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Are Government Coronavirus Policies Awful Attacks on Freedom?

George Reisman tweeted:

[Trevor Dillinger wrote:] You have no right to drunk-driving. Same with COVID-19 spreading.

Your comment would apply to the Chinese Communist Party, who knew they were spreading Covid 19.

No one should be virtually imprisoned in a “lockdown” without benefit even of probable cause to suspect that he might have the disease, let alone without a trial or even the existence of a law that he is alleged to have broken.

The proper response would be to avoid contact with people especially susceptible to the disease and for them to avoid contact with whoever might give it to them. That’s it. For the rest, the purpose of life is not to avoid giving Covid 19 to others or getting it from them.

I disagree with Reisman despite agreeing with lots of his principles and views. This post is me thinking out loud about coronavirus lockdowns vs. individual freedom to stay home or risk going out.

Guessing a Reisman view: If you live with someone and they go out, too bad. Don’t live with people you can’t coordinate risk taking with.

Guessing a Reisman view: If your commute and job aren’t safe enough, quit. If you didn’t save money, oops, too bad. Or maybe you can get your work to make changes (plastic screens, masks, sanitizer, fewer customers inside at once, etc.) and get a car instead of public transit.

This stuff, like I think Reisman wants, is awkward in a world where the government requires people to do various tasks in person. Like go to the DMV IRL. If the government keeps requiring that, while also being hands off about the pandemic, they’re risking people’s lives. Solution: instead of lockdowns the government cancels a lot of their red tape so fewer people need anything, and moves the rest online.

It’s awkward in a world where too many employers do the minimum required by the government. They’re used to being bossed around instead of taking initiative to make good policies. So if the government stops bossing people around we get chaos.

It’s awkward in a world where people pay taxes for public education and expect their kids to go to govt schools and then there’s a pandemic and if they want to be safe they may have to give up major resources they planned around having.

It’s awkward to tell people to quit their jobs to avoid pandemic risk in a world where you’re punished for quitting in some ways. Like you lose unemployment and severance benefits which you’d get if you were laid off (fired without doing anything wrong). But if you’re quitting cuz pandemic, that is an external problem outside your control, and you might actually deserve unemployment benefits.

We live in a world where hospitals can’t say “guys if you don’t wear masks we’re cancelling your health insurance and firing your as customers” or similar. The government has tons of laws requiring them to give care regardless instead of demanding their customers take appropriate steps to not get infected. They can’t just refuse ventilators to people who acted irresponsibly. In a better world, they could, so there’d be way more lockdown type pressures from non-government sources. Similarly, health insurance can’t offer discounts for low covid risk behaviors or raise prices for risk takers.

What if I want to stop going to the gym because of the lockdown, but I had signed up for a year long membership plan (as is typical at US gyms). I claim the gym is no longer providing the service I signed up for: safe workouts. The gym says: what!? we are still open like normal! The government is going to have to play a role in deciding stuff. Am I being overly risk averse and I’m still on the hook for gym dues, or am I being reasonable and the gym operating like normal is a bad idea? The government needs some kinda general policy about this, not “no comment”. That way, such things can be resolved by the courts in a consistent predictable way (not the chaotic choices of each individual judge or jury). And we want almost none of it to go to court in the first place, which would be very expensive and overload the system – but if the results are clear and predictable enough due to consistent, standard policies then people can follow that without needing their own individual court case.

You can’t disentangle the government from life overnight just because you like freedom and government pandemic policy is inconvenient and, in various ways, stupid.

Government does a ton to prevent new businesses and products. They regulate where you can create buildings, what buildings you can create, whether you’re allowed to run a business of a particular type, whether a product or service may be sold, the price at which it may be sold (e.g. anti-gouging laws), the many safety checks you must submit to, the vetoes you must give your neighbors in many cases, and much more. The government has stopped a large amount of hand sanitizer and mask production. One of the bottlenecks has been the stuff you add to alcohol to make it undrinkable (undrinkable alcohol is the main ingredient in hand sanitizer), which is needed because the government wants to have a bunch of extra rules and taxes related to drinkable alcohol. The FDA, CDC and others restrict new medicines, drugs, vaccines, virus tests, volunteering for treatments, experiments, uses of lab animals, uses of volunteer human patients, and so on. In that world, where free market response to covid is so limited by govt, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to also ask the govt to be hands off regarding covid. You could try to ask the govt to manage the medical response to covid but be hands off on freedom of travel and other activities by citizens, but i think that doesn’t make sense when those activities are medically relevant.

We live in the world where the govt doesn’t just watch as other actors handle everything. We don’t have other non-govt actors set up to properly evaluate a pandemic, communicate to the whole country about what to do, etc. The govt is bad at it too but they do have agencies and budgets that are meant to address this stuff. And it’s also a world where if the govt says “X is a bad idea” but leaves X legal, people assume the warnings are unserious. And that’s a generally reasonable assumption: the govt actually does ban all kinds of things they really think are bad, and gives all kinds of way way overly cautious warnings that are not backed up with actual rules. Plenty of way overly cautious stuff is backed by rules, so having no rules really signals no real danger. So leaving bars and restaurants and gyms free to operate as normal would communicate to the public that there’s no real danger.

This is similar to parents (govt) who punish their kids (citizens) over major and minor things, and sometimes over nothing or the parent’s error, and they have rules for all that stuff – if that is your general policy, then telling your kid “I think eating cyanide is a bad idea” while not making any rule or threatening any punishment would be irresponsible and communicate that eating it isn’t much of a big deal (because everything else that’s a big deal, and a lot more besides, gets rules and threats).

There are lots of things wrong with the govt but trying to change some specific policies in response to a pandemic is bad timing and planning. Public health policy to defend against ~3 million Americans dying of a disease is the wrong govt changes to start with and we should generally do more changing/reforming during calmer more normal times when it’s easier and there are fewer unusual factors making it hard to tell how successful the changes are.

The government coordinating mass action to protect millions from death is one of the last types of government functions we should be looking to get rid of, not one of the first.

It’s fine to give advice about govt pandemic policy and suggest e.g. that beaches should be left open since a lot of the spread happens indoors. The govt can be questioned and argued with and that’s no problem. That’s part of the existing system. It’s a different matter to suggest drastic changes to the powers and style of government and say any government control over the pandemic is illegitimate. Debating the right plan is fine; saying “I don’t really want to have a government except a few special cases, therefore we should get rid of our pandemic response” is unreasonable (terrible transition plan and not trying to engage with actual live political issues) and focusing just on saying that govt pandemic response violates freedom, without even connecting that to a broader abolishing of most govt functions – just special casing pandemic response as something to get rid of – is unreasonable.

The order of reforms matters in general. E.g. we’ll need welfare reforms before having fully open immigration. And we’ll need to stop subsidizing drug use before legalizing all the drugs. Although “legalize drugs; victimless crimes shouldn’t be crimes” sounds nice in various ways, it interacts badly with current policies about tax-funded rehab, needles, medical care for drug users, etc. (Or requiring everyone to buy health plans that cover preexisting conditions and don’t charge extra to drug users – that is a forcible subsidy from regular citizens to drug users.) Although “let anyone come here and work if they can afford a home” sounds nice, it’s a problem with rent control, tons of restrictions on building homes, minimum wage laws and other price controls on labor, tons of rules restricting starting businesses that could hire the new immigrants, as well as all the tax-funded welfare available to people who live here.

If the govt’s pandemic response was like “good luck guys and enjoy the freedom of not being oppressed by your govt” – but everything else about the govt stayed the same – it’d be awful. It’d be kinda like a parent who micromanages most of his kid’s life and then is hands off about one thing.

I’m in favor of tons of govt reform. I want a govt that does way less. But that needs to be done with general principles and broad plans. That ongoing project shouldn’t be especially connected to the pandemic besides using some pandemic response as examples of how badly the govt manages stuff. Minarchists and anarchists shouldn’t just demand total freedom about every individual issue that comes along, out of context, as a local optima. They should look at the bigger picture and figure out some good places to reform and focus on advocating that instead of wanting immediate pro-freedom changes to whatever political issue they’re looking at with no broader plan.

i wonder if reisman opposes the govt controlling its borders to protect citizens from coronavirus

should we have total internal freedom but travel ban china? or just let everyone in from anywhere – too bad for our citizens who are concerned about getting sick?


The proper response would be to avoid contact with people especially susceptible to the disease and for them to avoid contact with whoever might give it to them.

so, avoid contact with old ppl but do have contact with their grand kids, and also the old ppl should avoid contact with their own grand kids? or they should ask their grand kids to heavily social distance and stuff?

what about old people who live in a care home and don't want to die? how should they protect themselves? too bad for not having the foresight to choose a home with great pandemic policies? too bad for not remaining independent in their own home? is it ok for the government to ban elder care workers from working at multiple different homes? should the old people, some of whom have significant mental deterioration at this point, negotiate with their care homes to adopt good policies like firing any workers who won't avoid all other care homes? should they have arranged for family members or hired proxies to be prepared to negotiate such things on their behalf? we don't live in that world where such things are reasonably expected of people. we live in a world where the govt is expected to make some policies. today i think "you can't work IRL at multiple retirement homes during the pandemic" is a good rule that more jurisdictions should have, even though i can imagine a different society where a similar result would be achieved in a more freedom-friendly way.

and re people just quitting and staying home if they want to avoid risk. which most people aren't in a position to do. but anyway, what happens if all the ppl who do food work quit and stay home?

i rely on other ppl working. i want policies that let “essential” workers keep doing their jobs with a lot of added safety. if people working in food, medicine, infrastructure (like water, power cables, and internet cables) etc. were mass quitting, that'd be awful for everyone. but if they are told "you can quit or not quit; freedom! yay!" then a lot will quit and everyone will be fucked. what keeps more of them working is that other parts of society are actually trying to take action in regards to the pandemic, like wearing masks when entering grocery stores, and trying to social distance so they don't get and spread it. and that's partly people being reasonable and partly govt policy.

if you just have all the unreasonable people going around being risky and all the reasonable people staying home, even if they could somehow afford that, then you'd lose a lot of important workers without replacement. partly cuz they have training and skills and stuff (including reasonableness). partly because replacing lots of workers is hard. partly because there are lots of govt restrictions requiring credentials and safety training and stuff to do jobs or start new businesses to pick up slack when some existing businesses are understaffed.

Elliot Temple on October 2, 2020

Messages (11)

Reisman replied to me:


and same text at:


I replied:

> I'm against inflationary "stimulus" packages which I don't regard as health policy. Govt health policy has been inept. But I don't regard having some govt health policy as inherently unreasonable in our (flawed) society. & I doubt ineffective handouts r preventing much starvation

curi at 10:15 PM on October 2, 2020 | #18220 | reply | quote

curi at 10:33 PM on October 2, 2020 | #18221 | reply | quote

#18220 Despite its title, Reisman's post doesn't seem like an answer. Its first sentence more accurately describes what it is:

> I’d like to add an important additional point to the argument against the government’s policy of massive violation of individual freedom to combat the Corona virus.

Andy Dufresne at 1:02 PM on October 3, 2020 | #18222 | reply | quote

Not speaking of Reisman specifically but what I have observed generally (biased to my personal circumstances):

I think the number of people who actually, honestly have the following high level position is very low:

(0) Coronavirus is really dangerous. It's a large threat to life. But the government shouldn't do much about it because freedom.

What I see instead is mostly people with one of two main high level positions:

(1) Coronavirus is really dangerous. It's a large threat to life. So the government should take major actions to stop it from spreading.

(2) Coronavirus is not a large threat to life like people are claiming. So the government shouldn't do much about it, also because freedom.

The people who are stridently against lockdowns, travel restrictions, business closures, group size limits, and mask mandates "cuz freedom" also tend to be ones that given a choice don't stay home, do take unnecessary trips, do go to gyms, do gather in groups, and don't wear masks. I don't think that's a coincidence.

What we have, mainly, is a disagreement about how big a threat Coronavirus is. Freedom is mainly being used as a tool to advance one side's view in that disagreement.

BTW "not a large threat to life" takes a number of distinct forms I've seen:

~1%, or whatever the Coronavirus death rate actually is, isn't a lot. Most of us will live. (Low value on life)

Not knowing what the death rate actually is / what it means. (Willful ignorance)

Believing the reported death rates are extremely inflated for political reasons. (Conspiracy Theories)

Bad thinking about cause of death. Example: https://thenewamerican.com/cdc-fewer-than-10-000-americans-have-died-from-covid-19-alone/

Because it's a virus, the people who die will be determined by God's will just like other natural causes. (Religion)

We can't change the number of people who will die from it very much no matter what we do. We can only delay the inevitable. So it's not a threat, it just is what it is. (Inevitability)

Andy Dufresne at 2:45 PM on October 3, 2020 | #18225 | reply | quote

> Government does a ton to prevent new businesses and products.

Ya. A couple of things I have considered that could be done in the direction of both freedom and pandemic control:

(1) Suspend FDA regulations on vaccines or treatments for the virus, in order to allow trying all sorts of things on anyone voluntarily willing to try them without the usual timelines and quotas. Some of these would end up killing or injuring people. Most would be worthless, even snake-oil. There should be clear warnings to that effect from both the government and providers. Most people would (rightly) be skeptical of trying the new stuff, especially during the early days. But out of all the failures, something useful would likely emerge much quicker than even the current “warp speed” program promises. For some people, like dentists or respiratory therapists, the risk of Corona itself is so high and hard to avoid that trying something new and risky could be worth it. As data accumulated, more people could try it according to their personal situation and risk preferences. There wouldn’t be the question “When will there be a vaccine available?” There would be one available now. But instead the question would be “When do I think the risks of the vaccine are less to me than the risks of Coronavirus itself?” I think that’s much better.

(2) Not only allow but encourage price discovery ("gouging") in medical, sanitization, and personal protective equipment, in order to massively stimulate production of things like N95 masks. We already know very well how to make technology that will give people, individually, pretty effective protection. People just don’t understand economics and are blinded by envy about others making “windfall profits” or having unequal distribution of such equipment compared to their need. As a result, we took the exact opposite strategy (putting price caps, condemning “gougers”, and rationing such supplies to favored recipients). So no one’s really incentivized to solve the problem, we *still* don’t have the right equipment available to most people, and we waste time arguing over whether inferior substitutes (like cloth masks) are better than nothing.

Andy Dufresne at 3:15 PM on October 3, 2020 | #18226 | reply | quote


> BTW "not a large threat to life" takes a number of distinct forms I've seen:

I left out a big one, which is:

We know that Hydroxychloroquine / Vitamin D / Inhaled steroids / etc. works for most people if they get it, so even if it was a threat before it's not now. (Overestimated treatment effectiveness)

Andy Dufresne at 4:02 PM on October 3, 2020 | #18227 | reply | quote

I agree most people who say "freedom not lockdowns" don't think the virus is very dangerous.

I have seen no indication that Reisman (or Horowitz or Coulter) knows much about the virus from a medical pov. By contrast there exist indications that I do know something about these things, like the full text of this page including comments: http://curi.us/2304-the-ccp-coronavirus I actually read a textbook on viruses and a bunch of scholarly articles at the start of the pandemic.

> (1) Suspend FDA regulations on vaccines or treatments for the virus, in order to allow trying all sorts of things on anyone voluntarily willing to try them without the usual timelines and quotas. Some of these would end up killing or injuring people.

It's hard to do that in a situation where ~everyone has health plans that will have to pay for their self-inflicted injuries. Our society isn't set up for people to be able to take on medical risks and pay for the consequences.

Our society also isn't set up for "price gouging" to work well. Besides some laws, the problems there are more subtle and more about social customs, but I think they're significant and would need some solutions instead of just ignoring them.

curi at 2:01 PM on October 5, 2020 | #18234 | reply | quote


> I have seen no indication that Reisman (or Horowitz or Coulter) knows much about the virus from a medical pov.

I agree. But I don't know how much of their thinking that the virus is not very dangerous is medical.

Andy Dufresne at 3:57 PM on October 5, 2020 | #18235 | reply | quote


> It's hard to do that in a situation where ~everyone has health plans that will have to pay for their self-inflicted injuries. Our society isn't set up for people to be able to take on medical risks and pay for the consequences.

That's true. It's also true for free climbing, reckless driving, excessive drinking, etc.

There's already quite a lot of potential moral hazard in the health plan system, including for things that are widely regarded as more fun/desirable than trying an untested vaccine or treatment.

Moral hazard in health plans tends to be somewhat well mitigated by most people pretty strongly not wanting to get hurt. I think having to pay (or not) for treatment if they do get hurt is a relatively minor concern. People that don't care much about getting hurt also tend to not care much about being unable to pay if they do.

I think a bigger problem than payment to worry about is people not understanding how dangerous the untested medical stuff actually is. People know free climbing, reckless driving, etc. are super dangerous mostly because of repeated cultural messages. There's less of that cultural messaging about untested medical stuff, cuz it's mostly just not allowed.

Andy Dufresne at 4:15 PM on October 5, 2020 | #18236 | reply | quote

#18236 The payment issue would get in the news and people would complain that some guy took something ridiculous and now taxpayers or someone is paying for it, and people would say they shouldn't have to pay for other ppl to do it. It's a political problem.

curi at 4:26 PM on October 5, 2020 | #18237 | reply | quote

#18237 I agree what you say would probably happen. My answer would be:

- You currently pay for other people's health care due to stuff like free climbing and getting drunk, and (if you're not a free climber or heavy drinker) get no benefit.

- Letting people try experimental medical stuff is like free climbing and getting drunk, except it benefits you in that it speeds up finding a good vaccine or treatment to the virus.

That might not convince everyone, but I think it's a reasonable argument. I think the main people who wouldn't be convinced are the ones who don't agree that allowing more experimental stuff would speed up finding a good vaccine or treatment.

Andy Dufresne at 4:38 PM on October 5, 2020 | #18238 | reply | quote

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