The COVID-19 pandemic will end when enough people acquire immunity or die, or when we create an effective vaccine (and enough people take it). Until then, our only hope is to slow transmission by testing, tracing, and isolation; masks, handwashing, and ‘social distancing’. But most are weary of this, many are anxious, some are angry. A few now say the cure is worse than the disease, not because of the health or economic costs of the mitigations, but because they involve giving up something beyond price—freedom.
The first thing to notice is that most of our actual mitigation strategies are advisory or prohibitive, not preventative. Advice limits no one’s freedom, and a legal prohibition, or the imposition of a legal duty, limits freedom only when it is enforced or when a credible threat of enforcement renders an action infeasible. In most places, with respect to most strategies, enforcement remains the exception. Advice and prohibitions make some people angry, but you can be very angry while remaining perfectly free.
The second thing to notice is that, when freedom is at stake, it appears on both sides of the equation. Ill health itself limits our freedom to do a wide range of things, and not only for the twenty percent of victims who end up hospitalized or who suffer irreversible lung or kidney damage. Weeks of poor health is a real restriction on anyone. Those who refuse precautions or who insist on large indoor gatherings impose on others the risk of a freedom-limiting illness. The others can avoid that risk only at the sacrifice of their own freedoms, for example, by staying home to avoid the negligent and the reckless. In a pandemic, our freedoms are interlinked.
Admittedly, there are disagreements about freedom. Some philosophers say these turn on people having different ‘concepts’ of freedom; others say that we have various ‘conceptions of the concept’ of freedom. (It can only be a matter of time before someone says that we have different ‘concepts of a conception of a concept’ of freedom.) My own view is parsimonious. I think we are free to do what we can actually do, and not free to do what we cannot do because we are prevented from doing it or because the action has been made infeasible. What we disagree about is why freedom and unfreedom matter.
Some people hate restrictions just because they hate anyone making them do things they don’t want to do. (Teenagers, and some libertarians, tend to fall into this class.) For others, unfreedom is of concern only if it also limits their autonomy, the power to shape their lives to fit their needs and character, as JS Mill put it. Being forced to wear a mask while shopping may outrage the first group, but not the second because (save in special cases) wearing a mask does not limit any further activities. A third group have still narrower concerns. They only chafe under unfreedoms they judge to be imposed arbitrarily or unreasonably, in which cases they think they are being ‘dominated’. These are all real disagreements, but they are fundamentally disagreements about the value of particular freedoms, not about freedom’s nature.
The disagreements are nonetheless likely to affect people’s willingness to comply with measures necessary for linked freedoms to be preserved. We tend to imagine that the free-rider (the non-masker, the crowd-basker, the anti-vaxxer) is always a simple cheat trying to take the rest of us for suckers. There are plenty of those. And I doubt we can demonstrate that they are always making some kind of logical error or disappearing into a self-defeating vortex of egoism. We need other tools to deal with cheaters.
David Hume—no pessimist about human nature–recognized this when he wrote about the ‘sensible knave’ who thinks it reasonable to reap the benefits of social cooperation while refusing to chip in on the costs. ‘That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule, but is liable to many exceptions: and he, it may perhaps be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.’ Hume’s answer is only this: ‘I must confess that, if a man think that this reasoning much requires an answer, it would be a little difficult to find any which will to him appear satisfactory and convincing.’ That is: if you find yourself dealing with someone who genuinely wants you to prove, on his own premises, that he shouldn’t cheat, you will come up dry. But Hume wondered how many such people we really encounter. Almost everyone has some fellow-feeling. The photo at the top may make you despair at the selfish vectors of new infections. But look carefully—at this photo or other similar ones—and you’ll see that the reckless have come to the party without their parents or their children. Most people care about some other people. We can try to widen that circle.
And we can remember that not every self-styled freedom-fighter is a ‘sensible knave’. Freedom is what it is. But it is a lot easier to comply with restrictions if you judge the costs to be lower because you think the freedoms lost are less important than the freedom gained. People make such tradeoffs all the time. Is there any way to build consensus around which freedoms are, in the end, not really that valuable? I am not confident, though it seems to me that the Teacher is right when he says, ‘Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion.’ Perhaps we could start there.