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Freedom and COVID-19


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06/05/2020David Gordon

The title of my column is misleading, in that I’m not going to comment on what policies should be adopted toward COVID-19. Instead, I want to address some remarks by Leslie Green, a philosopher of law who teaches at Oxford. Green is very influential, and his book The Authority of the State is well worth reading. (Many years ago, I was involved in a controversy with him in the philosophy journal Analysis.) But in a recent blog post, he suggests a way of thinking about freedom that is dangerous.

Green begins by noting that some people regard COVID-19 regulations as restricting their freedom. He thinks that, in one way of looking at freedom, they do. People who don’t like the regulations can’t do what they want, at least if the restrictions are enforced. Even if you accept this notion of freedom, though, it may turn out that the regulations on balance don’t restrict freedom.

Green says:

[W]hen freedom is at stake, it appears on both sides of the equation. Ill health itself limits our freedom to do a wide range of things, and not only for the twenty percent of victims who end up hospitalized or who suffer irreversible lung or kidney damage. Weeks of poor health is a real restriction on anyone. Those who refuse precautions or who insist on large indoor gatherings impose on others the risk of a freedom-limiting illness. The others can avoid that risk only at the sacrifice of their own freedoms, for example, by staying home to avoid the negligent and the reckless. In a pandemic, our freedoms are interlinked.

In other words, Green is saying that if you get sick, that lowers your ability to do things and also lessens your vitality. Further, if you want to avoid risks of this kind brought about by those who ignore the restrictions, you may decide to stay at home. This also restricts your freedom.

What is wrong with looking at freedom this way is that it takes freedom to be the ability to do what you want. This is a far different definition of freedom from that used by Murray Rothbard. On his account, only the use or threat of force against your person or property limits your freedom. If, for example, I threaten to hit you over the head with a baseball bat if you leave your house, that limits your freedom. If you would like to buy a house but don’t have enough money to do so and I don’t give you the money you need, that doesn’t limit your freedom.

If I don’t give you the money you need, it does violate your freedom in Green’s way of thinking, because you don’t have the ability to buy a house now given your lack of funds. You might object that I haven’t in fact limited your ability—you can still try to get the money from others. That is true, but I’ve still restricted your ability by making it harder for you to do what you want.

As we’ve seen, there are cases of limiting freedom in Green’s sense that aren’t cases of limiting freedom in Rothbard’s sense. There are also examples that go the other way—where you are restricting freedom in Rothbard’s sense but not in Green’s. To return to my earlier example, suppose I threaten to hit you over the head with a baseball bat if you leave your house. You don’t want to leave your house and would have stayed indoors even if I hadn’t threatened you. I have still limited your freedom by threatening you.

I have at most shown so far that Green and Rothbard mean different things by freedom, but I haven’t justified my claim that Green’s concept is dangerous. It is dangerous, because any restrictions on freedom, taken in Rothbard’s sense, can be justified by an exponent of Greenian freedom. Suppose, e.g., that a law forbids people to express political opinions that upset people who are members of groups that the state favors. The people whom the law threatens with force have their freedom restricted, in Green’s sense, so long as they want to express these opinions, but this may be offset by the ability of those in the favored groups to live lives free from upset by hearing such opinions. Or suppose that the state requires everyone making more than a specified income to work long hours subject to high rates of taxation in order to help the poor. Once more, Green would acknowledge that the freedom of the people taxed has been restricted, so long as they don’t want to give the money that the state confiscates to the poor but would prefer to use it in other ways. But this has to be balanced by the "freedom" the poor get in having more money to use as they want.

Things get worse. So far, Green’s sense of freedom allows many restrictions of freedom, understood in Rothbard’s way. It transpires that there are other senses of freedom according to which denials of Rothbardian freedom don’t even count as restrictions of freedom at all. As I’ve said, this isn’t the case using Greenian freedom as we’ve so far explained it, because Rothbardian freedom here is just outweighed, not canceled altogether.

The passage that discusses these other senses of freedom is this:

Some people hate restrictions just because they hate anyone making them do things they don’t want to do. (Teenagers, and some libertarians, tend to fall into this class.) For others, unfreedom is of concern only if it also limits their autonomy, the power to shape their lives to fit their needs and character, as JS Mill put it. Being forced to wear a mask while shopping may outrage the first group, but not the second because (save in special cases) wearing a mask does not limit any further activities. A third group have still narrower concerns. They only chafe under unfreedoms they judge to be imposed arbitrarily or unreasonably, in which cases they think they are being "dominated."

It’s clear from his slighting "teenagers, and some libertarians" that he rejects the first sense of freedom.

The second sense allows the state to ban activities that don’t restrict "autonomy," the power to shape your life to fit your needs and character. Who is to say what fits your needs and character? The state may say that people who hold the "wrong" political or religious views aren’t acting autonomously, because they don’t arrive at their opinions by critical thinking but absorb them through living in a closed community. Proponents of autonomy have sometimes defended incursions against the Amish and other tight-knit religious groups. And what sort of justification is it to require wearing masks because doing so "does not limit any further activities"? What if, after, careful critical thought, you decide that wearing a mask does limit your freedom to shape your life?

If anything, Green’s last sense of freedom is even worse. It allows restrictions that do interfere with your autonomy, taken the way Green wants to use this concept, so long as the person restricted thinks that the state’s restrictions of autonomy aren’t arbitrary. If someone said, for example, "The state’s heavy taxes interfere with my life plans, but I can see the state has a reason to impose these taxes," he would be acknowledging that his freedom hasn’t been restricted.

These senses of freedom are indeed a road to serfdom.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.