COVID-19, Politics

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: COVID-19 Shows We Can’t Have It All

In late March, as many US jurisdictions finally began to enact social distancing and stay-at-home directives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas’s Republican Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick, appeared on the popular Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight to offer a dissenting voice.

“I turn 70 next week,” Patrick said, noting that older people are at greatest risk of death. “I’m not living in fear of COVID-19. What I’m living in fear of is what’s happening to this country… No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in.”

Patrick went on to argue that America’s elderly should be more willing to put their lives on the line to keep the economy going for the young: “My message is, let’s get back to work, let’s get back to living, let’s be smart about it, and those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country. Don’t do that! Don’t ruin this great American Dream.”

Patrick’s interview provoked horrified reactions from public figures. (Former Texas Democratic Congressman and presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, to cite one example, called Patrick’s comments “numbnuttery.”) And I, too, disagree with his argument. I’m a Pakistani-American. My parents come from a part of the world where senior citizens are typically held in high regard. In fact, many South Asian cultures have respect for elders hard-wired into their language systems.

If anything, I would offer the opposite argument: Those of us who are young and less at risk (a category that excludes those with pre-existing medical vulnerabilities) are the ones who should be doing everything we can to protect older citizens. I may be grumpy about having to sit inside all day, but I’ll put on Netflix and work on my video-game backlog if it helps protect a nonagenarian who stormed the beaches at Normandy long before I was born. And in many parts of America, similarly minded young people are already being organized to help the elderly with basic tasks.

All that said, there’s a grain of truth in Patrick’s underlying claim about the trade-offs between protecting lives and protecting the economy. I’m lucky because I can pay the bills without leaving my home. But that’s impossible for those who work at, say, nail salons or restaurants. As more and more Americans are denied the opportunity to make ends meet in order to slow the rate of infection, unemployment claims are skyrocketing across the United States. And the cost is falling heaviest on the shoulders of those who cannot telecommute—a category that overlaps heavily with those who have the least education and wealth.

The federal officials, state governors, and mayors who’ve imposed these measures will eventually have to decide when conditions are safe enough to liberalize the current restrictions. And things won’t return fully to normal before a vaccine is developed and widely administered, which could be more than a year away (if at all).

But while COVID-19 represents an unprecedented phenomenon for most of us, the idea of negotiating a trade-off between safety on one hand, and liberty and leisure on the other, is a well-established part of the American policy landscape.

In 1974, for instance, President Nixon signed into law the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act, which included a provision establishing a national maximum speed law (NMSL) capping speed limits at 55 miles per hour. The NMSL came on the heels of price spikes resulting from the 1973 oil crisis. Despite the gas savings resulting from lower speeds, many motorists opposed the law, since it meant they couldn’t get from A to B as quickly as they’d have liked.

Two decades later, Congress repealed the NMSL, freeing states to enact their own speed limits. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader was furious at then-president Bill Clinton, declaring that history would “never forgive him and his allies in Congress for this assault on the sanctity of human life.” At the time, Department of Transportation officials already had studies in hand estimating that repealing the speed limits would increase road deaths significantly. But libertarian-minded figures such as Texas Democratic Rep. Pete Geren argued that his local constituents “know better than the federal government about our roads.”

States no longer have any form of uniform speed limit, and you can go as fast as 80 miles per hour in some parts of the country. As was predicted, this freedom comes at a cost. One study from 2009 estimated that between 1995 and 2005, more than 12,000 deaths resulted from the repeal of the NMSL. In the trade-off between liberty and life, the government chose liberty.

When it comes to the COVID-19 crisis, on the other hand, most Americans are squarely in favor of protecting life. Many are overwhelmingly practicing social distancing in their own lives—avoiding gatherings big and small, and postponing travel plans. Almost three-quarters of surveyed Americans say they somewhat or strongly support a national quarantine.

This show of solidarity is remarkable in a country with such a libertarian political culture, which manifests itself through freedom of speech and easy access to firearms. But as the title of an Atlantic magazine article notes, “There Are No Libertarians in a Pandemic.” The question is whether this crisis will make us start to rethink the trade-off between liberty and life over the longer term.

* * *

Twenty-one years ago, ethicist Peter Singer began a classic New York Times Magazine essay (The Singer Solution to World Poverty) by briefly summarizing the plot of the 1998 Brazilian film Central Station, wherein a middle-aged woman is offered $1,000 to persuade a homeless nine-year-old boy to follow her to a certain address to be adopted. Not until later does she learn that the boy was actually going to be murdered for his organs. She uses the money to buy a television, but is too riddled with guilt to enjoy watching it. So she works to save the boy.

Singer reminds us that those of us who reside in rich countries and live in relative affluence face such choices all the time, even if we don’t realize it. He notes that the average family in America spends about a third of its income on unnecessary and frivolous purchases, even as people around the world are perishing from easily preventable diseases and hunger. By spending money on ourselves rather than on the extremely poor, we are, through inaction, sacrificing others so that we can live carefree lives.

I first read Singer’s essay as a high school student in Georgia about 15 years ago. Many of my classmates felt deeply unsettled by the argument Singer offered, and so they found ways to reject it out of hand. Our American libertarian ethic is hard to reconcile with Singer’s argument that we should all give up something small so that others may have the bare necessities of life.

This tension extends throughout much of American policymaking. The United States spends about 0.2 percent of its gross national product on foreign aid, half of the average among wealthy nations. And we do a poor job of taking care of people here at home, too. Tens of thousands of Americans perish every year because they lack health insurance. We remain the only wealthy country that doesn’t guarantee a right to health care for all citizens.

A willingness to choose freedom over humanitarian empathy is strongly associated with the political Right. But even the Left’s pro-abortion-rights rallying cry of  “my body, my choice” has a libertarian flavor to it (although it should be said that many backers of abortion rights reject this classification, on the claimed basis that a fetus doesn’t have any real moral status). And while the Left lobbies for stricter gun-control measures, the wide acceptance of alcohol and tobacco—which still kill hundreds of thousands annually in the United States—spans much of the political spectrum.

Which brings us back to COVID-19. By one estimate, 80,000 Americans died from flu-related illnesses during the 2017 — 2018 flu season. When such numbers get reported by the media, Americans typically shrug—even though, as we now know, basic social-distancing and hygiene practices can help tame even a virulent pandemic. If and when a COVID-19 vaccine is found, will we emerge from this period under a new, more restrictive social contract, one that serves the interests of all those ordinary flu victims?

It’s nice to think that technology can help us avoid such decisions. And yes, more protective equipment, larger ICU capacity and new medicines will help reduce the death toll, no matter what political trade-offs we make. But that will only go so far. And there will come a point, perhaps as early as this summer, when Americans will have to decide whether they are collectively ready to recalibrate the balance among life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The United States was literally founded on the “truth” that the unfettered right to all three is “unalienable.” But as COVID-19 shows, such truths are the furthest thing from self-evident.


Zaid Jilani, a journalist, is currently on fellowship, studying political and social polarization at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Follow him on Twitter at @ZaidJilani.

Featured image by Julian Wan on Unsplash


  1. This short, two minute speech from Tory Libertarian Steve Baker defends liberty far more eloquently than I ever could:

    There is an increasing sentiment throughout the West that liberty is a license which can be conferred by Government, as though you can do what you want provided you don’t offend anyone, or say anything too controversial- an extension of the deeply deranging belief that speech is violence.

    At least in the case of COVID-19, whatever measures Government introduces to cope with crisis will only be temporary in nature. God help us if our Governments develop a taste for any of the powers they have been ceded by their citizens. The bloody history of Socialism shows what happens when the State is granted too much power.

  2. “Those of us who are young and less at risk (a category that excludes those with pre-existing medical vulnerabilities) are the ones who should be doing everything we can to protect older citizens. I may be grumpy about having to sit inside all day, but I’ll put on Netflix and work on my video-game backlog if it helps protect a nonagenarian who stormed the beaches at Normandy long before I was born.”

    You completely misunderstand the harm from a lockdown. It is permanent damage to and wiping out of peoples livelihoods and life savings. More than an annoyance to be grumpy about.

  3. It’s not a surprise that the left jumped on the governor’s words over the coronavirus. This is the perfect chance for the left to push their agenda. And what is their agenda?

    Why Socialists Want to Destroy Western Civilization and Christianity | Prof. DiLorenzo - YouTube - 2 April 2020

    The real problem is that the resulting impact of the economic crash has multiple dimensions. One threat is a worldwide depression, not merely a recession. The next problem is that big wars go with big economic crashes. Why would big wars be associated with big economic crashes? Because they are related.

    Societies follow a crash profile of snowy mountains, which I am not making up. Imagine a multi-sided mountain. Snow falls on each side equally but each side is different. Some sides are easier to avalanche. When one side avalanches that tells you that the snow has built up to dangerous levels on all sides - meaning expect more avalanches. What avalanches (shocks) have we seen?

    2001 - 9/11
    2008 - Financial crash
    2020 - Covid-19

    All of these shocks are unprecedented. Expect more to come. And anything is possible.

    In the real world the snow is represented by bad decisions and bad ideas. Bad decisions build up until there is a crash. If those crashes are suppressed then they get worse. That keeps happening until the mother of all crashes comes. We saw this with the Great Depression plus World War II.

    World War I was preceded by a big financial crash too.

    Better get ready.

  4. Well, the alternative to relying on people having a rational, mature mind would be to treat them like some kind of immature children. It’s not a pretty thought, if you ask me. But suppose that were true. Then the political decision-making process would have to be based on the assumption that someone is rational and mature enough to work in the best interests of these people, wouldn’t it. But who could that someone be, if not another equally flawed person?

    In my opinion, the basic assumption of Libertarianism is not that people are always perfect at acting in their own best interests, but that they are better able to do so than anyone else who wants to make decisions for them.

    Regardless of this, I agree with you that there seems to be a large number of people who are happy when others take important decisions away from them. Which is okay. But I would not want to make that attitude our standard.

    I don’t think so. Not at all, actually.

    I well remember how our governments and the media denied the looming threat of the pandemic in January/February. How they refused to take any precautions. How the centralized CDC bureaucracy screwed up the introduction of effective testing for weeks. How the authorities tried to talk people into believing that masks would not protect us. How they reacted far too late and therefore had to take overly drastic measures that might even have done more harm than good. If I’ve learned anything in the last few months: If you depend on the wisdom of these people, then you are clearly forsaken.

    In any case, I assume that there will probably be two different kinds of lessons learned from this crisis: For some people, the results will clearly demonstrate the need for a more centralized political decision-making process. For others, the opposite will be the case. And my guess is that everyone will see exactly the result they expected. :slight_smile:

  5. This is complete misinformation. Over 50% of people that contract the virus have very mild to NO symptoms. And the hospitalization rate is for a minority of total people contracting the virus.

    And for THAT, we have destroyed the economy, which will, in fact, likely be the precipitating factor in many more suicides than deaths resulting from the virus. One need only look to the same phenomenon after the 2008 recession.

    The only thing you have to fear, is fear itself … unless you are unhealthy.

  6. Enjoyed the article, but seems the author attempted to tackle too many topics under a single banner. In terms of weighing the risk:benefit of our current approach, if human life is the only variable we care to study, I think we may never know whether our approach has been “worth it”. The news is full of stories of Italians, Spaniards, and New Yorkers dying at home. The assumption is they were all COVID patients, when in reality, many of them were patients with significant comorbid conditions who would not go to the ER out of fear of COVID exposure. I was recently speaking to the head of our ER, and he asked a simple question “where in the world are all of our heart attack, heart failure, chest pain, overdose, asthma, and overdose patients?”. An ER that is typically full is now essentially empty. Where are those patients? Are they all suddenly healthy? Additionally, as we try to recover economically, it is a near certainty that many jobs will not come back, and that will leave many without health insurance. There will be a price to be paid in terms of mortality from that as well. I do credit the social measures with slowing the spread enough to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed, and I believe that has saved lives in the short term, but it will be hard to know on balance if it really saves that many lives over the long haul.

    Many have been angered by the comparisons of car fatalities and COVID, and while I agree they are completely different in many respects, the comparison does reflect inconsistencies in our views toward using government intervention to save lives. The fact is that the highway fatality rate could be taken down close to zero if the government enacted a speed limit of 20MPH, placed regulations on car manufacturers that each car have a regulator that does not allow the car to go more than 20MPH, and imprisoned anyone who tampered with their engine to allow it to go faster. “Well, that is ridiculous, that would kill our economy, decrease individual freedom, and lead to strained communities and families”…precisely, and not too different from what we are experiencing right now. We made a decision as a society, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, that the benefits of having a higher speed limit were worth the annual body count.

    I have been libertarian leaning my entire life, but I have never suffered the delusion that pure libertarianism would work in our society; however, the same can be said of implementing the “pure” form of any political ideology. I do believe that a more libertarian approach to government may have better prepared us for this pandemic, and certainly might offer a more reasonable route out of this mess.

  7. In Gangelt, Germany, they did a random sample of the citizens. This is a town considered to be highly impacted by the virus. 15% have been infected, the results show. The death rate is 0.37%. If people were being accurately informed by our media, then there would be no lock down. You face much worse odds driving a car a certain number of miles every year, but people accept that risk.

  8. I dunno, SPIKED! seems to think Her Majesty’s Government developed a taste for all those powers long ago. Do you think the curfew bell will return?

    Here in the US, a surprising number of our state governments are already exhibiting an enthusiasm for very arbitrary rule in the name of the common good and saving the lives of the 90 year olds who stormed the beaches at Normandy; in puerile words of the author of this maudlin bit of narcissism; Watching Netflix to save the world.

    I can assure you that in the US the electorate has not been able wrest back any of the emergency powers the US government seized after 2001.

    The war on this virus will join the war on terror and become another never ending threat that will adduce evermore draconian and arbitrary responses from the government.

  9. Maybe the root of this hysteria is the irrational fear of death.

    It appears that people who have no religion of any kind and no established place in any human community live in terror of death. But death is both natural and inevitable. Paraphrasing the stoics, if we must die must we also die groaning, impoverished and afraid? By no means!

    Based on our experience with covid-19 it already is, and likely will continue, to be endemic in all populations. Clearly, cowering under the bed and living in dread is not a long term solution unless you think that suicide is a solution. That’s a nice paradox.

  10. The United States are not a “theoretical abstraction.” They became the #1 country in “the physical world” with the libertarian philosophy.

  11. And that’s the dilemma. Even those of us who prefer liberty – and I’m one of them – should understand that the blunt, clubbing force of the government is used because it seems to be the only way to control those who can’t control themselves. I sometimes speculate about a society in which citizenship is earned. Citizens, being responsible adults, are under no prescriptive rules – they are responsible for the results of their actions however.

  12. Back when congress repealed the 55 mph speed limit the media predicted carnage for the state of Montana that had no limit. The fatalities actually fell. Basically you are a lot less likely to fall asleep driving at 80 plus in the middle of no-where than plodding along at 55. It didn’t make news because it didn’t fit the media agenda but the point of the repeal was not what the speed limit should be, it was who should set it. In this case the locals knew better than the Feds.

  13. There is a range of measures between do nothing and complete shut down of the world. It’s a straw man argument to say that those of us who say that shutting everything down is very harmful means that we are saying do nothing.

    Instead there needs to be a sober assessment of what the correct measures are - without all this sophist waling and gnashing of teeth. The assessment needs to focus on those most affected (elderly and sick), what will result in the least long term harm, what PPE can limit the risk of infection, and crucially how many people have already had the disease and are immune to it.

    I have to say this may also have to result in reporting restrictions to stop the click bait which is spreading panic and misinformation.

  14. “The United States spends about 0.2 percent of its gross national product on foreign aid, half of the average among wealthy nations.”

    The Pax Americana has enabled the rest of the West to conduct their affairs as they see fit, without having to devote inordinate amounts of their wealth to defense. Any such comparison needs to include this fact.

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