One of the most important guiding principles for Libertarians is the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). This principle is often used as the highest authority for guiding our ethics and morals. For anyone that is not familiar with the NAP, it is the idea that an individual is free to live their life how they wish until they impede on someone else’s freedom to do the same. In general, this philosophy seems to work remarkably well, but there are a few key places where the NAP falls short. The most notable one is abortion, which causes heavy debates among even the purist of libertarians. But a new gray area of the NAP has arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s analyze the principle and how our society copes with the virus and its inherent risks.
In analyzing the NAP’s application to COVID-19, we must ask ourselves:
- Is the virus an “act of God” and an individual is not “aggressing” against another individual by interacting with them in a way that may infect and harm them?
- Is the virus something we have control over and the individual is responsible and is therefore violating the NAP?
These questions are difficult to answer but are important to examine as they have huge consequences for the justification of government control related to the COVID-19 lockdown.
If you have ever taken an Ethics 101 class you might have been presented with the following exercise: There is a town where everything is perfect, a utopia. One day, a child from the town becomes imprisoned and maltreated. You must decide whether or not to free the child. If you free the child, the whole town will no longer be a utopia. This brings up the ethical question of, “Do the needs of many outweigh the needs of a few?”
The vast majority of Libertarians hold individual liberty above societal liberty and would choose to free the child. Although some people may disagree with this position I think most can understand the reasoning.
In modern-day society, one can no longer classify a virus as purely an “act of God”. In general, it is fair to say that with current technology and knowledge of medicine we do have some level of control over the virus. Therefore there is an argument to be made for violating the NAP with some level of government control.
However, it would be naive to think that the lockdown doesn’t have unforeseen consequences in itself. For example, Harvard’s study on the increase in domestic violence as a result of a lockdown states that “The UK has reported femicide rates higher than they have been in the past 11 years, double the average for a 21-day period”:
A deep dive into the relationship between unemployment and violent behavior was done by NIH reveals that “When the unemployment rate worsens by 50% over the prior 12 months, the prevalence of abuse rises from 10% to 12%”. In these situations, the government has taken away an individual’s freedom that resulted in harm to that individual. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report shows how much unemployment was directly affected by the lockdown:
Overall, this illustrates a basic trend. When you lock down people or take away their liberty to be free, there are numerous unintended consequences. We see this with increased substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. One could even make the claim for the partial impact of the violent protests being influenced by people not able to afford to live. According to the CDC, 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse during COVID.
COVID-19 could potentially kill as much as 2% of a population and would be one of the worst natural catastrophes in recent human history. That being said, the government’s mandated lockdown due to this virus is not the best for consideration of the NAP. The lockdown may not be the right thing for society as a whole when one considers all the unintended consequences.
Without government-forced lockdowns it is reasonable to think that the majority of the population would still follow as much of the CDC guidelines as their individual lives could bear. They could do so while simultaneously allowing those who are more vulnerable or in difficult circumstances the freedom to make choices that are best for their lives. Using the heavy hand of government to force people’s behaviors often results in oppression even if the reasoning behind it was noble or just.
So the choices become:
- End government-forced lockdowns, and encourage people to follow CDC and scientist guidelines and accept some small increase in infection.
- Maintain a government lockdown and accept responsibility for all of the consequences mentioned above.
Like so many problems, the analysis of what solution is best is deeply complicated. If we want to live in a free society, we must be cautious about implementing policies that are so restrictive that Nancy Pelosi, Congressional Majority Leader, gets “set up” for going to a hair salon in San Francisco.
For the Libertarian Party, the answer seems to be as it has always been – greater government force is neither the best nor the most ethical solution.