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Sneddon: What COVID restrictions teach us about the nature of freedom

Based on looser U.S. pandemic rules, you might think Americans value freedom more, whereas Canadians value life more. That’s the wrong way to see it.

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It’s easy to see the differences between Canadian and American responses to COVID-19. Canada: more and continuing restrictions. United States: fewer restrictions, and hardly any now. The U.S. mortality rate is three times ours and could easily get worse.

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One might think that Americans value freedom more than we do, whereas we value life more, and that this makes the difference. However, it’s a mistake to equate American anti-government individualism with love of liberty. These things go together if state regulations are the only source of threats to freedom. This, however, is just false.

The importance of individual liberty has been well articulated by the liberal tradition of thought going back at least to John Stuart Mill. In  On Liberty , he famously argued for the “Harm Principle”: limitations of individual liberty are justifiable only on the basis of interpersonal harm. You should be as free as possible to do as you like until you harm me, or until the risk of such harm becomes sufficiently great. I, of course, should have the same degree of freedom.

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Harms come in various forms. Death and illness are harms, but Mill included restrictions of freedom as harms too. This makes death and illness harmful in two ways. They harm us as sources of suffering and loss of life, but they also limit our liberty. We are not as free as possible when we are ill, never mind dead.

Government actions can harm us in various ways, including through restriction of our liberty. But lots of other things can harm us too. These sources of harm matter no less, and no more, than the state. Particularly important are the people who live near us. In fact, it is easier for my next-door neighbour to harm me than it is for the state to do so. Importantly, these harms also often involve interference with our freedom.

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Here’s how this matters to Omicron. We know that relatively healthy people can spread Omicron without themselves being likely to be harmed by it. But our communities involve all sorts of people, many of whom are at much greater risk of being harmed or killed by this disease. Sickness and death are harms partly because they limit our liberty. When the less healthy stay home to avoid the disease that the healthy are spreading, their freedom is also thereby limited.

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These harms and threats to the freedom of the relatively unhealthy matter. The sources of these worries are largely the activities of the relatively healthy. By the standards of the Harm Principle, the activities of the healthy can justifiably be interfered with not just in the name of life, but in the name of freedom too.

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The evaluative balancing act needed to respond to Omicron doesn’t just concern liberty on one side, life on the other. It also requires balancing the freedom of some with the freedom of others. And it requires assessing the significance of the threats to both life and freedom from the state and from people’s actions in general. Given this, American anti-government individualism looks less like a defence of freedom and more like a refusal to do this sort of evaluative balancing, leaving individuals to sink or swim on their own.

We should not think that mask requirements, vaccine passports, and business restrictions are automatically net threats to liberty. The details matter. The impositions to freedom on one side might be more than amply balanced by protections of freedom on another. This is not to mention the general significance of keeping death and suffering in check too.

Canada has done demonstrably better than the United States at valuing life in the face of COVID-19. We might just have done better at valuing liberty too.

Andrew Sneddon is a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of Ottawa.

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