|Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] civil liberties in the time of wuhan-19
Civil liberties under attack during COVID-19
By David S. Damato, opinion contributor — 04/08/20 01:30 PM EDT
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of
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Civil liberties under attack during COVID-19
Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a
nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the
influence of great fear.” The United States is now in the grip of such a
fear. It is prostrating before authoritarians in government who have
waited for such a moment and now relish in ordering us indoors.
In loudly applauding the authoritarian shutdown orders of American
governments, many seem to be conflating at least a few separate sets of
issues that relate to different areas of expertise.
The first area of expertise is the epidemiology of COVID-19. It entails
questions of the virus’s contagiousness and deadliness. There are
questions on which there are very significant disagreements (with
important policy implications) and, importantly, very poor data.
A second question is whether cost-benefit analyses favor the draconian
measure of coercively shutting down all of civil society, one that is
fundamentally unanswerable. This question is unanswerable because we
cannot know how much the forcible suppression of civil society will cost
and we won't know the benefits.
Lastly, even if we had perfect data about the characteristics of the
disease, and we were able to perfectly calculate the costs and benefits
of government-mandated shutdowns, we would be confronted nonetheless
with the question of who gets to make such a decision. It’s a social
theory question, not a medical one: how does a comparatively tiny group
of people at the top of government acquire the right to make this call
for all other people. How could anyone or any group attain to such a power?
This seems like an important philosophical question, but it is one that
everyone on every side of the debate has apparently ignored. No one
seems to care whether these few people — and they are just people,
important-sounding titles notwithstanding — either have this power
legitimately or can be trusted to wield it.
Politics is plagued by a do-something bias, which drives elected
officials and bureaucrats to act hastily, scrambling to enact some
policy even when faced with a complete lack of evidence about that
policy’s long term effects.
Economist Robert Higgs has presented the theory of a “ratchet effect” to
explain the growth in the power and scope of government during times of
crisis. Higgs shows that crisis situations afford the state the
opportunity to stretch its power into areas of life that were before
beyond its reach.
The lesson from his work is clear. These layers of government power do
not go away when the crisis subsides, but rather remain, becoming the
new normal. The extremely high level of uncertainty over just how many
people have or have had the virus should make governments hesitant to
implement the extreme measures they have implemented by fiat — and
citizens of a supposedly free country hesitant to accept them so
readily. Of course, that’s not what we’ve seen. We’ve seen credulous,
hyper-fearful Americans close their eyes to the available evidence and
power of their ability to think critically. We might have expected to
see large numbers of Americans question such extreme measures.
Georgetown philosopher Jason Brennan offers a succinct summary of the
problem: “[T]he biggest intellectual lesson we can learn from this is
that, when a crisis hits, the powers that be violate everything we know
about data collection, giving us non-random and unrepresentative samples
from which — as we all learned in week two of methods — you cannot draw
good conclusions.” One thing of which we can be absolutely certain is
that the actual number of coronavirus infections is significantly higher
than the number of confirmed cases today. The Oxford Centre for
Evidence-Based Medicine points out that it’s important to distinguish
between one’s dying from coronavirus and one’s dying while he happens to
have coronavirus. These are the kinds of distinctions that politicians,
eager to exploit an apparent crisis, don’t want ordinary people thinking
about and, importantly, the kinds that ordinary people simply don’t have
time to think about.
The case fatality rate (CFR) represents the number of reported deaths
relative to the number of reported cases of the disease; this value is
biased by the fact that in the early stages of an outbreak, the most
severe cases receive testing. As Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser observe,
“this is not the same as the risk of death for an infected person — even
though, unfortunately, journalists often suggest that it is.” Anyone
trying to focus your attention only on the CFR is either ignorant of the
basics or intentionally trying to mislead you.
The infection fatality rate (IFR), on the other hand, is the answer to
the following question: “if someone is infected with COVID-19, how
likely is it that they will die?” The lack of meaningful data on the
total number of coronavirus cases quite simply means that our best and
brightest — regardless of what politicians and cable news pundits tell
you — have no way of calculating the IFR with anything remotely
approximating accuracy. History offers that the lesson that the IFR is
likely to be much, much lower than we think. The CEBM notes, “Mortality
in children seems to be near zero (unlike flu) which is also reassuring
and will act to drive down the IFR significantly.”
None of this is to say that coronavirus is not dangerous, or that people
shouldn’t voluntarily stay home, avoid large groups of people, or wear
masks. Be responsible and take all of these steps to the extent it’s
possible for you. But the actions of governments to date are many orders
of magnitude more dangerous than this virus, and it’s not even a close
Even if it were the case that going outside when sick somehow violates
other people’s rights, this argument leads us to some troubling
questions. For example, What kinds of communicable diseases function to
void one’s right of free movement? How deadly does the disease have to
be? How contagious?
If one is so determined, he will be able to define harm to others
broadly enough that any dangerous activity is outside of the
individual’s legitimate sphere of autonomy. Of course, this is all to
say nothing of the startling class character of these shutdown orders,
which will have a devastating effect on millions of wage-earning
Americans. Members of the educated professional class have jobs that
enable them to work comfortably from home with very little disruption to
their normal routines.
Behind everything the state says or does, just by definition, is
violence — guns, arrests, imprisonments. Americans seem to have been
successfully conditioned to give up their civil liberties in times of
crisis, to accept completely uncritically the word of politicians and
bureaucrats — people who are no less self-interested than anyone else.
But these times of crisis are when we must be vigilant, guarding our
rights and liberties, watchful of overreach.
David S. D’Amato is an attorney, a columnist at the Cato Institute’s
Libertarianism.org, and a policy advisor to the Heartland Institute and
the Future of Freedom Foundation.
civil liberties in the time of wuhan-19
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