A careful balancing exercise is needed to protect competing rights when fighting Covid-19by Dimitrios Giannoulopoulos / August 7, 2020 / Leave a comment
As fears of a second wave in Europe intensify, and we are confronted, in the UK, with local lockdowns that restrict freedom of movement and association for millions of fellow citizens (such as in Leicester, Manchester and now Preston), it is vital to forensically interrogate the moral, legal and practical foundations of our response to Covid-19. Establishing that this amounts to legitimate, proportionate and effective restrictions of our basic freedoms is indispensable to carrying the wider public along in the fight that we have ahead of us.
The libertarian approach to this issue gravitates around individual choice to freely move and associate with others, focussing on the fact that the risk may be minimal for some groups of people—those of younger age or in better physical condition, for instance. It does not pay sufficient regard to persons with disabilities, those in care homes, our parents and grandparents—in short, those whose lives we would put at risk by exercising our freedom unhindered.
The second step in the flawed logical process of the libertarian is to demonise the “nanny state” for the restrictions it imposes, which is ultimately followed by a demand for a “free market for pandemic decisions,” based on the fiction that the risk of Covid-19 infection and death has been blown out of proportion. Writing for Prospect, Thomas Poole was right to characterise this as “recklessly cavalier.” His comments related to the anti-lockdown, laissez-faire approach that the former Supreme Court justice and public intellectual Jonathan Sumption has passionately propagated since the early days of the pandemic.
The libertarian objection
Sumption’s views encapsulate the anti-lockdown libertarian position that more broadly fills the pages of right-wing broadsheets and blogs. These stipulate that the “balance should come down on the side of allowing the maximum liberty rather than the minimum,” that “the most vulnerable should be shielded” and the less vulnerable given sufficient information “and then left to make decisions for themselves.” Further, the lockdown was “disproportionate and had served its purpose long before it was eased.”
Sumption’s own critique of the lockdown is multi-faceted, blending legal, political and public health analysis. This is a mild epidemic for people with no underlying conditions, he points out. “The…