Lockdown: a Libertarian Perspective
by Ilana Mercer
The other day I was running up a mountain. Two people were walking down it. I quickly crossed over, so as not to expirate over them. To my surprise, they thanked me profusely. I’m healthy; they looked fit. Distancing may not have been necessary in this case. Yet, in this simple act of conscious distancing, in the epochal age of a terrifying, communicable disease—my neighbors and I had come closer than ever before. Fear gave way to fellow feeling.
Having lived in both the developed and underdeveloped world, I have always associated social distancing with civility and civilization. Cultures that honor personal boundaries always seemed better than cultures which didn’t. Ditto people who kept a respectful distance: they have more merit than those who get in your face.
Which is why the wish expressed by so many freedom-loving protesters to violate the personal space of others is vexing and why comments such as the following are anathema: “Your ‘health’ does not supersede my right.” “Give me liberty or give me COVID-19.” “I am not required to descend into poverty for you.”
In the absence of clinical therapies or a vaccine for coronavirus, a successful return to work rests, very plainly, on the willingness of the citizenry to keep clean and keep a distance. Why would anyone wish to infringe on another’s personal space, when the stakes are so high? Insisting on unfettered freedom to come and go as one pleases, sans protection, comes at a grave cost to others—it could constitute aggression against innocent others.
In libertarian theory, private property rights originate in that most important of all titles: the title in one’s own body. That body, that fount of life whence all rights originate, is the legitimate object of government protection in a pandemic. For, as I noted once before, “Whether they are armed with bombs or bacteria, stopping weaponized individuals from harming others—intentionally or unintentionally—falls perfectly within the purview of the night-watchman state of classical-liberal theory.”
The anger is understandable. The heartbreaking calls from restive protesters to reopen the American economy come from across the country. Against this background, the natural rights of economically stricken individuals to reopen their businesses are righteous; they stem not from a state-created right or regulation. Rather, the right of ownership is the very extension of the right to life. In order to survive, man must—and it is in his nature to—transform the resources around him by mixing his labor with them and making them his own. Man’s labor and property are extensions of himself.
So, my countrymen are correct to protest the shuttering of their privately owned property, their sole means of sustaining their lives. All the same, there is another, equally compelling side to the ethics of this emergency situation. It is this: every individual is or could be inadvertently harboring a weapon of mass destruction. Yes, a WMD—for how many men and women have died and will still die because of the inadvertent actions of the coronavirus-carrying Index Patients, during the “seeding events”? Each one of us could be firing off a deadly virus into a defenseless population, bereft of immunity. Each one of us could be armed and dangerous, or be felled by someone who is. In this case, individuals who willfully violate social distancing strictures can be viewed as willful aggressors against innocent others. At once succinct and to-the-point, a reader whose online handle is “Mister Bigglesworth”, summed it up: “I’m not a constitutional scholar, but you know what’s unconstitutional to me? Dying from some Oriental virus.”
I am struggling with the ethics of this emergency. This is vexing stuff. One thing I do know. It is that the sin of abstraction, the propensity to settle for nothing less than an ideal version of liberty, is unforgiveable here. Refusing to grapple with the political reality in which we ordinary mortals are mired is to dwell in the arid area of pure thought.
In conversation with a colleague about the ethics of this situation, she remarked: “We live under a given political system, and we can’t just wish it away. Hence, there will be actions taken within that system that are relatively good or relatively bad. The thing we must always guard against is this: governments use crises to expand their power. Even when the crises are over, the expanded powers are often left in place, or certain key vestiges of these powers become a part of the institutions. This [too] we must guard against.”
Ilana Mercer has been writing a weekly, paleolibertarian column since 1999. She’s the author of Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa (2011) & The Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed” (June, 2016). She’s on Twitter, Facebook & Gab. Latest on YouTube