumption of Liberty

Here’s a letter to University of San Diego philosopher Matt Zwolinski:


I write with what I trust you know is enormous and rock-solid respect for you and your scholarship, from which I’ve learned so much over the years. Yet I must push back against this recent tweet of yours:

Lots of libertarians believe that lockdowns are a) immoral restrictions of liberty, and b) unnecessary because COVID has a relatively low fatality rate.

Q: how high would the fatality rate have to be before some form of lockdown was permissible? 5%? 10%? Is there any number?

By asking this question you make two implicit assumptions, each of which, I think, is unwarranted.

The first such assumption is that the burden of persuasion is on lockdown opponents. But at least among those of us who cherish liberty, both for its instrumental qualities and as an end in itself, the burden of persuasion clearly ought to be on lockdown proponents.

That is, it’s not the responsibility of those of us who oppose lockdowns to justify our opposition by specifying when a pathogen’s lethality and pattern of impact become such as to overcome the presumption of liberty. That obligation instead falls properly on those who would suppress liberty in the name of fighting Covid-19. It is an obligation that, in my opinion, hasn’t come close to being met.

By the way, pointing out that the coronavirus is contagious and lethal to many people who become infected is not sufficient to shift the burden of persuasion to us lockdown opponents. The ordinary flu virus is contagious and lethal to many people who become infected – indeed, it’s more lethal than is the coronavirus to children – yet we don’t lock down society every flu season.

The second unwarranted assumption is that lockdowns are sufficiently effective at improving public health. But evidence in support of lockdowns on this score is, at best, weak. And while reasonable people might disagree over the finer points of the many studies of lockdowns’ effectiveness, before we submit to such a draconian policy the presumption of liberty surely requires that evidence of lockdowns’ effectiveness at saving lives be overwhelming – yet it is not.

The policy since mid-March has been worse than “lock down first, ask questions later.” It’s instead been “lock down first, and anyone who later dares to question this policy will be publicly accused of being anti-science and indifferent to human life.” I need not spell out the problems with this attitude.

Wishing you and yours a Happy New Year.



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