The people in charge are doing a terrible job

Stefan R.
February 21, 2021
We are used to seeing press conferences discussing what measures will be or have been effective at reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The media appears to assert almost axiomatically that if a restriction or mandate will reduce the spread of the virus, it should be implemented and there should be no further debate. Despite - at least in the case of the British Government’s SAGE committee - the dozens of fundamental u-turns on issues such as the safety of schools, efficacy of general mask usage, feasibility of herd immunity, and even Matt Hancock’s alarming uncertainty on the effectiveness of the vaccines, we are told time and time again to “trust the science.” To question their ever-changing gospel is to be “anti-science”, “a dangerous conspiracy theorist” and worthy of censorship, but scientific truth is decided by the universe, not by scientists.

Some might say that this outlook is too cynical,  and that the scientific establishment have done their best with the information they had at the time. I feel it is important to remind those people that this situation has persisted for over a year, and global daily cases and deaths have continued a general trend upwards, with the UK having record levels of cases and deaths very recently. The policies that Matt Hancock said are “guided by the science” have clearly not worked. Three strict lockdowns, over a hundred thousand Covid-19 related deaths and an economic and spiritual depression not even worth thinking about is, as even the hypocritical, pretentious Piers Morgan puts quite rightly, “the worst of all worlds.” Credit where credit’s due.

Save lives, take lives

This shocking realization brings us back to the dubious premise that controlling the virus is what’s most important, despite the huge negative consequences of the attempts to do so. It seems to me that it is vital for us to do a utilitarian analysis of the situation we find ourselves in. The virus appears to kill about 1% of the population, that figure being lower for young healthy people and higher for old unhealthy people. It’s significantly lower when we take into account comorbidities that could have been the cause of death etc., and some might say it could be a little bit higher, but even Imperial College says it’s unlikely to be much higher than 1%, so for argument’s sake let’s go with that. The same study also asserts death rates are below 0.1% for people under 40, even with comorbidities, and young people dying with the virus are effectively statistical anomalies, which suggests that deaths could have possibly been minimized from targeted protection of the vulnerable, just as the revered Great Barrington Declaration asserts.

In contrast, how many deaths will there be as a result of the restrictions? It’s generally accepted that deaths from untreated or undiagnosed preventable illnesses like cancer and heart disease alone will outweigh the current Covid-19 death toll, though it might not be 1% of the population. However, we also have other deaths such as from suicide and deaths of despair. Furthermore, there is another factor to take into account; life-years. The vast majority of people have had a severely restricted life for about a year now. People have largely been unable to make long term plans, socialize, meaningfully advance their careers, travel, and have generally had a horrible year. It’s become a bit of a cliché to say how 2020 was a write-off, and the same is becoming true of 2021. Consider the morbid fact that a year is likely more than 1% of your life, and most of that was ruined, and that was the case for most people, then somewhere in the realm of 1% of the collective population’s life-years have been killed off by these restrictions. This effective death rate increases for each new day in lockdown, and won’t just stop when all restrictions are lifted, as the society will have to live with the long-term economic and mental health damage of these restrictions. You may have already heard that 150 million people have been condemned to extreme poverty thanks to coronavirus-related restrictions. Sadly, this likely indicates millions of outright deaths from famine, suicide, crime, poor healthcare and so on. These deaths alone currently outweigh all Covid-related deaths.

This utilitarian analysis is an approximation, and of course some numbers can be disputed, like do lockdowns only take away 75% of life’s enjoyment, 50%? Regardless of the exact figure you think is correct, the total amount of life-years taken away by the lockdowns seems to outweigh the total deaths with Covid-19, especially considering that lots of people have died with the virus even with these restrictions. In the UK for example, with a population of 68 million people, the loss of life-years is comfortably into six figures even if only 15% of our year was ruined. A utilitarian analysis of the situation is wonderful because it provides some objectivity, as in trying to answer the question “what is the decision that minimises death?” or any other factor you wish to optimize, which makes it stand out compared to other moral arguments. This discussion seems to be very rarely had, brushed aside in favour of a categorical imperative to “control the virus,” seemingly regardless of the cost.

One need not even be a libertarian to see the merit of the utilitarian argument. Even the despotism of the “People’s” Republic of China, the origin of this disease, seems to have largely abandoned lockdowns, bar a few localised ones. Have they suppressed the virus as well as their official government data says, having less total cases than America currently has in a day? Highly doubtful. It’s far more likely they realized it’s more beneficial to get on with things, and pretend they controlled the virus to humiliate the pathetically locked-down Western nations. It’s possible this was their plan all along, implemented by releasing the virus by wilful neglect.I seethe at pictures of pool parties in Wuhan, but there’s no reason why it’s not possible to do those things in the West – young healthy people are very unlikely to even have symptoms. The PRC also recorded small economic growth, and whether or not that’s completely true it’s highly unlikely their economy has declined as severely as Western nations and allies who generally suffered as badly as double-digit contractions, as well as wartime levels of public spending.This borrowed money and lack of productivity will undoubtedly impact future humans terribly. It’s quite clear to see how severely people’s quality (and quantity) of life will and has already been severely impacted. 

The libertarian argument against the restrictions

A second discussion that should be had is far more widely is perhaps more ideological, but nonetheless is important for a society that claims to care about human rights and liberalism. Assume for a second that masks definitely do prevent transmission, and that lockdowns are as effective as governments say there are. As a libertarian, it’s always appeared to me that something working implies something should be mandated by the state is a non sequitur. If a certain action keeps one safe, should one be forced to do it by the state? So what if doing something makes me safer?

If I abstained from eating fried food or driving I’d be less likely to die from heart disease or in a motor accident. Should the state then ban me from eating at McDonald’s and take away my driving licence? This argument ad absurdum gets, well, absurd. There’s a small chance if I stand up I will slip over and die, there’s a small chance if I eat or drink I will suffocate. It seems in fact the only way to be safe is to die. I don’t know anybody who would defend banning such things (yet). One could make a counter argument of a quantitative nature, that the chance of dying of Covid-19 is higher than from eating food, but at what probability of death do you draw the line? 

Of course, people will point out that the measures are meant to be more about you protecting others, but there is also a chance that if I’m driving I could kill someone else, or that my random improbable fall could be on top of someone, killing them, so the above argument is still valid.

It’s useful to think about the restrictions in terms of negative and positive obligations. There seems to be a moral difference between social distancing and wearing a mask. People are naturally entitled to bodily autonomy, a negative right, which most people agree includes having some personal space. This principle of bodily autonomy should be universal, but in many countries currently people are obligated to forfeit that bodily autonomy in public places through a mask mandate. 

Defenders of the mandate, including prominent “libertarian” Conservative MP Steve Baker is known to have defended the introduction of the UK mask mandate in July, saying it is “not legitimate to argue you can’t be forced to wear a mask when the mask is for the protection of other people, not yourself.” If people are around you voluntarily, why should you be compelled to be responsible for their safety? If someone is worried about catching something, why don’t they just stay at home, or wear full PPE if they have to leave their home? Take responsibility for your own health. Baker is fundamentally incorrect in suggesting that having a positive obligation to ensure someone’s safety is libertarian. In addition to his habit of capitulating through abstention to lockdown votes in Parliament, it’s insulting for the words Steve Baker and libertarian to even be put in the same sentence. Perhaps a sufficient comparison would be if a Green Party MP abstained on a vote to maximise carbon emissions and eradicate endangered species.

Something I’ve heard other libertarians say about the mask mandate is that “well if you’re on a person’s property so you should wear a mask because they want you to” when referring to being in a shop or restaurant. Yes, that’s true, you enter a person’s property and receive their service on their terms. A government-imposed mask mandate is not on a business owner’s terms. They don’t even have the choice to mandate that you wear a mask, and in many cases they’re forced to wear a mask in their own shop, so this freedom-of-association  argument is currently redundant. Wearing a mask in a private business as a condition of service or entry is a negative obligation, to trespass and not do so would indeed infringe on the business owner’s negative rights.

Giving up your rights will not save lives

Why do I highlight these two methods of argument against the coronavirus restrictions? Utilitarianism attempts to be pragmatic, and libertarianism attempts to establish objective morality. While one can easily make the argument that what is pragmatic is moral – which seems self-evident to those who follow the non-aggression principle, perhaps the purest form of libertarianism and which can be sensed in many natural behaviours – to the general public these are two distinct lines of thinking. 

If I were to simply make a moral argument about why lockdowns are tyranny, critics may argue that the general damage to society would be far greater without government restrictions, but that appears to not be the case, especially because the restrictions don’t work very well as one can see from a quick glance at the Worldometers page. If instead one makes a utilitarian argument that lockdowns ruin the economy, ruin countless lives and cause many deaths, it’s worth remembering what the term is for a government exercising coercion that results in death; democide.

There appears to be a convenient agreement between utilitarian decisions and not infringing on individual liberty. A variant of the classic Trolley Problem does apply to this situation, but there are more people on the second railway this time. The utilitarian-laissez faire dilemma that we’re often met with when pondering this thought experiment thus doesn’t exist. What’s the problem then? The lever has already been pulled.