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An Inapt Analogy about Covid-19

Here’s a response to Café Hayek commenter Richard Fulmer:

Mr. Fulmer:

Thanks for commenting in a thread on Matt Zwolinski’s reply to my open letter. In one of your comments you take issue with a point made by commenter Patrick Barron. Mr. Barron argues that lockdowns are an inexcusable offense against liberty because persons who are frightened of Covid-19, or who are especially vulnerable, can and should individually take steps to reduce their risks of exposure to the coronavirus. In response you write:

I choose to spray bullets in all directions and I demand that others “take whatever action they deem necessary” to protect themselves.

How virulent does a virus have to be before it becomes as deadly as my bullets? As deadly as Ebola? When it reaches that point, what is the libertarian response to the man who chooses to spray the virus in all directions?

I believe that your sprayed-bullets analogy is, for four reasons, inapt.

First, unlike people who might be murdered by a psycho gunman, individuals who are at genuine risk from Covid know, or should know, who they are. Covid does not strike indiscriminately. So at-risk individuals can indeed take sensible, individualized precautions to protect themselves without compelling everyone else to abandon normal living.

Second, a gunman recklessly spraying bullets acts in a manner that has zero potential upside for anyone (other than, perhaps, the psycho gunman). In contrast, individuals going out and about amongst others generally yield real benefits to others. These benefits can be social (e.g., fraternizing at bars), commercial (e.g., waiters helping restaurant diners enjoy meals and restaurant diners helping waiters earn their livings), instructional (e.g., teachers teaching students), and physical (e.g., physicians attending to ill patients).

Third, we humans are naturally gregarious creatures whose well-being – physical and mental – depends on our ability to interact face-to-face with others, including with strangers. We have from the start interacted regularly with each other. Doing so is part of what it means to be human. Therefore, Smith’s freedom to seek to interact face-to-face with Jones and Jones’s freedom to seek to interact face-to-face with Smith is embedded in our legitimate expectations of how human life is lived. Obviously, there is no similar expectation about being free to spray bullets into a crowd or about being in a crowd into which bullets might be sprayed.

Fourth, each of us humans – also from the start – has been a potential source of unintended harm to others. Emitting dangerous pathogens is nothing new. And unless each of us is sealed away hermetically into a bubble, such emissions are impossible to avoid. Unlike dealing with murderous gunmen, dealing with the risks of such emissions is, as it has been forever, a daily and unavoidable part of life. These risks have been, and ought to be, part of our expectations – expectations that can and will prompt different individuals to take different levels of precaution under different circumstances.

A danger of your sprayed-bullets analogy is that it implies that these risks should not be part of our legitimate expectations – or at least no more a part of our expectations than is the risk of being murdered by a sociopathic gunman.

If Covid-19 were categorically more dangerous than many other infectious diseases, then your sprayed-bullets analogy might become apt. But despite the hysteria over Covid, it is not remotely so much more dangerous as to be associated with such an analogy.

You’ll understandably protest by noting that you yourself asked the question of when an infectious disease becomes so lethal as to justify it being analogized to sprayed bullets. My reply to this protest is that, given what we now know about Covid, the analogy is too sensationalist and lurid, and too far removed from reality, to be useful. It stymies rather than stimulates useful thinking.