Freedom, lockdown, and COVID-19

by Chris Bertram on May 6, 2020

Despite the UK now having the highest death toll from COVID-19 in Europe and the second-highest in the world after the United States, the right-wingers of the Telegraph and the Spectator, abetted by the erstwhile Marxists of Spiked! and similar persist in denouncing lockdown as a tyrannical assault on freedom. It is clear that compulsory social distancing measures do indeed reduce people’s negative liberty by constraining the set of actions they can legally perform. Most people, however, view this as a sensible price to reduce the threat COVID-19 presents to each of us and to others, particularly the most vulneralble, the elderly, health workers, transport workers etc. After all, if you are dead then your freedom is worth nothing.

As students of freedom know, however, there is more than one way of understanding the concept. Libertarians who are extraordinarily sensitive to the least legal limitation on negative freedom are usually completely immune to the idea that structural features of capitalist society are coercive and freedom-limiting. In particular, they either fail to notice or deny that the workplace is coercive. After all, the people who work for the person to whom they are now subordinate freely contracted into that position, didn’t they? I don’t think I need to repeat the familiar points about choices, options, and structural oppression here.

Instead I invite you to consider what will happen if and when lockdown is lifted. Jerry Cohen made the point in his essay “Are Disadvantaged Workers Who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs?” that you can’t force someone to do what they are unfree to do. If workers are unfree to contract for less than the minimum wage or to work in unsafe conditions they bosses can’t (legally) force them to do those things. The same, rather obviously, goes for lockdown. People who are more-or-less confined to their homes can’t easily be forced to work in workplaces that expose them to the threat of COVID-19. (I know that even under lockdown many workers, such as health workers and bus drivers are effectively so forced, and COVID has rather powerfully exposed some of the divides that exist among different groups of workers.)
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