Against Boris’ Dystopian Coronavirus Bill | Charles Amos

In the following days it is vital that believers in liberty assert their case against the Government’s Coronavirus Bill. Contrary to the ongoing debate, saving lives cannot be the ultimate trump card in discussing measures to mitigate the virus. Consequentialism must not go unchallenged; conflicting values cannot simply be dismissed as not allowing the State to do `whatever it takes` in reducing the number of lives lost.

In the following I wish to provide a philosophical foundation against the Government’s intervention. For despite the fact that now is allegedly ‘not the time for ideology’; ideology is unavoidable.

Liberty is a penultimate value, subject only to the requirements of justice. Expediency is no warrant for the infringement of freedom. Our individual rights are absolute or they are nothing. Contrary to J.S.Mill, who regards ‘utility as the ultimate appeal’ and foundation of these rights, these rights are natural and ‘in every man’s heart, never to be obliterated’.

The Government’s most recent interventions to ban public gatherings of more than two and to close pubs and restaurants are an outright violation of these individual rights. No doubt stricter quarantine is soon to come, and this too shall be a grave injustice committed by the State.

Now many readers will be fuming by this point. But people will die, I hear you scream. I fully accept that allowing for freedom will result in more death; this is the price that must be paid for liberty and justice. Minimising coronavirus’ death toll cannot be the ultimate and overriding aim of public policy. Let the following logic force you to this position.

The mortality rate of seasonal flu is around 0.1%, in the UK an average of 17,000 a year die as a result of catching the virus. Yet despite the thousands of lives that are lost each year, every citizen accepts that freedom must prevail over the draconian measures that would be necessary to stop those deaths. Evidently, reducing the death toll of disease is not the overriding value of anyone, indeed it cannot be.

The question can therefore be legitimately asked, at what mortality rate does a virus warrant the measures that we have seen this week? Is it 0.2%, 0.3%, 0.4%…and if so what makes a certain rate special? Why is, say above 0.5%, the magic number that suddenly allows for the abolition of liberty? Where do you drawn the line?

For make no mistake life is not of infinite value, and everyone implicitly accepts that. A number of deranged individuals are currently saying that if the measures announced save just one life they’ll be worth it. This is nonsense, and the fact they weren’t calling for a lockdown last winter during the flu season demonstrates this.

The honest answer to where the line should be drawn is that no such line exists. Life is not of infinite value, the 0.9% mortality rate of coronavirus is no more a warrant to infringe liberty than the 0.1% mortality rate of seasonal flu. There is simply no number between these two figures that when crossed warrants the abolition of freedom to go to the pub. Indeed, I would challenge any reader to give a principled reason for an exact number.

The reader is therefore forced to choose between two alternatives. Either he may assert life is of infinite value and lockdown the country permanently in order to stop the death of the 17,000 people that die of flu each year, in addition to saving the thousands that could die from coronavirus. Or he may assert that liberty must be preserved, accepting the consequences that inevitably follow from allowing increased transmission of coronavirus. Clearly, liberty must prevail.

Nonetheless, risk to individuals can be minimised to varying levels by private institutions and estate holders; this is the virtue of private property. For example, some pubs and restaurants may unconditionally open and offer a high risk experience, while others may offer a lower risk experience by checking temperatures on the door.

However, this must be conditional on the publican displaying signs notifying customers that the pub is a high risk zone for coronavirus. For the pub experience that is now being sold is different to the experience that has been sold before. Just as when Irn Bru changes its ingredients it must inform its customers, so to must the publican inform his customers of a similar change. To act otherwise is to commit fraud. New information is necessary for walking into the pub to count as consenting to the risk.

Individuals’ risking themselves is perfectly legitimate; the acceptance of people smoking is an apt demonstration of this fact, the smoking room even more so.    Besides according to data from Imperial College London those in their twenties face a 0.03% mortality rate and a 1.2% hospitalisation rate from coronavirus. Both figures are below the average respective rates for seasonal flu; obliterating the case for pub closures to these groups.

No doubt, this shall increase the transmission rate of the virus. Nonetheless, this shall only be among those individuals who willingly expose themselves to such risk. And yet again private property and freedom of contract can internalise and potentially minimise this transmission rate, while upholding liberty.

Imagine a single man who goes to a corona pub and attempts to go back into work therefore exposing his colleagues to a higher level of risk. Evidently this increased biological risk the employee now presents was not in his labour contract. The employer therefore faces a choice, he may amend his firm’s labour contracts allowing high risk or infected individuals into work or he may ban such individuals from the workplace or require them to work from home. To a large extent the employer will decide based on the age of his workforce, the profits lost or gained and his own personal circumstances.

If he chooses to allow the high risk individual into work and changes all of his labour contracts, then the employees must accept the higher risk or face being fired: by agreeing to the changed labour contract employees implicitly consent to the higher risk.

Equally well if the employer opts to exclude the high risk individual he is perfectly within his rights to do so. How would this position be enforceable though? Again freedom of contract can solve these issues. The employer may require all purchases made by the individual to be conducted via card with the employer having access to bank statements. Under such a system the employer could monitor his employees’ consumption to ensure he does not go to high risk pubs or restaurants.

A heavy fine for violating a labour contract explicitly ruling out high risk establishments would ensure compliance. Increased transmission rates in the workplace are therefore entirely legitimate. For freedom of contract is now determining the equilibrium of allowable risk.

Supermarkets and shops could also set up similar conditions for entering into their property. An extreme case may be a supermarket store wishing to ban all individuals who have come from high risk institutions. In a perfect world this could be achieved via simply displaying posters in the windows of stores notifying prospective customers of the ban on high risk individuals. This alone would be enough to impose fines on those who disobeyed.

The most probable programme supermarkets would operate is one based on age and hours, whereby if you are over a certain age you may come in before, say, 12pm and if you are below this age you may do so after said time. To a certain extent shops are already doing this. Ultimately, it would be up to the supermarkets to determine the level of risk to which they would be willing to expose their customers Provided the entrance policy is available, consent to higher risk can be assumed.

On a more personal level heads of households may determine what may be done on their property. A 57 year old father would be perfectly within his rights to exclude his 21 year old son from going to pubs, after all the latter is living under his roof. The son’s failure to comply with such conditions could result in a heavy fine or possible court proceedings.

Transport is the last main area that needs covering. Given that most journeys are taken using private cars it is clear we are only really dealing with public transport. Those State-owned networks (e.g. The Underground) may determine their entrance policy as they wish, and so to may private trains. The same logic outlined above applies here to.

The result of all of the preceding would be to allow individuals, and not the State, to determine the level of risk that they are willing to expose themselves to. Transmission rates would probably be higher, but probably among the `right` groups, therefore allowing for the by product of effective herd immunity.

The last questions must concern the NHS. Quite rightly the Prime Minister is attempting to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed. If people are going to be free to expose themselves to high risk so too must hospitals be free to refuse treatment to such individuals. For where is the justice in low risk individuals paying taxes to support what they deem to be the reckless behaviour of high risk individuals.

If people wish to go to pubs there should be a system whereby they are forced to opt out of coronavirus services. To a very large extent this will ensure that only those who are certain of not needing hospital treatment will continue going to them. A 50 year old with a 10% chance of needing hospitalisation will probably not take his chances.

In closing down drinking establishments on Friday Boris Johnson spoke about the ‘ancient inalienable British right to go down the pub’. It is evidently the case that he never believed such a right was ‘inalienable’. It is clear from the preceding week that almost no one is prepared to defend our ancient liberties, very few are even willing to have the discussion.

Our economy is contracting and the State is taking unprecedented steps to seize our freedom. Business and employment is being destroyed, and the Government is only compounding the issue. For those who believe in the true inalienability of our rights and freedoms I ask you to stand tall and defend the principles on which you stand. This shall be our ultimate test, and we must not fail it.


Photo by Number 10 on Flickr.

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