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Freedom and Good Health Aren’t the Same Thing

Here’s a note to a hostile correspondent:

“Craig the Realist”

Mr. Realist:

You allege that my opposition to lockdowns and to many other government-imposed Covid restrictions is “inconsistent with [my] valuing freedom because sick or dead people can’t be free.” You conclude that “strict covid restrictions make more freedom in the long run possible.”

I haven’t now the time to rehearse the many sound arguments against the presumption that lockdowns, school closures, and other draconian restrictions are the best means of protecting and prolonging human life. I’ve linked at my blog to many such arguments, including this one by John Tierney.

I here say only that it’s a gross error to confuse freedom with life or good health. Each of these things is good, but they aren’t the same as each other. My point, in a different context (of course), was well-explained by Thomas Sowell on page 117 of his great 1980 book, Knowledge and Decisions – and can be seen especially clearly by substituting for “starvation” the phrase “suffering severely from Covid” (original emphases):

The growth of the decision making powers of government may facilitate various specific forms of material progress – even if at the expense of material progress in general – while reducing freedom. That trade-off needs to be made explicit. It is instead muddied over by those who define freedom as options (freedom to) – and who have many options to promise in exchange for our freedom. The options approach asks, “What freedom does a starving man have?” The answer is that starvation is a tragic human condition – perhaps more tragic than loss of freedom. That does not prevent these from being two different things. No matter what ranking may be given to such disagreeable things as indebtedness and constipation, a laxative will not get you out of debt and a pay raise will not insure “regularity.” Conversely on a list of desirable things, gold may rank higher than peanut butter, but you cannot spread gold on a sandwich and eat it for nourishment. The false issue of ranking things cannot be allowed to confuse questions of distinguishing things.

Happy holidays to you and yours.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030