Is there a right answer in the debate to quarantine or reopen the economy?
The Coronavirus quarantine has been in place for over a month in the US now to varying degrees. While some places reopen, others are extending their quarantines.
Understandably, people are upset and tired of the quarantine. Is it necessary for public safety, or is it an overstep of government limiting freedoms?
Protests sprung up across the U.S. against government lockdowns
There have been demonstrations in almost every state demanding the economy be opened up again.
First, let’s get something out of the way: the majority of these protests and protestors are ridiculous. There are those who are standing closely together and not wearing masks, in complete denial that there is a pandemic right now. There are those who show their vanity and selfishness by demanding to get haircuts and go golfing. There are weird far-right nuts bring their guns to protest their second amendment rights, which has nothing to do with the current situation. Then there are the worst of the worst people who harass nurses who are on the frontline saving lives.
All those people aside, there are legitimate reasons for opening up the economy. People need jobs to feed their families. A society can only survive so long on essential workers and government aid. At some point, the costs of quarantine – unemployment, poverty, hunger, homelessness, delayed health risks – will outweigh its benefits.
What’s the right answer, and who decides? First, we have to step back and look at the core of this debate – freedom and safety.
Freedom and safety are at odds with each other, but also need each other
Freedom is being able to think, say, and do what you want – to live your life as you please. Safety is being protected from harm – to live your life without fear of danger.
Though people may uphold freedom as an ultimate virtue, it’s limited in a society. You can’t have absolute freedom because it takes away from the safety and the freedom of others. If anyone could do whatever they wanted, and they chose to hurt and kill, that restricts someone else’s freedom to live as they please.
But you also can’t have absolute safety. That would require monitoring and limiting the actions of everyone, submitting to a protective but also authoritative body. Restricting actions limits freedom, but it also limits safety because you become vulnerable to whoever you trust for protection.
Absolute freedom and absolute safety don’t exist in the real world. They rely on each other. Freedom needs safety to be free, and safety needs freedom to be safe.
Within the structure of a society, an ideal government holds the authority and responsibility of balancing the two – giving as much freedom and as much safety as possible to as many people as possible.
The misquoted Benjamin Franklin
Every time there’s a debate over freedom and safety, a quote by Benjamin Franklin is always used and taken wildly out of context. You may recognize it:
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
The argument is typically made in favor of freedom or liberty, saying that giving up freedom for safety would be a loss of both. The Washington Post has a great explanation of what this quote really means, but I’ll try to sum it up briefly here.
This was part of a letter regarding taxation and military protection. In the arrangement that this letter address, Benjamin Franklin did not feel it was fair and so was opposed to it. He felt the freedom they would give up was too great, and in return, the safety they would get was too little.
He later went on to sign the Constitution, in which states ultimately ceded some of their freedom to the federal government in return for safety.
The key words from that quote are not “liberty” and “safety,” but rather “essential” and “temporary.” You would not give up something “essential,” whether it’s liberty or safety or something else, for something that’s temporary. That’s a bad trade. You have to ensure that whatever you give up is worth what you get in return.
So it’s not really about whether freedom or safety are more important, but how much each is given up in exchange for the other. Let’s take this into a practical scenario.
There’s a balance, and we have to admit we have acceptable limitations to both
We love to drive, and we love the freedom of driving. But there are limits to that freedom – limits that we all generally accept. There are limits to where you can drive, what direction you can drive, how fast you can drive, when you can drive, what you can drive, and a complex set of rules governing how you drive. All these traffic laws are designed to maximize safety while driving, but significantly hamper the freedom of driving. Yet we accept them because for all of us to have the relative freedom to drive, that freedom needs to be limited for everyone.
Though we value safety as evidenced by the abundance of traffic laws to provide it, there’s a limit to how much we are willing to give up for it. Traffic laws help reduce deaths from collisions, and yet there’s an acceptable number of automobile deaths that we can live with. It sounds jarring, but it’s true. In 2019, there were 38,800 deaths from auto collisions in the U.S. We can significantly reduce those deaths by cutting the speed limit in half. We could reduce that to a small fraction if we only permitted essential travel, or designated drivers (public transportation, taxis, and ride services). We can eliminate auto deaths completely by simply banning cars.
But we won’t do any of those. It would be too much of a cost on our economy, productivity, employment, convenience, and leisure. Lives are not worth that much to us. So to maintain the level of freedom we have from driving cars, we are ok with 35,000-40,000 people unnecessarily and prematurely dying every year.
Let’s bring this a little closer to home. Each year, 30,000-60,000 people die from the seasonal flu in the U.S. Every year, we could quarantine during flu season, but we don’t.
The balance of freedom and safety applies to every aspect of our society. It’s a hard reality to admit for either side. Those who value freedom more tend to ignore that they support limitations on freedom in numerous ways. Those that value safety more ignore that there is an acceptable level of danger and death they are willing to tolerate for convenience.
Absolutes from either side are unhelpful, the issue is more complex
The primary and usually passionate argument from both sides is in favor of absolute (or at least very extreme) freedom or safety.
Those in favor of lifting the lockdown often claim that government is being oppressive, limiting freedoms, and creating a communist state (I’m ignoring the more ridiculous claims of the pandemic being a hoax). Yet they often advocate for government to restrict and enforce regulations in other areas of life for other people. They only oppose government when it is in conflict with their personal freedom.
Those who favor staying in quarantine often place an over idealistic emphasis on saving lives. Claims that you can’t put a price on life or that the economy is not worth losing lives sounds great as a virtue to aspire to, but simply isn’t the reality of how we live as a society. The amount of money we spend or don’t spend, as individuals and as a society, reflects how much we value human life. Though we would never quantify it if asked, there is a very real price tag on how much saving a life is worth. This is an eye-opening article on how different organizations and companies place a dollar amount on the cost of a human life.
The real arguments
There are valid arguments on both sides for an extended quarantine or a lift of the lockdown.
An extended quarantine doesn’t mean we’ll save every life, but we will save more lives. Though I pointed out earlier that we tolerate a certain amount of death, we still need to sacrifice as much as we can to preserve life. We have the examples of terrifying death rates from other countries. Our own death toll continues to grow without slowing down. This virus is still too unknown for us to know if people can even build any sort of immunity. While the number of people that have died from Coronavirus is comparable to the seasonal flu, it is far from over. Rising death tolls indicate there will be a lot more deaths in the coming weeks, far surpassing the flu. Quarantine is needed to slow the death rate down.
On the other hand, people need to work to survive. This isn’t about the economy, it’s about jobs and livelihoods. While there is already a high unemployment rate, it will only climb higher as quarantine is extended because small businesses will shut down and companies will no longer be able to pay their employees. Most people will make it through a few weeks of unemployment, but not a few months. It’ll result in higher rates of poverty, hunger, and homelessness – not only in the short-term but especially in the long-term if families can’t recover from their losses. This is in addition to the other negative effects of extended quarantine including increases in suicides, domestic violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, and homelessness.
The real conversation that both sides should be participating in is the duration of quarantine, the phases of reopening, the low-risk industries that can reopen sooner, the precautions that need to be in place, and the markers of success or regression. It’s a much more complex and nuanced conversation than “freedom over fear” or “stay home save lives.”
Better questions to ask
The question of whether freedom or safety is more important isn’t a good question to ask. It’s overly simplistic and doesn’t take into account that both are needed, and that the balance of the two really depend on the situation, which with Conoravirus, is changing daily.
A better question is, “What personal freedoms can I sacrifice to ensure the safety of others?” Or, “What personal safety can I give up so others are free to work and provide?”
Ultimately, it’s a personal moral question of “What can I do to help?”
It’s easy to protest opening the economy when you don’t have anyone close to you who has compromised immunity or still working in high contact jobs. How can you help someone who is self quarantining because they really are at risk if they go out?
It’s easy to tell everyone to stay home when you have the ability to work from home and still get paid. How can you help those without a job?
There are a lot of people doing good during this time, from frontline and essential workers to those who are volunteering to help their neighbors and community with basic needs. They do it in silence and out of sight because it’s the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s the angry and aggressive who tend to be the loudest and capture our attentions.
What will you do?
We’re in an era where we’ve confused fighting on the comments section of the internet as “social action.” We’ve confused putting up some witty phrase on a sign and holding it on the street as “social action.” They are not. It’s just a self-absorbed effort to prove a point or pick a fight.
If you really care about your position, this is real social action. Contact your local political leaders and representatives to voice your opinions and provide helpful suggestions. Reach out to local community organizations to see how you can help. Donate money to organizations that are helping people through this crisis. Give money to people who don’t have a job. Check in on people to see how they’re doing physically, emotionally, and financially.
We get so absorbed in proving a point that we forget the vast majority who are struggling and just trying to make it through this. Stop fighting with your neighbor and start fighting for your neighbor.
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