“The Useful Libertarian Idiocy of the Great Barrington Declaration”

Will Wilkinson is the most talented, insightful, and (incidentally) successful writer of the cohort of libertarians to which I once half-belonged back in the 1990s, when I was (sporadically) associated with David Kelley’s Institute for Objectivist Studies and the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University. His apostasizing critiques of libertarianism are among the best of their kind. He’s been derided as a mere “centrist,” but that often seems, in libertarian circles, a convenient way of attacking someone whose political views accommodate the actual constraints that arise in political life.

His criticisms in this piece of the so-called Great Barrington Declaration strike me as spot on. And the acid tone he takes is perfectly appropriate to the subject matter. Libertarians will undoubtedly attack him, and try their best to drag some red herrings across the ground, but once the dust clears, I think they’ll be left with a sober reckoning—one they should have made last March, but have yet to make. 

I started a conversation on Will’s piece on my Facebook page, but thought I’d put it here to encourage wider participation (including, perhaps, Will’s). The piece was actually published in late October; I just happened to encounter it a few days ago.

The Great Barrington Declaration itself.

46 thoughts on ““The Useful Libertarian Idiocy of the Great Barrington Declaration”

    • As usual, I wouldn’t go quite that far. The basic libertarian principle is that rights violations are unjust, and force can be used to stop them. The libertarian interpretation of a rights violation is an unconsenting imposition of a boundary-crossing harm. And it doesn’t matter whether the imposition is knowing or not, intentional or not. As long as it crosses someone’s boundary without their consent and harms them, you have a rights violation. If a tree from my property falls on your house, that’s a rights violation whether I wanted the tree to fall or not, knew it was going to fall or not, did anything to make it fall or not. The sheer falling and creating damage is what makes it a rights violation. On libertarian principles, I owe you monetary damages once it falls, but arguably the same principles entail that I have to stop the tree from falling if it’s in imminent danger of doing so. If I refuse, I can be forced to do so.

      Certainly, the spread of a harmful disease fits that description. When you spread a disease (intentionally or not, knowingly or not), you are harming other people without their consent, literally crossing the boundaries of their immune systems with particulate matter that was not just yours, but a physical part of you. If my virus goes into your nose, then at a bare minimum, something I own has invaded something you own. From a libertarian perspective, that is a problem.

      So I would say that it’s consistent with libertarian principles for libertarians to admit that the unconsenting imposition of a serious disease, like COVID 19, is a (libertarian) rights violation. Because it is, force can be used to stop its spread. Whether you’re an anarchist or you accept the legitimacy of the state, the state has a monopoly on the use of force in our society. So a realistic libertarian would have admitted that the state can regulate the spread of disease.

      Most libertarians didn’t say this, and some went out of their way to deride this interpretation of libertarian principles. But I think that proves that there is something wrong with such libertarians as people, or with the movement as a movement, not necessarily with the principles they claim to espouse.

      The one specifically ideological weakness in libertarianism is its handling of risk. Libertarians have no worked-out theory for conceptualizing or dealing with risk. But then, neither does anyone else. So the mystery remains: why did so many libertarians decide they had to minimize the dangers of COVID 19, and worse yet, support insanities like the Barrington Declaration?

      Incidentally, here is the Ayn Rand Institute’s white paper on the pandemic. I haven’t yet had a chance to study it carefully, so I can’t comment on the substance. Just pasting it for reference:



    • Libertarians should certainly say something like this: if I’m sick, with covid or anything else, at a certain point I impose enough risk of harm on you (or perhaps am doing something that constitutes a “boundary crossing” somewhat independently of harm caused) such that (a) I violate your rights and (b) you (or perhaps the state) are permitted to force me not to perform the disease-spreading action. Standard libertarian dogma is less clear about when collective action or its results cause such harm or constitute such boundary-crossing (and what enforcement actions, against whom, are permitted). On the one hand, if X and Y breathe enough germs on Z such that Z’s boundaries are crossed or he is sufficiently harmed for a rights violation, this seems analogous to just X or just Y spreading the same number and kind of germs to Z. However, I think that, typically, the libertarian position regarding the unintended results of collective action involving lots of people is that this is never analogous to an individual-on-individual rights violation. If this is right, then the consistent libertarian does not have a clear shot to supporting mask mandates. I think libertarians are right here in that the coercive social control of people to produce collective results to minimize harms (or reflect a reasonable and preferred level of risk) is not something rendered permissible due to “systems” or “collectives” violating the rights of individuals. What is needed here, I think, are principles of social (systemic, institutional) justice broadly considered that license coercive social enforcement of norms. It is much easier to make the case that libertarians tend to fall down here rather than in not being consistent in their deontology of rights violations, permission to enforce respect for rights, etc. (Will similarly misses the point when he complains that libertarians are not being consistent in promoting freedom. But an all-about-liberty-rights libertarian like you describe should not care so much about promoting or maximizing freedom.)

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      • I agree with part of what you’re saying, but disagree sharply with some. So let me take this piece by piece.

        I agree with just about all of this:

        Libertarians should certainly say something like this: if I’m sick, with covid or anything else, at a certain point I impose enough risk of harm on you (or perhaps am doing something that constitutes a “boundary crossing” somewhat independently of harm caused) such that (a) I violate your rights and (b) you (or perhaps the state) are permitted to force me not to perform the disease-spreading action.

        My only reservation here is treating boundary-crossings and harms caused as independent, but that’s a tangled issue, so let’s put it aside. But it may end up being relevant, so we may have to re-introduce it later. Anyway, I agree with the preceding.

        I balk at this, however:

        Standard libertarian dogma is less clear about when collective action or its results cause such harm or constitute such boundary-crossing (and what enforcement actions, against whom, are permitted). On the one hand, if X and Y breathe enough germs on Z such that Z’s boundaries are crossed or he is sufficiently harmed for a rights violation, this seems analogous to just X or just Y spreading the same number and kind of germs to Z.

        I agree with the truth of the first sentence, but dispute its relevance here. Yes, standard libertarian dogma is unclear about when collective action causes harm or becomes a boundary-crossing. But I don’t think that’s an issue here. You say “on the one hand,” and describe a clear enough situation. But what is the “other hand”? I don’t think there is one. The harms of disease transmission for COVID are not additive in the way required for a collective action problem. It seems to me that either you are part of the chain of transmission or you’re not. Given that, any harms can be causally connected to individual actors and individual acts.

        I would go further and say that in the context of a pandemic, acts that would normally seem “innocent” from a rights-respecting perspective acquire new descriptions and become changed. “Eating indoors” by itself doesn’t seem rights-violative. But it might well be rights-violative within the context of this pandemic. A huge amount of libertarian polemic proceeds as though we could ignore this (to me, obvious) fact. You’ll see libertarians saying things like, “I’m just hanging out with my friends! I’m just going to work and putting food on the table! I’m just throwing back a few cold ones in a private party in my house!” The problem is: in none of these cases is the agent “just” doing that. He’s doing those things and spreading the virus. To say things like the preceding is like saying, “I’m just driving down the road!” when your blood alcohol concentration is 0.10%.

        I have a feeling you’re treating COVID transmission as though analogous to pollution. When I drive my car, I emit some pollution, but the amount is trivial. The pollution problem arises additively from millions of cars emitting a trivial amount of pollution that adds up to a harmful amount. But I don’t think that analogy works in the case of COVID. If I am COVID positive, and fail to take measures to avoid spreading the virus, I am spreading the virus. Even if the harm is very far downstream, I am causally responsible for transmitting the virus. For instance if I spread it to Anne who spreads it to Bob who spreads it to Cathy who spreads it to David who spreads it to Eileen, who dies, I am part of the causal chain leading to Eileen’s death (something Will astutely mentions in his article). I have violated Eileen’s rights. That’s not comparable to my starting my car and emitting some trivial amount of pollution. The causal chain leading to her death is not a matter of adding trivial harms but of passing on something harmful.

        So I reject this:

        However, I think that, typically, the libertarian position regarding the unintended results of collective action involving lots of people is that this is never analogous to an individual-on-individual rights violation.

        Maybe that’s true of “collective action problems,” but I don’t think COVID is a collective action problem in the relevant sense. Ontologically, anyone who transmits the virus is a rights violator. Epistemically, it may be hard to identify who these rights violators are. But regardless of the latter complication, the situation is different from that in CO2 emissions, where ontologically, each driver is not a rights violator, but collectively, they’re doing something that violates rights.

        As a footnote, I am inclined to say that the “collective action” framework may not even apply to pollution. It could be that there is some threshold above which even individual drivers are engaging in rights violations, so that the so-called collective action aspect of the pollution problem can be reduced to individual rights violations. I agree that libertarians haven’t done a good job of discussing this, but conceptually, what I’ve just described is a coherent, viable possibility. A person who drives without a working emissions control mechanisms on her car may be violating the rights of others (for a start).

        So I don’t think this conclusion follows from libertarian premises.

        If this is right, then the consistent libertarian does not have a clear shot to supporting mask mandates.

        But whether or not it follows from strictly libertarian premises, given what libertarians claim to value, they should regard that as a problem to tweak within their framework, not a reason for rejecting mask mandates. In other words, libertarians may not have a clear shot to supporting mask mandates, but mask mandates don’t obviously violate libertarian principles, either. There is a plausible libertarian-esque case to be made for them. Whether this case will be acceptable to the strictest libertarian is another matter. It might still be distinctively libertarian and internally consistent.

        To revert to my favorite analogy, drunk driving: I assume that libertarians want to ban drunk driving on the roads, regardless of who owns the roads and who enforces traffic rules. Let’s assume that when the Libertarian Utopia comes, they agree that a BAC of 0.08% is impermissible. (I would argue that we might reasonably set the level even lower, but let’s just leave it where it is.) If this is right, libertarians need a non-drunk-driving mandate. In principle, if the technology could be made to work with nearly100% efficacy, libertarians should have no problem accepting steering wheel locks keyed to BAC tests. In other words, if your BAC is above 0.08%, your steering wheel locks, and the car won’t drive. (From a technological standpoint, this is a bit science fictiony, but you get the point.)

        Is driving above 0.08% rights violative? I would say “yes.” Someone might say, “But how can it be? Whose rights are you violating? Suppose that you have a 0.08 BAC, you get in the car, and you drive entirely without incident. Indeed, no one happened to be on the road at that hour. Where is the rights violation? Whose rights were violated?”

        If we lived in a Lockean State of Nature with no protective associations whatsoever, then maybe driving drunk under that description would not involve rights violations. But my view is that we get a legitimate state through Lockean consent, and driving above 0.08% violates the agreement we make to a Lockean government. (I have never been convinced by anarchist arguments against a limited, consent-based Lockean state.) The agreement would have to specify that certain risks violate rights but for epistemic reasons present enforcement difficulties, so that in those cases, we set an arbitrary-looking threshold, and agree to abide by it. Hence, the driver who drives at 0.10% BAC is violating the rights of every party to the agreement even if no one is on the road when he drives drunk.

        If someone says, “Well, we don’t live in a Lockean state,” I’d say we live in enough of an approximation to one for the argument to go through. When someone drives drunk, they’re violating the rights of all the people who, given the opportunity, would consent to be governed by a Lockean state. Since implicit consent is what explains why people follow the law in the first place, it’s not a leap to infer that they would consent if given the chance. They just haven’t been given the chance.

        I think mask mandates are analogous to laws against DUI. And if “strict” libertarians can’t solve this problem, then libertarianism is a theoretical failure. But I think it’s clear that a view in the neighborhood of strict libertarianism, a Lockean-type liberty-oriented view (like mine!), should be able to solve it. “All” it requires is relaxing (or throwing out) some of the more dogmatic deontological baggage that libertarians have taken on board. It also requires taking risk more seriously than most libertarians have.*

        So I end up agreeing with the letter but perhaps not the spirit of this:

        I think libertarians are right here in that the coercive social control of people to produce collective results to minimize harms (or reflect a reasonable and preferred level of risk) is not something rendered permissible due to “systems” or “collectives” violating the rights of individuals. What is needed here, I think, are principles of social (systemic, institutional) justice broadly considered that license coercive social enforcement of norms. It is much easier to make the case that libertarians tend to fall down here rather than in not being consistent in their deontology of rights violations, permission to enforce respect for rights, etc. (Will similarly misses the point when he complains that libertarians are not being consistent in promoting freedom. But an all-about-liberty-rights libertarian like you describe should not care so much about promoting or maximizing freedom.)

        I agree that libertarianism falls down rather than being insufficiently consistent. But I also think it’s true that libertarians aren’t willing to take seriously the extent to which even the most dogmatically deontic version of “NAP” does entail that disease spread is a rights violation. So I’m not as apt to be critical of Will as you are. What explains the fact that people like Jason Brennan once took the line that COVID spread was a rights violation, but have now turned 180 degrees to support the Great Barrington Declaration? That really is incoherence, just as Will suggests. But you’re not wrong to make the further claim that deontic libertarianisms can’t resolve basic problems in applied ethics or politics. I just don’t think that really undermines the crux of what Will is saying.

        *That said, I have a manuscript of a Nozick-influenced paper by Lester Hunt and Kevin Hill that does take risk seriously as applied to COVID. I haven’t given the paper a sustained reading, but they seem to take the Nozick-inspired view that harm-preventive restrictions can be justified in a libertarian state if compensated. That is a part of Nozick’s view that people (libertarian or otherwise) love to forget about, but he spends a good 50-100 pages defending it, and its adoption does seem broadly consistent with what Democratic politicians are proposing right now: restrictions plus a generous stimulus package. Re-conceive “stimulus” as “compensation,” and you’re in Nozickian territory.

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        • A commenter on one of my earlier posts, Eli Horowitz, drew my attention to this piece by Jason Brennan, written very early in the pandemic. I hadn’t seen it before.


          How is this conclusion of Early Brennan’s compatible with the Great Barrington Declaration?

          You can see where this is going. Think of yourself as having one of these invisible, undetectable, unremovable poison bombs on your person right now. Think of yourself as having somewhere between a 20-75% chance of your bomb exploding over the next few months, with the chances becoming much higher if you are exposed to another exploding bomb. Think of your bomb as triggering others’ bombs. Act accordingly.

          Thanks, Jason. You’re the bomb.

          Early Brennan thinks that we should think of ourselves as walking bombs. Meanwhile, the Great Barrington Declaration says:

          Those who are not vulnerable should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal. Simple hygiene measures, such as hand washing and staying home when sick should be practiced by everyone to reduce the herd immunity threshold. Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home. Restaurants and other businesses should open. Arts, music, sport and other cultural activities should resume. People who are more at risk may participate if they wish, while society as a whole enjoys the protection conferred upon the vulnerable by those who have built up herd immunity.

          Herd immunity for walking bombs. Who knew? My God, what fucking bullshit. I won’t hunt down where Brennan has spoken favorably of the Great Barrington Declaration, but he has.

          This is just a descent into all-out incoherence. The incoherence is partly theoretical and partly sociological. What I mean is that it’s partly owing to theoretical weaknesses in libertarianism, and partly owing to who it is that is “running” the libertarian movement (treated with respect, regarded as prominent). I’m not a libertarian, so I don’t dispute that part of the problem here is theoretical. But I think a bigger part is sociological. Libertarians have given respect and prominence to people who simply don’t deserve it, and these people have driven libertarianism into the ground. Not that I really want to salvage it from the ground.

          But as a purely intellectual matter, I think we ought to assign blame where it really belongs. The problem here is less libertarianism but libertarians. A different cohort of libertarians might have solved, or come closer to solving, this problem. But that isn’t the cohort that runs the show. That’s why I have made such noise about who runs the show. It’s not that I really give that much of a shit about the prospects of libertarianism per se, or the reputation of Jason Brennan et al, per se. But as an intellectual matter, libertarianism will never achieve full theoretical realization in the hands of opportunistic, careerist assholes like Jason Brennan. We will never know its full implications as a system of thought if it remains in the hands of people who have a new principle for every situation.

          Whether you’re a libertarian or not, that is a loss for philosophy and politics, which is what the Great Barrington Declaration represents. It represents the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of a totally unscrupulous cohort of libertarians with outsize prominence and influence. Will is completely right to lament that. Things didn’t have to go this way. But they did.

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        • I agree with much of what you say in these responses to my comment. However — though I appreciate the consistency (and to some extend plausibility) of your effort to frame large-social-scale, apparently-muddy-lines-of-causation cases in a rights-violation framework — I’m still apt to think of the larger-scale bad results of both drunk driving and covid spread in terms of collective action, reasonable-enough consensus and enforcement (coercive or otherwise). Shrink the scale small enough (and make the causation clear enough) and I can and do shift to thinking that the most salient framing is that of rights violation (not of doing my fair share in a valuable, or at least reasonable-enough, collective endeavor that we have achieved some kind of majority consensus about; or, on the receiving end, of being someone, or part of some group, that has been treated unfairly –and perhaps in this seriously harmed or killed — by dominant unjust norms and institutions). I’m thinking of rights-violations (or what I owe others more broadly) when I’ve had some drink and need to get home. Though my intuitions here are pretty strong, at best I have at hand only the first steps of a principled defense of my stance (roughly, I’d start with our answering the question ‘how do we want society to be?’ not ‘how are we permitted to treat each other and under what conditions does violating such a norm permit collective enforcement, punishment, etc.?’ in the relevant larger-scale cases). However — what the correct answer is aside — drawing this kind of line should be of interest to libertarians because it forces them to speak to and clarify what a rights violation *is* (notoriously, libertarians rely on intuitions and vague analogies that, however intuitive, do not amount to a deep, principled defense of the scope and nature of rights violations)… Regarding Brennan, from what you say (below, different response), he seems to be appealing to two different considerations, one of libertarian rights (earlier) and another of what is the best strategy to effectively save lives at large scale, perhaps balancing this out against out other concerns associated with kiddos not being in school, etc. (of late). In a way, that is fair enough. But he — and other libertarians with a strong liberty-rights-based element to their political philosophy — owe us an account of how these two sorts of considerations relate to one another. Your framing/proposal is one libertarian-esque — in a certain sense, hyper-libertarian — way to do that. To do so is to answer the hard challenges and not-well-worked-out parts of your theory (as against adopting a hodge-podge of positions vaguely associated with your core principles and your unexamined or under-examined intuitions/premises). At least qua libertarian ideologist it seems that Brennan could do better on this count. And that is the essential problem with the right-libertarian embrace of the Great Barrington Declaration. Even if the GBD folks (who are not libertarians, not to my knowledge) turn out to be right, based on public data and some pretty-obvious considerations against it, their proposal is dodgy enough that embracing it with open arms is irresponsible.

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          • I’m not a libertarian, so while I am trying to explore the resources that a libertarian has for dealing with problems of this sort, my own concern is really ontological, not normative. I favor a reduction of what you’re calling “large-social-scale” problems to individual actions and interactions, because however epistemically difficult to unravel, at least the ontology is clear. On my view, agents act and interact, and some of the events they produce cross the normative boundaries of other agents, resulting in harm. How we cash out the relationship between boundary-crossings and harm is difficult, as is the setting of the boundaries. But the causal story is clear enough, just difficult to unravel, ex post facto, for epistemic reasons that apply to all historical events.

            I guess I don’t understand the alternative ontological picture you’re presenting. In cases of pollution, you have individual agents producing collective harm by individually innocuous actions (combined with individually non-innocuous ones, of course). But in the case of drunk driving, your proposal is ontologically unclear to me. On my view, the harm or potential harm produced by drunk driving is harm/potential harm produced by the drinking and driving of individual agents. We don’t need to explain the harm by adducing a sum of innocuous actions. For any driver who’s had done some drinking and is now driving, if the driver’s “driverly” capacities are impaired, and they’re on the road, there is potential harm, whether to self or others or both. (The same is true if they’re careless, or reckless, or texting, or sleep deprived, or on prescription meds, or speeding, etc.) But it’s not as though the harm was an emergent property irreducible to such individual malfeasances (or errors). And though I suppose some of the harms we encounter on the road are explainable on the pollution model–innocuous actions adding up to produce collective danger–that seems irrelevant to drunk driving and the enforcement of laws against DUI. I think it’s also, by parity of reasoning, irrelevant to COVID.

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            • I think your view on these matters is more worked-out than mine. You seem to accept certain premises of ontological and methodological individualism that many libertarians accept, but take them even more seriously than many libertarians and use them to go in direction that is very different in many ways (certainly different from most ideological right-libertarians). I’m working largely at the intuitive level, with only a couple of gestures toward systematically justifying my hunches, drawing things together, precisifying, etc. What you say makes sense, but it seems there are still the distinct issues of: (i) who, precisely, caused this harm (maybe or maybe not is there a good, clear answer here, a clear ontology in the causal chain leading to the harm) and (ii) how likely the occurrence of harms like this are in the general social and existential conditions that we have created together (and, more importantly, what level of likelihood of the harm happening is acceptable and, within the range of what is acceptable, what level of risk, if any, have we come to some sort of social consensus on). Perhaps one important factor in deciding between the salience of these distinct moral perspectives or framings concerns epistemology (and practicality) more than ontology: if it is not realistic to trace out all of the causal chains and assign responsibility to specific parties, this would seem to speak in favor of treating the likelihood of occurrence and potential control of the target harm-type as a matter of collective control over general social and existential conditions. There are certainly other, equally important, factors that are not on my radar screen yet. I agree that we *could* treat drunk-driving and covid spread as you suggest even at large scale (I think you have identified a necessary ontological condition for doing so, the distinct-enough causal chains), but it remains an open question, for me anyway, whether we *should*.

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              • We’re not that far apart on this.

                I’m not so much accepting ontological or methodological individualism as accepting them ex hypothesi, and seeing how far one can go with them. I’m not committed to an in-principle reduction of all social phenomena to an thoroughly individualist ontology (not that it’s even clear what that means). But I think the basic ontological picture becomes clear when we narrow the focus to individual agents and their actions and interactions.

                I also agree that your issues (i) and (ii) are distinct. There may well be difficult questions about causation of harm, but I guess my view is that the difficult questions are relatively beside the point. There are plenty of clear cases, and the clear cases are pretty explanatory of the overall harms.

                Every now and then, I go online and read all kinds of sophisticated or pseudo-sophisticated commentary out there, fixated on the details or this or that study purporting to confirm or disconfirm the efficacy of mask wearing, or “lockdowns,” etc. But there is simply no bypassing the following fact: setting aside the original zoonotic transmission to humans, SARS CoV 2 transmits from humans to humans by airborne droplet transmissions. Where you have transmission of SARS CoV 2 (and by implication COVID), for the most part you have infected people of whatever description infecting other people by respiratory means. That mode of transmission isn’t literally exhaustive, but it’s where the epidemiological action is. The transmission rate of the disease is not as high as other diseases, like measles, but it’s high enough so that a small number of people can do a fair bit of the transmitting (worth remembering that in New Jersey at least, R reached 5.0 early on in the pandemic). It doesn’t matter, then, whether you have a compliance rate of 50%, 60%, or 80% with distancing protocols or masking. Infection rates. as well as rates of morbidity, mortality, and hospitalization, are being driven mostly by the remaining non-compliant (100% minus the compliant) and (as a far second) by the unfortunate compliant.

                On my view, all transmitters, compliant or not, are rights violators, but the non-compliant are morally culpable violators, and some of them are guilty of enormous harm and injustice. We don’t necessarily have to pick out individuals to make this inference. It’s an obvious inferences from bedrock facts about the epidemiology of SARS COV 2.

                The problem with the Great Barrington Declaration, and many of the people associated with it, is that this is the fact they want to obscure–the most obvious, normatively fundamental fact about the pandemic as such. Go out and read the bright lights at AIER–Phil Magness, Jeff Tucker, etc.–and consider how much effort they’re expending to deny the irrefutably obvious. Trawl all you want through back issues of Nature or JAMA or NEJM or whatever, and pick out all of the methodological flaws in every study until the cows come home. Will you ever, at the end of your libertarian quest, be able to refute what I’ve just said in the preceding paragraphs? No, you won’t.

                That hasn’t stopped these AIER libertarians from going into polemical overdrive–“lockdowns destroy economies,” “mask wearing doesn’t work,” “excess mortality due to lockdown-induced suicide is skyrocketing,” “let’s shoot for herd immunity,” etc. etc. ad nauseam, all while ignoring the undeniable facts that virus transmission is a rights violation, it takes place through failures of distancing, and there are failures of distancing, some culpable, and some innocent. Forget all of the deep complications here and just ask: what are we to make of people who claim to be defenders of rights but hold views like this? My answer is that they don’t care about rights at all, and never did. The victims of this pandemic–the excess mortality, excess morbidity, and uncompensated labor of those working to stem the virus’s tide–seem to mean nothing to these people.

                That, to me, is the real bedrock of the issue. The rest is a matter of detail, and has to come after acceptance and articulation of the obvious.

                I agree that even if the ontology is clear, the epistemology, law, and logistics are difficult–both in dealing with garden variety problems like drunk driving, as well as extraordinary ones like the pandemic. For now, I can’t do better than to apply the drunk driving paradigm to the pandemic.

                Ontologically, alcohol demonstrably impairs one’s capacity to drive, and ontologically, a huge number of traffic accidents are caused by alcohol-impaired driving, hence by alcohol-impaired drivers. I think it can be demonstrated that a BAC of about 0.04% does the trick, but a BAC of 0.08% certainly does the trick. Granted, some people can have a BAC that high and not be impaired, and some people can be impaired and not impose risk or harm on anyone. Since we want to pre-empt harms, we have a set of precautionary norms, and write them into law. Ideally, we would all consent to these norms in a full fledged way before we got on the road. Unfortunately, we don’t, but we approximate consent by something like Lockean tacit consent, and that strikes me as enough to justify the core of the laws against DUI. Maybe, on Nozickian grounds, people should be compensated for being stopped for DUI when they aren’t impaired. But that’s just an add-on to a basically reasonable view.

                Some similar reasoning seems to apply to the pandemic. We transmit this virus by airborne droplet transmission. If we want to stop the spread, we have to stop transmission. Opting for herd immunity before we have a good grasp of the efficacy of the vaccine, is stupid, callous, and irresponsible–which is how I would characterize the Great Barrington Declaration, all of its authors, and all of its signatories. I was literally one of the first people in the country to have gotten the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, and even I haven’t gotten the crucial second dose (yet). I’m supposed to get the second dose next week, but I’m not certain of when or even if it will happen. In this context, there’s no way to be certain that the vaccine will function just as advertised. There could be complications along the way. But complications for the vaccine are ipso facto complications for herd immunity. If we can’t predict all of the former, we certainly can’t predict what the latter will bring.

                Once the vaccine was approved (which happened well after the release of the Great Barrington Declaration), there were reasons for confidence that it would work, but not the kind of certainty you would need to embark on a “herd immunity” strategy. When I got the first dose of the vaccine, the vaccinators were very clear (and justifiably so) that we were to maintain the same precautions after receiving it as before we’d received it–masks and distancing. I wear two masks, a KN 95 and a fluid resistant surgical mask, every day, 8-10 hours a day, five to seven days a week. That’s not going to change after next week, even after I get dose #2. The Great Barrington Declaration implies that I should have thrown caution to the winds three months ago, months before I got dose #1. We know enough to call an approach of that sort psychopathic.

                I simply do not see what is wrong with “lockdowns” of the kind we’ve had in New Jersey (they’re not really “lockdowns,” but let’s use the term for lack of another one) and mask mandates. The Great Barrington Declaration doesn’t explain what’s wrong with them. As Will correctly argues, slogans aside, the Declaration offers no alternative strategy for handling the pandemic, either. Its authors have no causal explanation for what it is that drove down the virus’s reproductive rates in the cases where it went down. Their claim is that the lockdown didn’t do it. So what did do it? If the claim is that voluntary adherence to distancing protocols did it, then what did it is incompatible with a herd immunity strategy. And if the claim is that distancing protocols are what do it, what is wrong with using force to ensure compliance with them, on the assumption that those who don’t voluntarily distance are violating rights?

                Again, go out and read the voluminous polemics they’ve written, and see if you can find an intelligible, defensible answer to that last question. I doubt you will. You’ll find derision, fallacies, sophistry, and wishful thinking in abundance, but no actual answers. The same people shooting down epidemiological studies defending “lockdowns” or mask mandates are advocating herd immunity in the full knowledge that there is currently no evidence anywhere on this planet indicating that herd immunity will work to contain COVID19, much less a herd immunity strategy applied prior to and independently of the use of a fully efficacious vaccine.

                So while there are complicated issues here, the issues raised by the Great Barrington Declaration are pretty clear–clear enough to garner the rejection of both Tyler Cowen and Will Wilkinson. The Great Barrington Declaration is garbage, through and through. I don’t blame the town of Great Barrington for taking offense at AIER’s using its name for the name of their Declaration. I wouldn’t want my name associated with it, either.

                Liked by 1 person

                • I think we are largely on the same page on the higher-level, theoretical stuff. But maybe not so much on, say, not wearing a mask (in some specified public context) being a rights-violation. Even at the smaller and more-specific scale. For both of the following propositions seem true (and sort of obvious) to me, but I think you deny them: (1) If I don’t have the virus, I do not violate anyone’s rights by going into Walmart, tearing off my mask and singing God Save the Queen (Sex Pistols) over and over again and (2) In the same situation, from the perspective of belief and evidence (and responsibility and blame), if I’m quite sure I don’t have the virus, I’m not blameworthy in doing this (not in respect of being culpably oblivious of the rights of others not to be exposed to deadly contagion, anyway). Maybe I have missed something in your position and argument. Maybe you would actually agree (at least if the cases were filled in properly) but focus on non-mask-wearing being part of some collective action or agential process that reliably leads to covid-related harms (or is part of some collective-action-style contagion-related boundary-crossing)? I would be wrong and blameworthy in [1] and [2], but, roughly, my view is that this would be due to my not doing my not-very-costly fair share in our tackling an issue of mass life-or-death (and failing to obey laws enforcing this). I agree that there is a lot of right-libertarian wishful-thinking that, if put into practice, would much more likely lead to more sickness and death, not less. But the main thing staring such folks in the face (and being downplayed or denied) is not rights-violations-via-respiratory-droplet, but their libertarian-rights-friendly proposals being pretty likely to lead to more suffering and death than what we are doing now. That is pretty standard fare for out-of-power ideologists (and crude deontologists) who don’t have to actually engage with relevant parts of the social and political world. On my take, then, there is no need to suppose that the right-libertarian ideologists don’t really care about libertarian-style rights (and hence are… I dunno, truly, extremely awful people, corporate shills, etc.?).

                  Liked by 1 person

    • How is it wrong? You can take every anecdotal situation used and flip it around. This is a deceptive approach by writers to give credit where no proof is found. I love the part where the writer says, ‘You can’t seal off a person (With comorbidity) but the solution to them seems to be to seal off everybody (the collective). How are the rights of anybody being served by this? The person with the health problem is being abuses by the system just as much as the unhealthy people within society. Basically we are saying there’s a bad apple in the bunch so everybody goes into time out. Nobody has been given an advantage. All our advantages have been taken from us.


      • The person spreading the disease is the one initiating force against others, not the one who gets it from the person catching it. Once you see that, the rest of Wilkinson’s article makes perfect sense. People vulnerable to disease aren’t “bad apples,” and the people spreading the disease don’t have the right to infect them.


        • Your response to me saying sick people are being abused by the system is that they aren’t bad apples. I know but they are being used, as usual, for political power. The “perceived” transgression from the person spreading isn’t a “fist to face” scenario.

          You can punish a boat owner for creating a wake but you can’t punish a fish for the same act. They aren’t the same. One is an act to profit and the other is an act to exist. If you regulate the fish to swim slower, it’ll likely get eaten by a bigger fish


          • I had said:

            The person spreading the disease is the one initiating force against others, not the one who gets it from the person catching [spreading] it

            I meant “spreading,” not “catching.”

            Your response is:

            The “perceived” transgression from the person spreading isn’t a “fist to face” scenario.

            That doesn’t respond to what I said. I’m not talking about a merely “perceived transgression.” I’m saying that spreading a disease is an actual rights violation. I don’t know what you mean by a “fist to face” scenario, but if you mean punching someone in the face, that’s neither necessary nor sufficient for a rights violation. It’s not sufficient because a punch in a boxing match is consenting, hence not a rights violation, and it’s not necessary because there are rights violations that don’t involve punches to the face, and don’t involve anything that looks anything like that. Threats, trespass, pollution, shoplifting, breaches of contract, fraud, and embezzlement are all rights violations. None of them are or involve “fist to face” scenarios, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Spreading a disease belongs on the same list. Every one of these actions involves a non-consenting crossing of a moral boundary that identifies someone’s prior entitlements, and deprives them of the use and enjoyment of those entitlements.

            Trespass is a rights violation even if you own a 100 acre farm and someone crosses your property boundary at 3 am at the far edge of the farm without destroying anything. It’s a rights violation with very little harm. But if I breathe SARS COV 2 on someone, and kill them, I’ve not only violated their rights but harmed them. I work in a hospital, and see people dying of COVID-19 in the ICU and the COVID ward every day. There’s no “fist to face” scenario, but it’s not a pretty sight. It looks a lot worse than shoplifting or trespass.

            Likewise in lesser cases of harm short of death. This shouldn’t be such a difficult idea to grasp, but apparently it is.


            • I’ll cut this short. You’re blaming a person for the actions of a SEPARATE living creature. COVID is the rights violator and a living acting rights violator. It’s a STOWEAWAY. It has illegally entered our bodies without warrant or acceptance so the actions of said criminal usurp the actions of the victims. This is essentially blaming the child for the actions of the father so to speak. Nobody willingly transports the disease. The disease forces us to do it. So the perpetrator is the disease (A living creature) not the victims (the carriers).

              It’s like a bear is chasing two people and you’re saying the faster runner is responsible for the slower runner getting eaten. Everybody is attempting to run from COVID, like the bear.

              And I get the concept but it’s rather sophomoric an asinine


              • I wish I could cut this short, but you’ve gotten so much wrong in so short a space that it’s hard to unravel every mistake with brevity.

                First of all, it’s not clear that viruses are “separate living things” at all. It’s a disputed issue in biology, and I tend to agree with those who argue against.


                If viruses aren’t separate living things, then SARS COV 2 is not a separate living thing, and your argument fails at the outset.

                Second, my claims don’t depend on “blame.” Rights violations aren’t always blameworthy. If I lose control of my car, and hit you, I’ve violated your rights, but may not be blameworthy at all. If a tree on my property falls on your house, that violates your rights, but need not be blameworthy. So “blame” is beside the point. Some rights violations involve blame, some don’t.

                Third: my tree example suggests the pointlessness of your claims about “separate organisms.” A tree on my property is obviously a separate organism from me, but if it falls on your house, I’ve violated your rights and am still liable for the damage. A dog is a separate organism from me, but if I’m jogging down the road, and someone’s dog comes out and attacks me (which has happened to me), my rights have been violated, and the dog’s owners are liable. This principle doesn’t change when the organism enters one’s body. If I have chlamydia (a separate organism), and give it to you, I’ve violated your rights. Same with typhoid, etc. So Typhoid Mary was a rights violator. Your view absurdly implies not only that she didn’t violate anyone’s rights, but that she did nothing wrong in killing people.


                I don’t see what the separateness of the organism has to do with anything. If I stand in the right relationship to a separate organism, I can justifiably be held responsible for what it does–all the more so if the thing in question isn’t a separate organism in the first place.

                It ought to be obvious that you can violate someone’s rights by using a non-living object that is not a part of you. If I knife someone, it isn’t an objection that the knife isn’t me (or a part of me), so that knifing someone is not a rights violation. So what difference does it make if, instead of slashing you with a knife, I breathe an injurious micro-organism into you? The micro-organism might do more damage than the knife. And as I’ve said, it doesn’t matter whether I wield the knife deliberately or cut you with it accidentally; both are rights violations. (Obviously, the first is morally worse than the second, but the point is, both are rights violations.) Same with the micro-organism.

                You criticize me for invoking the concept of “blame,” when blame is not essential to my argument. Meanwhile, you are literally holding a virus morally responsible for criminal activity. But arguably, viruses are not even separate living organisms, much less moral agents, so your claim makes little sense. Having made the claim, I’m curious now what you think follows from it. If the virus is the criminal, what do we do about it? Arrest it, and put it on trial? What about the people spreading it? Should we just let them spread it at will so that millions more people die of COVID-19?

                Fourth: I can’t help noticing that you’ve completely ignored all of my non-fist-to-face examples of rights violations. Is that because you agree that they are rights violations, or because you think they’re not?


  1. That struck me as rather confused, which is not to say that he’s at all wrong in condemning AIER’s response. It just seems to be knocking down particularly bad versions of libertarianism. I’ve seen numerous posts from libertarians condemning AIER’s hot take.

    Other comments regarding the value of civil infrastructure sounded like responses to “defund the police” as the idea that everyone should live in fortified bunkers, armed to the teeth.

    Holy false dichotomies, Batman!

    Here’s one example of that kind of switcheroo:

    But if you concede that, you’re a mere half-step away from comprehending “structural” or “systemic” oppression. You might find yourself struggling to deny that the state’s authority can solve otherwise unsolvable collective action problems, supply otherwise unsuppliable public goods, and insure us against otherwise uninsurable risks.

    And then near the end, after pointing out that the prudent responses to the threat were largely spontaneous bottom-up phenomena, and the screw-ups were largely federal-level top-down caused, the conclusion is, what would we ever do without top-down control?

    That’s certainly food for thought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d have to re-read Will’s piece to respond to your criticism that he’s engaging in false dichotomies. I half-agree with your criticism that he’s overstating his criticisms of “libertarianism” as such, rather making a legitimate criticism of a prominent strain of libertarianism. That’s sort of the point I was making to John Holt above: libertarian principles do not, by themselves, entail AIER’s position. If anything, AIER’s position is arguably incompatible with those principles. And whatever its flaws, the Ayn Rand Institute, which claims to adopt the same principles, has a very different position on how to handle the pandemic.

      I haven’t done a systematic reading of the various libertarian outlets’ positions on the pandemic. I guess I would just say that I think Will’s critique doesn’t just apply to AIER, full stop; it applies to AIER and to a prominent strain of libertarian thinking that ranges well beyond AIER, and is pretty recurrent and common. Exactly how far the critique ranges, or how recurrent and common the AIER position is, is a tough call that requires systematic study of a sort that neither of us have done.

      But I guess I would say two things. One is that a major disincentive to doing a systematic study of libertarian positions on the pandemic is that libertarians have made no distinctive contribution to discourse about the pandemic. There is no special reason to read libertarians on the pandemic, except to know what libertarians are saying about the pandemic. In other words, you’re not going to learn very much about the pandemic by reading libertarians-on-the-pandemic. (I don’t agree that the most important responses to the pandemic were bottom-up. I think the executive orders issued by the Democratic governors were top-down, and basically justified. The vaccine distribution effort is arguably a top-down phenomenon as well. The top-down/bottom-up issue is a mixed bag.)

      The other is, we might take the welfare reform debates of the mid 1990s as a useful template here. Suppose we ask where “libertarians” stood on welfare reform. There were, to be sure, libertarians opposed to it. But there is plausibility to the idea that mainstream libertarians were generally in favor of it. Objectivists were whole-hog in favor. Cato was in favor. Reason was generally in favor. Libertarian-leaning Republican politicians were in favor. Many of the lesser libertarian outlets were in favor. And even those who weren’t fully in favor were willing to rush to the defense of this or that aspect of the reform package. Perhaps my memory is faulty, but wherever I seemed to go in libertarian circles in the mid 1990s, there were invitations out to Charles Murray, Richard Epstein, Marvin Olasky, Lawrence Mead, and the like, showering praise on the reform package. I can’t think of any libertarians who achieved prominence in the movement by saying, “Now, wait a minute….” If that had happened, Roderick Long would have ascended the throne of libertarian prominence by the turn of the century–but he didn’t Bleeding Heart Libertarianism became a thing well after the welfare reform debate subsided.

      Given this, I don’t think it’s an over-generalization to say that libertarians supported the welfare reform package. Yes, there were dissenters. Yes, there were people who retrospectively voiced regret or skepticism or opposition or whatever. But the movement’s center of gravity was pro-welfare-reform-package. (So, for that matter, was centrist center of gravity. That’s why the 1996 legislation passed in the first place.)

      I think something similar can be said of the pandemic. On the whole, libertarians have taken the position that the “lockdowns” were worse than COVID 19, and that the main priority was the ease the lockdowns, not stop the spread of the virus. The Great Barrington Declaration is just one of the more extreme articulations of that general sentiment. But the sentiment is pretty widespread among libertarians.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I re-read Will’s piece last night, and I guess I don’t see the false dichotomies that you see. I think we’d have to discuss specific pairs of passages to get clear on the issue. I don’t think Will is actually asserting, as a general proposition, that “the prudent responses to the threat were largely spontaneous bottom-up phenomena, and the screw-ups were largely federal-level top-down caused.” I certainly don’t think that.

      In general, I think that the top-down response by Democratic state governments (like New York and New Jersey) was basically on target. Whereas the bottom-up response of people refusing to distance, refusing to wear masks, and congregating at parties, or in restaurants, or insisting on engaging in virus-spreading frivolities as the hospital admissions rate increased, was a massive screw-up.

      The top-down response of the federal government is another matter, but complicated by the fact that Trump was in control of it. His being president confounded the efforts of people like Fauci, Birx, and others who had sensible ideas on policy.


  2. I generally prefer Cowen’s “libertarian adjacent” commentary (on this and other things) to Will’s. I know that rhetoric and moral suasion is important, but Will often reads to me like he has converted from one religion to another (or a smattering of others) — with active hostility toward his old faith…

    One good general lesson here, though not the only one, is simply that things that seem like good ideas or super-powerful points — whether backed by full ideological fervor or not — often would not survive even the first, most obvious steps of implementation (cf. various iterations of communism and socialism, many aspects of the “new green deal” proposal).

    On the substance: with vaccines in hand, it now seems possible to effectively protect the vulnerable. So the most powerful point against the herd immunity strategy might well be out the window. So maybe we should sprint to herd immunity (and maybe save some lives and return more to normal several months sooner)? I don’t think this would be wise, for some good reasons that Will cites (mainly, people will still be super-cautious, making the sprint more of a slog, thereby probably eliminating any possible benefits of such an attempted “sprint”). However, I think this is a debate worth having.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A more charitable way of putting Will’s rhetoric is to say that he sounds like someone justifiably angry at the vapidity and moral bankruptcy of the contemporary libertarian movement, a judgment I fully share. If anything, he’s more justified in taking that tone than I am. I was on the outskirts of the outskirts of the movement, but by the mid 1990s, when welfare reform was the big thing, disgust started to color every interaction I had with libertarians and Objectivists, and I started to adopt the tone that I now habitually use. By contrast, Will was an insider’s insider. He fought every internal fight there was to fight, at least within the mainstream libertarian movement. So his sense of disgust is better earned than mine. It’s the disgust of someone who has seen the things that evoke disgust first hand. I don’t understand why anyone in that situation should be obliged to conceal what he actually thinks and feels.

      The problem I have with Tyler Cowen is that his writing strikes me as a gigantic exercise in concealment. Half the time, I have no idea what he’s trying to say, where he’s coming from, or he where he wants to go. After a few paragraphs, I tune out. What is the game here? To show the liberals how smart you are? To show them that you have one foot in their camp and one foot in a different camp, and that you can triangulate in all these clever ways that end up leaving everyone confused–but presumably still reading Tyler to decipher what the hell he’s saying? Thanks but no thanks.

      His “debate” with me on nursing homes was a case in point. Where does Tyler Cowen stand on the Murphy-Cuomo policy on nursing homes circa March-April 2020? Only God knows, and even God would be confused. My hypothesis is that Tyler himself has no idea what he’s trying to say, partly because he had no idea what he was talking about. But he’s suffered no dip in popularity as a result. When you’re Tyler Cowen, you can afford to write nonsense and get away with it. Who’s going to call you out? Some angry apostate libertarian?

      The Great Barrington Declaration does not say a word about conditioning herd immunity on mass vaccination. It simply pretends that herd immunity is the answer, vaccine or no. That is psychopathy in print. There is no other way of describing it. The vaccine was approved by emergency authorization on an accelerated schedule, and has been administered only to a very select group of people, mostly front-line health care workers. No one has any certainty that the vaccine will work as advertised. What if it fails? The authors and signatories of the Declaration are fully committed to herd immunity anyway. I honestly can’t believe that a proposition that fucking crazy is being taken seriously by anyone. The irresponsibility of advocating herd immunity well before the vaccine had gotten emergency authorization should be obvious to anyone. No signatory to the Declaration could possibly have predicted when the vaccine would have been approved, whether on an emergency or normal basis. None can predict what the effects of vaccination will be. And so far, mass vaccination is only in its planning stages. Yet they advocate herd immunity, come what may.

      Obviously, I think the Great Barrington Declaration should be debated, but the debate cannot start by ruling out the Declaration is a piece of bad faith insanity written by blind, dogmatic ideologues willing to misrepresent the facts and engage in hand waving at the cost of millions of lives. That’s a conclusion, not a premise, but it’s a possibility that has to be taken seriously rather than dismissed at the outset as too cruelly stated to be true.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a few questions & some general comnents. What’s the link to your Murphy-Cuomo policy debate with Tyler Cowen? Assuming this is related, have you read Cuomo’s recent memoir in which he discusses how right-wing media misrepresented his nursing home policy?

        I’m in agreement with what your sentiment about libertarians, namely, that I’ve learned nothing helpful about the pandemic from them. However, I did notice some deep thinkers putting pandemic in scare quotes; even after 200,000 people had died. One Objectivist-type attached a laughing emoji to experts I quoted (in May) who predicted the fall would be quite bad for the pandemic.

        In fact, more often than not, I’ve varied between disappointed & appalled. The fake experts & appeals to fringe science surprised me. For instance, what are they now saying about their hypothesized 20% Herd Immunity Threshold? What happened to the Swedish model–a darling among the right & libertarians because it resisted lockdowns & mask mandates–since August?

        Have they admitted that their alternative-science views (I really don’t know what to call it) were mistaken & that the actual scientists knew what they were talking about?

        What I did learn from many libertarians & Objectivists is that they wanted to do as little as possible to slow the spread of the virus. Indeed, they argued people ought to do the opposite.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ve been delighted by the success Will has made for himself. I see his pieces in NYT. His compositions strike me as having highest concern for artfulness and informativeness, and not so much with having a defining overall political position.

    I knew Will in the ’90’s a bit, and we were friends on FB. I had been a libertarian and was in great agreement with the Libertarian Party platform in the ’70’s. I don’t agree with a good deal of that now: abolition of NSA, CIA, FBI, FDA, Federal Reserve, Income Tax (without a replacement), Social Security, Medicare, and EPA. What commonly passes for libertarian today, provided there is no left-right leaning to it, is pretty domesticated (and better for that) and still sensibly called a libertarianism, just as what passes for democratic socialism today is pretty domesticated (and better for that). (Where is national ownership of all land, the banks, the utilities, the railways and airlines, in the concerns of the so-called socialists in office today?)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I basically agree with all of that–all good points.

      I agree that “what passes for” both libertarianism and democratic socialism is domesticated or toned down, but I also think that both libertarians and democratic socialists are, whether they admit it or not, committed to the logical implications of their view. Libertarians are committed to a fully free market based on private property, and democratic socialists are committed to a planned economy, regulated by a democratic state, in which productive property has been appropriated by government. So it’s always fair to hold them to that, whether they feel responsible for those implications or not.


  4. Responding to Michael’s January 2 @ 3:29 pm post down here.

    I do insist that not wearing a mask is a rights violation. I don’t agree with your framing of the issue, and indeed, went to Wal-Mart last night to do some Heavy Duty Empirical Research on the topic (I had to go anyway).


    (1) If I don’t have the virus, I do not violate anyone’s rights by going into Walmart, tearing off my mask and singing God Save the Queen (Sex Pistols) over and over again and (2) In the same situation, from the perspective of belief and evidence (and responsibility and blame), if I’m quite sure I don’t have the virus, I’m not blameworthy in doing this (not in respect of being culpably oblivious of the rights of others not to be exposed to deadly contagion, anyway).

    Claim (2) strikes me as wrong-headed twice over: false, and irrelevant even if true.

    False: Even if you could somehow be sure you didn’t have the virus at t1, hence couldn’t pass it on, you couldn’t be sure you couldn’t get the virus at t2 through not wearing a mask. Once you got it, you could pass it on. So you could well walk into Wal-Mart at t1, not have the virus at t1, sing the Sex Pistols, and instead of giving the virus at t2, get it at t2–only to give it someone else at t3 (further downstream, not necessarily at Wal Mart). Once you slice the times finely enough, the conditional in claim (2) becomes false. You can certainly be blameworthy for not wearing a mask even if you don’t have the virus when you don’t wear it. The mask protects in both directions, not just one.

    Irrelevant even if true: But even if the conditional had been true, its truth is irrelevant to our discussion. The conditional is true even if the antecedent is false. But the antecedent is false, and is likely to be false for the foreseeable future. You cannot, in our present state of knowledge and testing, know with full certainty that you don’t have the virus. Since you can’t know whether or not you have it, then if other people are entitled to the security that you don’t have it, I’d say you’re violating their rights by not shielding them from it.

    Rights violations as I see it are not limited to the case where the virus particles cross the physical boundary of the person and, say, go into their nasal passages. They’re also violated when you, the bearer of the particles or uncertainty about them, bring that threat in the vicinity of others. It’s analogous to driving outside of your lane on the highway. You don’t have to hit another car or have a physical collision with them to be violating their boundaries. Likewise assault: if I verbally put you in a condition of fear through a credible threat of physical harm, I have crossed your boundaries in the relevant sense. I don’t actually have to hit you. I think of refusing to wear a mask as analogous. The rights-violative boundary crossing consists in the imposition of risk involved.

    To focus on (1) a bit: Imagine that Wal-Mart passed its own institutional rule on masks, demanding that everyone wear them inside their store (just as they might make Wal-Mart a smoke-free store, even in the parking lot). In that case, if you don’t wear a mask, you are violating the rights of Wal Mart as well as anyone inside the Wal Mart where you’re shopping. It’s no different from smoking where the signs tell you not to smoke, or not replacing your cart in the cart-holder when the sign makes that a condition of taking a cart in the first place. (So yes, I think that refusing to replace your cart in the cart holder is a rights violation. Most directly, it violates the rights of the guy who has to collect the carts from the parking lot. It imposes on him or her an obligation to labor beyond what he’s/she’s obliged to do. Libertarians like to talk about how taxation is “forced labor,” but so is refusing to replace your cart in the cart holder, which hasn’t gotten nearly as much press.)

    In the real world, Wal Mart’s rules are often invoked in such a way as to imply that it’s the government rather than Wal-Mart itself that has mandated the rule. I think the situation here is just ambiguous, and has to do with the way in which corporate PR works.

    Take mask mandates. Strictly speaking, they come down via executive orders by, say, the governor of a state. But in the absence of such governmental mandates (and in the absence of the threat of retaliation from the government for imposing a private mandate), Wal-Mart might very well impose its own private mandate. We don’t know whether it would or wouldn’t, because the government has pre-empted them in doing so. But Wal-Mart imposes many other mandates; read the signage in front of any Wal-Mart store (as I did last night) to see that. They have a strong incentive to impose various mandates, whether for reasons of public health, or PR, or both.

    It’s convenient for Wal-Mart to accept governmental mandates, treat them as quasi-external impositions, and then in effect say, “Hey, you’ve got to wear a mask in our store–not because we’re saying so, but because that’s the law.” That way of putting things conceals the fact that Wal-Mart’s management itself may well be thinking, “Thank God for that legal mask mandate, because if the governor didn’t mandate it, we’d be on our own in mandating it, which would put the burden of enforcement squarely on us, and perhaps invite legal scrutiny we don’t want. Indeed, some yahoo governors might even sic their Attorneys General on us for having a mandate at all. But we’re saved the trouble by having a law in place.” Indeed, the state governors may self-consciously have been thinking of creating such a dynamic when they passed the laws. They weren’t literally imposing them on an unwilling Wal-Mart; they were, in cooperation with Wal-Mart, giving institutional backing to a rule that Wal-Mart itself wanted.

    This makes the complaint of the guy who walks in singing the Sex Pistols very problematic. He’s walking into Wal-Mart flouting their institutional rule. If it was nothing but their rule, he’d obviously be violating rights by his behavior. But I would say that if it’s an institutional rule backed by law, then it still seems he’s violating rights for just about the same reason. He’s violating what would be an institutional rule except for being pre-empted by government order.

    But suppose there’s no institutional rule at all. Suppose Wal-Mart didn’t want a mask mandate at all. I’d say there’s still a rights violation by analogy with rights of way in traffic law. When I go into Wal Mart, I have the right to be free of the pathogens of others. I also have a right to the security of knowing that I am not exposed to them. If, during a pandemic, you come into Wal Mart singing the Sex Pistols, you’re violating my rights. It’s not different from coming into Wal Mart swiniging a key chain in a circle with a 3 foot radius, forcing everyone to avoid you for fear of being hit; or walking into Wal Mart announcing a desire to kill people while brandishing a firearm. In the first case, it doesn’t matter whether you hit anyone with your keys or not. In the second case, it doesn’t matter that the gun was a fake or unloaded. Doing either thing violates rights. Not wearing a mask is in the same normative ballpark.

    With any luck, I will now download the photos I took last night at Wal Mart because they furnish conclusive proof of all of my claims, and also so that I didn’t take them in vain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I doubt that the covid-free Walmart Singer imposes enough risk of spreading the disease to anyone (say, through touching a surface with the virus and then bumping into someone and touching their face with one’s virus-contaminated hand) to violate the rights of folks in the store. This is a question of objective level of risk imposed and I’m happy with the intuitive claim that the level of risk imposed is just too low. Similarly, for issues of blameworthiness (in this respect) if I’m really sure that I don’t have the disease (irrespective of whether I have it). However, I find it pretty plausible that others have the right to not have me do things that a reasonable person would perceive as imposing undue risk (of catching the disease) on them. That would be a different kind of rights violation (that would, in the right contexts, piggyback on more objective, and in some sense probably primary, risk-imposition-related rights). If this is right, then it also seems pretty plausible that the Walmart Singer would be violating broadly undue-risk-imposition-related rights of folks in the store (as would my pointing an unloaded gun at you). This is an interesting angle that I had not considered. And it seems quite important. I took some of your points as speaking to this issue, whether or not that was your intent.


      • If the COVID-free Walmart singer gets COVID from someone in the store, he can pass it to people not in the store. He then becomes a rights violator, and Walmart becomes the conduit for his rights violation. I don’t think it matters that the singer’s transmission of COVID doesn’t take place in the store. What matters is that his action makes it take place wherever it does.

        The law has a legitimate interest in preventing the whole situation in just the way that it has a legitimate interest in having people stop at stop signs or yield at yield signs. What your example needs is a COVID-free Walmart singer singing the Sex Pistols in a COVID-free Walmart. In that case, of course, the risks are basically zero. But if one person in Walmart has COVID, then singing the Sex Pistols in that Walmart without a mask is objectively risky (“singing without a mask” is doing more work than singing per se, but they’re both doing some work)..

        But you’re right that I’m focusing on a different angle than usual. I think we have a right to be free of a threat-free environment (for threats defined a certain way), where the presence of the threat is understood epistemically: you face a threat if the evidence indicates the presence of one, even if the evidence is defeasible, and even in the case where good evidence indicates a non-existent threat. This is why it is entirely reasonable for police officers to stop people on reasonable suspicion and arrest them on probable cause, even if the suspicion turns out to be unfounded and the probable cause turns out to be false. You don’t have a right to immunity from being stopped if you are actually triggering reasonable suspicion–even if the act triggering the suspicion is (turns out to be) innocent. Put differently, there is no right against being preventively detained for a suspicion-inducing act simply because, objectively speaking, your act is innocent. Maybe you have a right to compensation for the preventive detention, but you have no right against reasonable preventive detentions, full stop.

        If I’m driving, and a cop regards me (in good faith) as committing a traffic infraction, I don’t think there is a right to ignore his command to stop even if I am not committing an infraction. I don’t think there is such a thing as an unfettered right to act, bracketing all considerations of law enforcement. There is no “right to drive and ignore commands to stop because objectively you’re not doing anything wrong.” On my view, rights are sensitive to their own conditions of enforcement. That’s just a disagreement I’ve had since Day 1 with all Objectivists and all libertarians, who conceive of rights as liberties to act, as though the liberty-right to do X were to be exercised in the complete absence of law or law enforcement. My view is that any right to do X implicitly includes provisos limiting its exercise relative to the requirements of enforcing the right itself (and rights themselves). If we need some equivalent of the police, then any right to X will be contextually limited by what the police need in the way of enforcement powers. The right should never have been conceived in abstraction of those powers in the first place. But libertarians characteristically do that. They treat rights to act as deontically basic, then treat the requirements of law enforcement as infringements on the right so conceived. I reject that. I’ve never seen any reason to accept it. .

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        • I actually think Rand’s specific formulations about rights allow for the view that I’m describing, but in practice, Objectivist views on rights often seem indistinguishable to me from libertarians ones. I think Rand’s formulations end up entailing that rights have narrower scope/application than most libertarians or Objectivists want them to have. I’m more comfortable with Rand-as-written than with Objectivism-in-practice.

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        • I think we are in broad agreement about rights (or at least the appropriate legal codification/enforcement of individual rights) being dependent on the facts about how coercive enforcement is likely to go. I think our main disagreement comes down to what constitutes categorically unacceptable risk (and perhaps perception of risk) to impose on others (there being a range of acceptable risk values, the precise one that we settle on being subject to social consensus and the particular consensus we have come to having its own significant moral salience). I continue to take my Walmart Singer to be well within the acceptable range of risk-imposition (and maybe also in-bounds with regard to the reasonable perception of risk) for persons in the store and also persons out in the general population. But I don’t see how to settle our differences here (or that we have the expertise to do so, though I’m sure we could settle on some shared range of unacceptable risk-imposition). One should certainly care that there are particular grannies out there that one might kill by spreading the disease as well as about adhering to our reasonable emergency rules for saving lives on a mass scale. It also occurs to me that it is natural for libertarians to downplay individual rights not to have risks imposed (placing the risk bar pretty high) in order to stress the importance of liberty rights. A reasonable version of this kind of premise might inform both more-libertarian theory and more-libertarian intuition regarding acceptable and unacceptable risk-imposition. It probably does in my case. Still, I have no doubt that many citizens, and probably a good many libertarians, are culpably insensitive to the possibility and moral/individual-rights impact of one killing some granny or grandpa by spreading the disease.

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  5. Pingback: Wal-Mart: The Empirical Issues | Policy of Truth

  6. Leaving aside the Great Barrington Declaration for the moment, I am struggling with the implications of infectious disease spread being a rights violation. On the one hand I agree that it fits the definition of a rights violation – IF, you regard, say, going shopping at Walmart as not consenting to being exposed to disease. On the other hand, infectious diseases have been around for time immemorial and kill people every year. Prior to COVID, acute respiratory infections (flu, pneumonia and such) killed 12,000-56,000 people in the US each year, and as many as 4 million worldwide. Links below. Influenza is often carried and spread asymptomatically, just like SARS-CoV2, although not at the same frequency. If going to a store with an infectious disease, even if you are not aware of it, is a rights violation to others, then it sounds like going to Walmart without a mask is never acceptable, and can never be acceptable again. It also sounds like social interaction or any activity without masks and proper social distancing is unacceptable.

    The alternative is to create a threshold of risk below which exposing someone without their consent is not a rights violation. I am not sure rights admit of this possibility, but they might. And if so, we would have to determine the threshold level of risk and explain why COVID is above it but influenza is below.



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    • If I’m understanding the question correctly, we can quantify risk with metrics like CFR (early in a pandemic), IFR, and hospitalization rates. Hard to know these early on in a pandemic, though. Seems we would have to take the “better safe than sorry” (precautionary principle) approach.

      If useful, I can post links to most recent research on IFR, including age-stratified IFR. Can also include an age-stratified IFR comparison with the flu.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Let me take your comment slowly. I agree with what you say at the beginning of the first paragraph, but think you make a misinference or two along the way. I’ve numbered your sentences for ease of reference.

      (1) On the one hand I agree that it fits the definition of a rights violation – IF, you regard, say, going shopping at Walmart as not consenting to being exposed to disease. (2) On the other hand, infectious diseases have been around for time immemorial and kill people every year. (3) Prior to COVID, acute respiratory infections (flu, pneumonia and such) killed 12,000-56,000 people in the US each year, and as many as 4 million worldwide. (4) Links below. (5) Influenza is often carried and spread asymptomatically, just like SARS-CoV2, although not at the same frequency. (6) If going to a store with an infectious disease, even if you are not aware of it, is a rights violation to others, then it sounds like going to Walmart without a mask is never acceptable, and can never be acceptable again. It also sounds like social interaction or any activity without masks and proper social distancing is unacceptable.

      I certainly agree with (1) and (2). I didn’t actually check your links, but I see no reason to dispute (3) or (4). I agree with (5). It’s claims (6) that is the problem–more than one problem, actually.

      Take the first part, the antecedent of the conditional:

      If going to a store with an infectious disease, even if you are not aware of it, is a rights violation to others…

      To be precise, I think you mean going to a store with a communicable disease (i.e., communicable in the store), not an infectious one. If you go to the store with an STD, you have an infectious disease, but (barring very unusual circumstances) not one that will be passed on by shopping.

      That happens to be an obvious case, but the same principle applies across the board. Going to the store is only a rights violation if the sheer fact of going raises the risks of communicating the disease to an unacceptable level, in the way that careless/reckless driving or DUI raises the risk of an accident to an unacceptable level (as does driving while sleep deprived, or driving over the speed limit, or driving while texting or talking on the phone, etc.) But I wouldn’t say that simply having an infectious or even communicable disease and going to the store is a rights violation regardless of the probability of communicating it. The risks involved have to cross a certain threshold.

      Put it this way, going to the store and accidentally knocking someone to the ground, or hitting them with your cart, are both rights violations, whether you meant to do so or not, whether you knew the event would happen or not. There is some risk of that happening simply by going to the store, or simply by using a cart. My claim is not that you violate rights every time you undertake an action that could possibly violate someone’s rights. That would imply that the sheer act of going to the store or using a cart was a rights violation, which I agree is absurd, and I don’t intend.

      But you certainly violate rights if have the accident, regardless of how badly injured the other party is (unwanted physical contact is a rights violation, full stop). Of course, the severity of the violation varies with the harm caused. If you knock into someone, you’ve violated their rights (on my view of rights), but if you didn’t hit them hard and they weren’t injured, the violation is trivial enough to be remedied by a sincere apology. I would say that an apology is morally mandatory. To refuse to give it or neglect it, is immoral. Can the giving of the apology be enforced? Only if you think every single rights violation, regardless of degree of triviality, demands an enforceable remedy. That seems excessive. But it’s excessive only for practical reasons, not because no rights violation took place. One clearly did. The apology is unenforceable because enforcement creates more problems than lack of enforcement.

      By contrast, it’s worth noting that when it comes to vehicles, every single accident without exception is to be reported to the police when it happens (not later on). It doesn’t matter whether the accident was a minor fender bender, or a ten-car collision. A fender bender is relatively trivial but remains a rights violation. The legal issues involved in adjudicating even a minor fender bender are complex than, say, than those involved in hitting someone with a shopping cart without seriously injuring them. So there is a higher need for enforcement in the vehicular case than in the shopping cart case, even if both cases involve relatively trivial rights violations. My point is, some relatively trivial rights violations don’t require the intervention of a law enforcement agency, and some do. It depends on the legal complexity of the issues involved.

      Now back to the flu. Suppose you go to Walmart with the flu, and give it to other people. That certainly is a rights violation, on par with hitting them with a shopping cart. Giving someone the flu is probably more severe than merely knocking them over, whether by tripping them or hitting them with a shopping cart. I’d rather be knocked over than get the flu. I don’t think it matters whether you knew you had the flu or not. After all, you could hit someone with a shopping cart and not know you did it, and yet it’s still a rights violation. Your ignorance in both cases could be completely innocent, and yet the rights violation would remain. In the case of the shopping cart, if you genuinely injured the other party, you would have liability for the harm you caused, regardless of your moral innocence. Innocent or not, the fact remains that you caused the injury, and therefore assume liability for it.

      Is the sheer act of going to Walmart with the flu rights violative, even if you don’t end up giving it to other people? I would say so. The risks of transmission are sufficiently high that your sheer presence in Walmart is a danger to others. If you know you have the flu (or strongly suspect it) and go, your act is culpable. It’s like careless driving. But if you don’t know and go, your act may be morally innocent, but is still rights violative. It’s like driving with faulty brakes. If you drive down the street with faulty brakes (meaning brakes that will imminently fail to stop the car when applied), I would say you are violating the rights of everyone within proximity of your car, even if you had no idea that the brakes were faulty, and even if you ended up not hitting anyone. The sheer fact of having faulty brakes and driving in the proximity of others is a rights violation.

      But in the case of the flu, I am not as willing to be forgiving of the supposedly “innocently ignorant” as I am of the person who didn’t realize that his brakes were faulty (assuming that there were no obvious signs of the defect). For 100 years now, since the last pandemic, we’ve had an infrastructure in place for dealing with the flu. The high mortality that occurs as a result of the flu occurs despite the existence of a full century’s worth of epidemiological efforts to control it. We haven’t fully controlled it, so the flu remains dangerous–quite dangerous. (I am not one to downplay the dangers of the flu.) But in the case of the flu, we have a proven vaccine of moderately high effectiveness for reducing the risks by a large degree. Many, many people refuse to get it. What excuse do they have for not getting it? Yes, some people have a legitimate medical excuse for avoiding it. But most people have no good excuse for not getting it. The excuses they invoke are mostly just plain bullshit.

      I would say that you violate rights even if you pass the flu on after having gotten the shot (a low probability event, but still possible). But once you get the shot, no one can say that your sheer presence anywhere elevates the risk of transmission to such a degree that you shouldn’t be there. Going to Wal Mart after you get the flu shot is more like driving carefully in a sober state than careless driving. Yes, just as a careful driver could have an accident, you could pass on the flu after getting the shot (which would be a rights violation), but driving per se is not a rights violation any more than walking around after having gotten the flu shot. The risks of driving carefully are not such that the sheer act of doing it violates rights. Same with public interaction after getting the flu shot.

      By contrast, I am not entirely sure what to say of the person who, during flu season, refuses to get the shot, has no good excuse for not getting it, then goes out to Wal Mart, citing the fact that he feels asymptomatic, so it’s OK. It’s not OK. Just as with SARS CoV 2, such a person could end up killing someone. I had this argument with my students for two decades, by the way, with only limited success in convincing them of my view. Most of them refused to get the flu shot even when it was given for free in the university’s cafeteria. The nonsensical reasons they gave for not getting it made me want to take them by the lapels and knock them against the wall. Then these same flu shot-refusers they would end up sick with the flu, making tear-jerking excuses for their illness and failure to get their work handed in on time. God knows how many people they got sick, or even how many they helped kill.

      One source of confusion here is the common belief (common to Objectivists) that every single rights violation must get a response from government. I reject that. Many rights violations are too trivial to merit such a response. Consider minor instances of trespassing, or even some minor instances of shoplifting. They’re both rights violations, but not the kind of rights violation that merits state enforcement in every single case. We can’t clog up 911 or the courts with cases so trivial. Passing on the cold or the flu may fall into the same category. But I would insist that they are all rights violations–trespass, shoplifting, careless driving, DUI, hitting someone with a shopping cart, or passing on the cold or flu (or COVID).

      I hope that long disquisition clarifies why I reject the consequent of your conditional:

      …then it sounds like going to Walmart without a mask is never acceptable, and can never be acceptable again. It also sounds like social interaction or any activity without masks and proper social distancing is unacceptable.

      No, I wouldn’t say that. You’re assuming that no action can be undertaken if it’s possible that the action could lead to a rights violation. But every action could lead to one, as my shopping cart example makes clear, and it would make no sense to have a concept of rights that entailed that every action violated rights.

      Take shopping carts again: There is always the risk that if you use one, you might knock into someone with a shopping cart, perhaps unknowingly. That fact by itself is not a rights violation, even if it’s compatible with the possibility of rights violations. Suppose you use a cart, and hit someone, violating their rights? Apologize. No need to call the police or for anyone to fly off the handle, unless the injury is sufficiently severe that emergency services are needed. (That would be a pretty unusual situation.)

      That said, in the case of the flu, I would say that merely wearing a mask is insufficient precaution, regardless of your asymptomaticity. Going to Walmart without having gotten the flu shot, but then wearing a mask, is a pretense at keeping others safe, not an actual exercise of caution. I regard that as unacceptable. As far as I’m concerned, just about everyone should get the flu shot. If people can’t afford to pay for it, it should be given for free. But unless they have a good excuse, everyone should get it–no religious exemptions, no nonsense excuses. Everyone should get it, just like everyone should get insurance as a condition of driving.

      In the case of SARS COV 2, the shot is not yet accessible to the general public, so most people can’t be blamed for not getting it. But I would say that the risks of simply walking around without having gotten a shot or wearing a mask are sufficiently high that it’s unacceptable to do it. Even wearing a mask is insufficient. The mask has to be accompanied by distancing. (By the way, many front-line healthcare workers who have the opportunity to get the vaccine are refusing to get it. It is amazing to me how much irrationality there is among people directly exposed to COVID every day, but there is.)

      Now that SARS COV 2 exists, and there is no clear prospect of its literal disappearance, we may well have entered a world in which unless you are immune, you must always distance/mask. But even before SARS COV 2, I often thought that people should keep a greater distance between one another than they typically did, and that we took the risks of infectious disease too lightly. For instance, I’ve long thought that college students should be required to get the flu shot. Every semester at college becomes a shit show as a result of mini-outbreaks of the flu. I also think we take STDs far too lightly. I don’t understand why anyone thinks that a 50% incidence of HSV1 is acceptable.


      The romantic idea that you see a stranger, feel an attraction to them, and then kiss them without knowing their epidemiological liabilities, strikes me as the height of stupidity. But it’s a common belief. So is casual, unprotected sex without knowing anything about the partner’s medical history.

      This I agree with (again, I’ve inserted numbers).

      (1) The alternative is to create a threshold of risk below which exposing someone without their consent is not a rights violation. (2) I am not sure rights admit of this possibility, but they might. (3) And if so, we would have to determine the threshold level of risk and explain why COVID is above it but influenza is below.

      Or rather: I agree with (1).

      I disagree with the skepticism in (2): rights must admit of the possibility mentioned in (1), or else they’re not sufficiently sensitive to obvious realities. A conception of rights that treats risk thresholds as irrelevant is itself normatively irrelevant and should for that reason be dismissed from consideration.

      My fundamental objection to libertarian and Objectivist rights theory is its inadequate handling of risk.* I regard risk impositions above a threshold as rights violations. We have a right to be free, above a certain threshold, of the dangers imposed on us by other people. Objectivists and libertarians tend to regard risk impositions as somehow unreal, as though rights are only violated once a risk is realized as actual harm. But this is to treat potentialities as unreal. It’s also to wait too long before harm-reducing action can be put into effect.

      My reasoning: Assault is a rights violation even if it doesn’t lead to battery. Careless driving is a rights violation even if it doesn’t lead to an accident. Walking around with a highly communicable disease is a rights violation even if it doesn’t end up getting communicated. The risks involved in all three cases are rights violations in and of themselves.

      I half agree with (3). Yes, we have to determine the threshold level of risk (which is quite difficult), but there is no reason to treat COVID as above and influenza as below the threshold except for the fact that the risk of influenza is diminished by the existence of a vaccine with a long track record, whereas the COVID vaccine is brand new and lacks a comparable track record. Assuming that the COVID vaccines work as well (or poorly) as the flu vaccines, both diseases will be essentially on par for the purposes of rights theory. (There may be differences in IFR, etc., between COVID and influenza, but while epidemiologically and clinically relevant, I don’t think they’re normatively all that relevant. I have always thought we should take the flu, and other communicable diseases, far more seriously than we do.)

      *That said, at a broad level, I agree with Nozick’s approach to risk in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but it’s not widely accepted among libertarians or Objectivists. I have a paper by Lester Hunt and Kevin Hill that tries to apply Nozick’s framework to COVID 19. I haven’t read it yet, but I understand that it makes an attempt to justify “lockdowns” with compensation to those locked down. If that’s what they argue, I regard that as a welcome step in the right direction.

      It belatedly occurs to me that my view contradicts Nozick’s in one respect: Nozick thinks that we ought to abolish all rights violations rather than aim at their minimization. I think we have to aim at their minimization. We can’t forcibly stop them all, and shouldn’t try. So I may be committed to the “utilitarianism of rights” that he rejects early in ASU.


  7. Irfan, thanks for the elaborate and thoughtful reply. This clarified a number of things for me. Your position does sound reasonable, albeit quite different from the norms and beliefs I have held about infectious diseases. Perhaps you are right that infectious diseases such as the flu should be taken far more seriously than they are.

    I’d like to address a few points in your comment where we may disagree. You quote me and respond with some agreement here:

    “(1) The alternative is to create a threshold of risk below which exposing someone without their consent is not a rights violation. (2) I am not sure rights admit of this possibility, but they might. (3) And if so, we would have to determine the threshold level of risk and explain why COVID is above it but influenza is below.

    Or rather: I agree with (1).

    I disagree with the skepticism in (2): rights must admit of the possibility mentioned in (1), or else they’re not sufficiently sensitive to obvious realities. A conception of rights that treats risk thresholds as irrelevant is itself normatively irrelevant and should for that reason be dismissed from consideration.”

    But if I follow your discussion in your comment, then my point (1) is wrong. Exposing someone else without their consent to any non-negligible risk is a rights violation. However, some risks are small enough not to warrant a substantial response, let alone a government response.

    Either way it sounds like we are in agreement that some threshold of risk has to be met in order to justify a substantial response, or a government response. It sounds like you think influenza is dangerous enough to exceed this threshold, but you think that with the public health interventions that exist (mainly vaccination), it falls below that threshold in vaccinated people. Thus vaccinated people can morally, say, go to walmart without a mask. I agree with you that vaccinations are important and should be mandatory. But I don’t fully understand why the existence of a flu vaccine and other public health measures make it acceptable to, say, go to walmart without a mask. Even with vaccination, flu does spread asymptomatically and can be deadly. The rates are of course lower. So is your argument that the risks of the flu in a vaccinated population fall below a threshold and are therefore negligible? Or is your argument that the risk of flu is high but since we have done our best with the flu, we have no choice but to accept its remaining risk in the population for the time being?

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are two different issues there, but let me tackle the easier one for now, and address the harder one when I have more time to come up with a useful response.

      You, on the flu:

      But I don’t fully understand why the existence of a flu vaccine and other public health measures make it acceptable to, say, go to walmart without a mask. Even with vaccination, flu does spread asymptomatically and can be deadly. The rates are of course lower. So is your argument that the risks of the flu in a vaccinated population fall below a threshold and are therefore negligible? Or is your argument that the risk of flu is high but since we have done our best with the flu, we have no choice but to accept its remaining risk in the population for the time being?

      I had intended the former, not the latter, but the two claims are logically compatible with each other. The flu vaccine may be more effective against some strains of influenza than others. So when it’s effective, your first option will be true, but when it’s not, your second option will be. But you may mean the second option slightly different from me (“accept its remaining risk”), so let me elaborate a bit.

      I have not carefully studied the efficacy of the flu vaccine, so my view here is somewhat uninformed. I was assuming that the flu had very high efficacy, but on second thought, that’s a more complicated issue than I was making it out to be, and may be driven by more personal experience with the flu shot: I have gotten “the” flu shot every year since 2000 except 2005, and 2005 was the one year I got the flu, and got a very bad case of it. (The fall of 2005 was when I started dated Carrie-Ann, so I blame her for the temporary loss of cognitive capacity that led to this particular lapse.) During the H1N1 outbreak of 2009, however, I tried to get the H1N1 shot, but it was unavailable, at least to me. So in retrospect, that year, my flu shot may well have had very low efficacy without my realizing it. And that may be true in varying degree of other years, too. I may well have been operating with a false sense of security for decades, one shattered by the COVID pandemic. I just made sure to get the shot each year, didn’t get the flu, and left it at that. It took COVID (and this discussion, and discussions like it) to see that I’ve been underestimating the risk all along.

      Imagine we lived in a world where the flu shot’s efficacy was very high (however we define “very high efficacy”). In that case, the risks of the flu in the vaccinated population will below the relevant threshold and be “negligible.” In that case, we can simply go about our business without facemasks. That said, I have always thought that distancing is a good idea, and I think it should become a permanent part of our lives, wherever feasible.

      But suppose that the flu shot’s efficacy is not all that high. In that case, we have to “accept its remaining risk” in the sense that we have to accept any fact of reality, but our behavior does to some extent have to mimic what it’s been with respect to COVID. Yes, we would have to mask up to go to Walmart or anywhere else.

      I’m hedging my claims here for a few reasons. The main reason is that I just want to get the conceptual issue clear. But to borrow a phrase of David Kelley’s, once we do that, in practice, we will have to “reintroduce the measurements,” which is a difficult matter. How exactly to determine the efficacy of a vaccine requires wading through a lot of data, and formulating a defensible conception of “efficacy.” Same with identifying acceptable risk thresholds. I have a general qualitative idea of what clearly exceeds the threshold and what clearly falls below, but ultimately, we need more precision than I can provide in my armchair, under time constraints (when I’m call at the hospital, Saturday is the only day of the week I can really devote to philosophy).

      But that gets me to the harder question you ask: is every non-negligible imposition of risk a rights violation? My answer is “no.” The view I want to defend is that some but not all non-negligible risk impositions are rights violations. I don’t have time right now to articulate that view, but the one thing I would insist on is that a defensible concept of “rights” has to be sensitive to risk thresholds. In other words, it is a part of the concept of rights that a certain subset of risk impositions is, qua risk imposition, a rights violation.

      People have a basic right to be free of (some of) the risks imposed by others, whether or not those risks are actualized as the specific harms posed by those risks. I have the right to be free of the risks posed by Smith’s flu even if Smith never ends up giving me the flu. I have the right to be free of Jones’s possession of weapons of mass destruction even if Jones never uses those weapons, but merely keeps them in his basement. Etc. Smith’s sheer presence in my vicinity is a rights violation, as is Jones’s possession of those weapons. So while the exact risk thresholds are up for debate, I regard it as clear that governments can have public health policies designed to fight disease, and weapons control policies designed to regulate the possession of weapons.

      This contrasts sharply with Objectivists and libertarians who think that having a communicable disease is one’s own personal business, as is owning a weapon of one’s choice, or driving a vehicle of one’s choice, or adding to carbon dioxide emissions, or whatever. I don’t accept that. Communicable diseases, weapons, and vehicles all impose risks on others, and given the nature of the risks, are perfect candidates for government regulation.

      By “regulate vehicles,” I don’t just mean to endorse the legitimacy of traffic laws–though I do–but also government’s regulating what kind of vehicles can be sold on the market, with what features, and to whom. The size of vehicles sold on the market is as legitimate a topic of regulation as the size of house cats sold: certain vehicles should not be sold to ordinary license holders, any more than lions or tigers should be sold to anyone who wants one as a house cat.

      Anyway, there’s more to be said about risk, but I’ll leave it there for now. I may have mentioned before that I find Nozick’s treatment of the issue in Anarchy, State, and Utopia a good one, much more nuanced and sensitive to reality than anything Rand has written (to the extent that she wrote anything). Rand’s comments on gun control in Ayn Rand Answers is symptomatic of the confusion on the topic of risk among Objectivists. She claims not to know what position to take on gun control, then asserts that gun control is a peripheral issue in political philosophy. I can’t think of a more obvious confession of failure than that. This is like wondering whether any risks were involved in a mob’s breaking into the Capitol with firearms but not firing them. People who have to wait until they’re fired have a defective conception of risk.

      On epidemiology, I highly recommend reading Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker’s Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. Having worked for a few months in a hospital, I now realize that COVID is just the tip of the iceberg. We get COVID cases maybe once every few weeks in the OR (mostly because they’re screened out for elective cases). But much more often, we confront MRSA, VRE, Clostridioides difficile, HIV, or Hepatitis C. So it’s not just a matter of measuring the risks of COVID and influenza and similar respiratory diseases. We have to start thinking more urgently about the cumulative risks of all the epidemiological risks we confront.


      Osterholm and Olshaker make clear that those risks are real and deadly. In my view, a comprehensive public health policy is the only way to deal with them. If libertarians oppose that, I see them as opposing the requirements of life itself, and of adopting a conception of rights incompatible with the requirements of survival qua human. So there’s a lot to hash out here, both conceptually and practically.


  8. I’m going to start with your second point because I actually think that’s easier and more straight forward. You say this:

    “a defensible concept of “rights” has to be sensitive to risk thresholds. In other words, it is a part of the concept of rights that a certain subset of risk impositions is, qua risk imposition, a rights violation.”

    Of course! This is obviously true. To me it has been absolutely obvious from the get-go that public health measures are legitimate government functions – how could they not be? And so are the other ones you mention – cats, cars, etc. I have raised questions about whether the specific risks of COVID justify specific government responses. But I never meant to imply that, in principle, government is not legitimate in using force to reduce the risk of infectious diseases.

    I’m not sure you’re right in your characterization of Rand and objectivists here (maybe some objectivists, yes, but not most or all). I recall Rand recognizing the legitimacy of quarantines for infectious diseases. And although she didn’t have a worked out position on gun control, she did recognize the legitimacy of some gun regulation, in principle.

    You may be right that some libertarians are implying that they don’t support public health measures, but even here I’m not sure you have it right. Most libertarians I know of have endorsed at least some COVID restrictions, and are supportive of vaccines and mask usage.

    And so I want to return to what I see as the controversial issues here – what are the specific risks of COVID, how do they compare to other infectious diseases, and what is justified in response. Here the flu is really informative, because it’s the disease most similar to COVID. It is respiratory, worldwide, serious, and deadly. In my opinion, the vaccine should be legally mandatory for minors and likely for adults too, with no bullshit religious exemptions allowed. And yet it is still dangerous. I think you have been underestimating it.

    The effectiveness of the flu vaccine is 40-50% in most years. It is up to 65% effective at reducing hospitalizations and deaths – no more than that. And yet we do not wear masks in Walmart in a “regular” year. I thought you were in support of this, but in your most recent post you said this:

    “but our behavior does to some extent have to mimic what it’s been with respect to COVID. Yes, we would have to mask up to go to Walmart or anywhere else.”

    I find this troubling. On its own, wearing a mask in Walmart is defensible. But the broader implication is that there would be no concerts, no nightclubs, no large theaters or opera halls, and serious alterations to daycares, schools, airplanes, cruises, workspaces, and any other large indoor gathering of people. I don’t personally care for many of these. But I do care for some. I will take schools as an example.

    Over the last 10 months my sons have not gotten sick at all, whereas in a usual year they will get 5-8 illnesses each. Perhaps this is positive. But it is coming at the cost of nearly all their social interactions, and their normally operating (Montessori) school. In Montessori, education is collaborative, and kids work together on many projects and tasks. They touch each other, cough on each other, exchange spit, and all the rest. Yet up until March 2020, our culture had taken such childhood behavior in stride, with the understanding that it (a) is worth the cost in infectious disease and (b) that this infectious disease burden helps build immunity for later. This year, the kids have to stay at their assigned desks and work individually, wearing masks, without getting too close to their peers. Should we do away with Montessori education indefinitely to help reduce the infectious disease burden?

    All this is to say that we have to accept some non-negligible infectious disease risk or we have to create a world with a lot more social distance and mask wearing. The latter seems to me to deprive people of too much of life, including social and biological needs for closeness. But if we are going to accept the former, then we need some threshold below which we allow some diseases to spread. We don’t allow them to spread unabated – we do what we can, we get vaccinated if we can – but we don’t alter schools and close nightclubs and restaurants.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A systematic review and meta-analysis of published research data on COVID-19 infection fatality rates

      Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz & Lea Merone
      International Journal of Infectious Diseases
      Volume 101, December 2020, Pages 138-148

      Study Highlights
      • COVID-19 infection fatality rate (IFR) is an important statistic for policy about the disease.
      • Published estimates vary, with a ‘true’ fatality rate hard to calculate.
      • Systematically reviewing the literature and meta-analysing the results show an IFR of 0.68% (0.53%–0.82%).
      • This rate varied from place to place, with a lower range of 0.17% and a highest estimate of 1.7%.
      • Serology studies with a lower risk of bias appeared to demonstrate a higher IFR than those at a higher risk of bias.


      Assessing the age specificity of infection fatality rates for COVID-19:
      systematic review, meta-analysis, and public policy implications

      Andrew T. Levin, William P. Hanage, Nana Owusu-Boaitey, Kensington B. Cochran, Seamus P. Walsh
      & Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz
      European Journal of Epidemiology volume 35, pages 1123–1138(2020)

      Determine age-specific infection fatality rates for COVID-19 to inform public health policies and communications that help protect vulnerable age groups. Studies of COVID-19 prevalence were collected by conducting an online search of published articles, preprints, and government reports that were publicly disseminated prior to 18 September 2020. The systematic review encompassed 113 studies, of which 27 studies (covering 34 geographical locations) satisfied the inclusion criteria and were included in the meta-analysis.

      Age-specific IFRs were computed using the prevalence data in conjunction with reported fatalities 4 weeks after the midpoint date of the study, reflecting typical lags in fatalities and reporting. Meta-regression procedures in Stata were used to analyze the infection fatality rate (IFR) by age. Our analysis finds a exponential relationship between age and IFR for COVID-19.

      The estimated age-specific IFR is very low for children and younger adults (e.g., 0.002% at age 10 and 0.01% at age 25) but increases progressively to 0.4% at age 55, 1.4% at age 65, 4.6% at age 75, and 15% at age 85.

      Moreover, our results indicate that about 90% of the variation in population IFR across geographical locations reflects differences in the age composition of the population and the extent to which relatively vulnerable age groups were exposed to the virus. These results indicate that COVID-19 is hazardous not only for the elderly but also for middle-aged adults, for whom the infection fatality rate is two orders of magnitude greater than the annualized risk of a fatal automobile accident and far more dangerous than seasonal influenza. Moreover, the overall IFR for COVID-19 should not be viewed as a fixed parameter but as intrinsically linked to the age-specific pattern of infections. Consequently, public health measures to mitigate infections in older adults could substantially decrease total deaths.


      Liked by 1 person

        • Here is another way to look at it. COVID-19 is more deadly than the flu at all age levels above 30. An independent researcher, Marc Bevand, did this analysis, which can be found here:


          Age Fatality Rate of COVID-19 vs Influenza
          30 5x
          40 8.6x
          50 14.8x
          60 23.6x
          70 25.3x
          80 22.9x

          Here are his findings on general IFR.

          Source: https://github.com/mbevand/covid19-age-stratified-ifr#findings

          The overall IFR estimates of COVID-19, with the exception of Levin et al., are relatively consistent with each other, usually within 30-40%. Levin et al. is often up to 2-fold higher than the others, depending on the country.

          The country with the oldest population is expected to have the highest overall IFR: Japan at 1.274-1.605% (excluding Levin et al.)

          The country with the youngest population is expected to have the lowest overall IFR: Uganda at 0.074-0.147%.

          The overall IFR varies dramatically by more than 10-fold between countries with a young population and those with an old population.

          In fact, the young age of the population in Africa is a major factor explaining the relatively small number of deaths on this continent. We find (ENE-COVID) IFR=0.127% for Africa, and IFR=0.810% in Europe, a 6-fold difference.

          The overall IFR of COVID-19 is, for each world region and the world:

          0.810% Europe
          0.675% Northern America
          0.518% Oceania
          0.356% Latin America and the Caribbean
          0.325% Asia
          0.127% Africa
          0.358% World”

          In future analyses in which comorbidities are included, especially obesity, diabetes,& hypertension, I suspect these will be major contributors to increased mortality across age-groups.


    • (Responding to Ray Raad)

      I only have time right now to deal with the first (less fundamental) part of your comment. I had said that the concept of rights has to be sensitive to risk-thresholds, which you take to be obvious. So that’s an agreement between us, but it’s a disagreement between us and the very large number of libertarians and Objectivists who disagree. Libertarians disagree because they have a basically deontological conception of rights that is insensitive to risk thresholds as a matter of principle. Objectivists disagree not so much because Objectivism requires such a conception, or is compatible with it (just the reverse), but because many professed Objectivists are confused about what Objectivism actually says–a consequence of the sad state of Objectivist intellectual discourse (as represented, for instance, by the current state of The Atlas Society).

      Many libertarians regard rights as violated only by initiations of “aggression,” where “aggression” requires the initiation of an intentional contrary-to-consent physical contact by A’s property on B’s property (where A and B are persons, and the persons are themselves property). This view implies that risk impositions without actual physical contact are never rights violations. In a slogan: “no unconsenting physical contact, no rights violation.” This is why many libertarians regard verbal threats as mere speech acts, and regard the possession of weapons as being on par with the possession of any other sort of property, regardless of the increased probability of harm involved in possessing weapons (as compared with other sorts of property). I don’t have time to document that now, but it is a very common position that I’ve encountered hundreds of times over decades of experience with libertarians. Arguably, it is Nozick’s own view, since he conceives of rights as “side-constraints” on the pursuit of goals, so that his discussion of risk (however insightful on its own) is arguably inconsistent with his foundational view of rights.

      In short: Nozick tries (with limited success) to combine a deontological theory of rights with sensitivity to risk; most libertarians just adopt the former and dispense with the latter. I don’t know of any successful attempt by a libertarian theorist to produce a defensible conception of rights that deals with the imposition of risk.

      As for Objectivism, the most sustained discussion of the nature of rights in the Objectivist scholarly literature, Tara Smith’s Moral Rights and Political Freedom, does not deal with risk impositions at all. Neither does David Kelley’s A Life of One’s Own. The topic doesn’t come up in OPAR, or in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, or in any of Rand’s officially published essays. That by itself is instructive. To figure out the “Objectivist position” on the relationship between rights and risk, we’re pushed into functioning as interpretive archaeologists, sifting through a sentence here and an assertion there. We can do that, but the larger point is that there is no defensible theory here, because no attempt has ever been made to produce one.

      If you look through Rand’s writings (or Objectivism) for a general statement on risk, you won’t find one. Rand’s position on gun control is an explicit profession of failure. She was asked a direct question about gun control in (I believe) a Ford Hall Forum talk that is printed in Ayn Rand Answers. My copy of that book is locked away in storage, so I’m paraphrasing from memory, but I read it several times, and I’m confident of the accuracy of my memory: She says that she has no solution to the problem of gun control. On the one hand, the government has to have a monopoly on the use of force in a given area. On the other hand, individuals have a right of self-defense that is brought about through gun ownership. How does one reconcile these two things?

      She comes out and says that she doesn’t know how. Then she offers up the excuse that the issue is too derivative or peripheral to be central to political philosophy, dismisses the question’s importance, and moves on. I give that answer an “F.” It’s not only an inadequate answer, but an evasion of the legitimate issue behind the question. I think it was Peikoff rather than Rand who insisted that some gun controls be adopted (in response to the incident at Waco). But this is just an ad hoc assertion grafted on top of the absence of a principled position.

      I don’t remember her position on quarantines as clearly as her position on gun control (I read it back when the pandemic first started), but I remember finding it at least as inadequate as her view on gun control. It doesn’t deal with the harder issues.

      I have yet to read Onkar Ghate’s article on a “pro-freedom approach to infectious disease,” but I’m extremely skeptical of it, partly from reading the headings in the table of contents, and partly from past dealings with Ghate and familiarity with his work (which I generally can’t stand).


      Ultimately, what we are arguing about here is somewhat sociological: how many Objectivists and libertarians hold irrational views on this subject? Neither of us are in a position to count the number. My point is that plenty hold irrational views, and the explanation derives from the source material they’re relying on to formulate their views. The source material–the Objectivist and libertarian literature–is extremely defective. If you rely on that source material to formulate a view on COVID 19, you will inevitably be led to error–huge error. If instead you decide to work things out on the basis of reason and common sense, it is a question how your common sense view relates back to the theory you claim to adopt. The issue is not “How many libertarians/Objectivists regard rights as sensitive to risk thresholds?” but “What philosophical basis is there in libertarianism or Objectivism for doing so?” As far as libertarianism is concerned (not libertarians), I would say: “there is little to no basis.” As far as Objectivism is concerned, I would say: “Objectivism doesn’t flatly contradict the idea that rights are sensitive to rights thresholds, but doesn’t explicitly require it, either; so the basis is extremely unclear.”

      An Objectivist who denies that risk impositions are rights violations is not saying anything that literally flouts Objectivism, however crazy his view may be. The inference to draw is that nothing in Objectivism safeguards its adherents from craziness. Perhaps that explains why so many of them have views that are so crazy.

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