In the Name of Public Health – Misconceptions

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A significant amount of political discussion in the last year has revolved around actions taken in the name of public health. Lockdowns, mask mandates, social distancing, and now “vaccine passports” have all focused on protecting public health, regardless of consequences.

Most of the time, the consequences are never mentioned. Shutting down an economy and forcing people out of work have obvious immediate consequences (not to mention long-term consequences!), and these are rarely mentioned or debated. When people protest over the harms of these measures, there is rarely any sympathy or good-faith responses. Anything done in the name of public health must mean that those opposed are selfish and evil, because they don’t care about the common good or such obviously good things like being healthy and safe! Or so the accusations allege.

There are people who, despite reviewing the research and weighing the odds, have come to the conclusion that these measures are necessary. But they are few and far between. They are heavily outnumbered by those who will mindlessly support any action done in the name of public health. “Public health is a good thing” is an indisputable statement. The healthier people are, the better.

But it does not follow that if public health is a good thing, then any action taken in the name of public health is also a good thing. We do not need to review the numerous atrocities committed in the name of things like “the common good.” So many of these are already common knowledge, yet we understand that the problem isn’t that the common good isn’t really good, but rather that something done in the name of the common good isn’t therefore good.

We cheer rather than condemn the heroes of the past who fought against the atrocities committed in the name of the common good. Surely, then, we can understand without too much trouble how anything done in the name of the public good isn’t automatically just, and therefore automatic dismissal of critics is a characteristic of only the most evil and the most stupid.

Even if we were to concede that something like a temporary lockdown has immediate short-term benefits that outweigh the medium-term costs (something that is by no means confidently proven), the idea that something as immense as a lockdown could have long-term negative effects seems to be completely lost to the average lockdown fan. 

But we rarely have to look into the future. Sometimes defenders of public health measures like lockdowns seem completely oblivious to the very idea that anything exists outside of health. No doubt they would respond that human life is precious and more important than a loss of material wealth or extra leisure time.

But their actions speak louder than words. Driving is inherently risky. Over 38,000 Americans die in traffic accidents per year. Which means that if you’ve ever gotten behind the wheel to do anything unessential, you’ve decided that putting human life at risk (however small that risk may be) is worthwhile to do whatever unessential thing you’re doing. That doesn’t make you a bad person. That just means you’ve either never thought about it, or you’ve weighed the odds and decided it’s worth the risk.

There are many things outside of public health and human life. We can even be in almost universal agreement that human life is the most important single thing. But that is no excuse to dismiss negative consequences outside this issue.

To give a personal anecdote, during a discussion on lockdowns, I asked a defender of lockdowns if we could confidently say that a lockdown was worthwhile if all we knew was that it caused COVID-19 cases to be lower than they otherwise would be. I was told yes, we could say that. Apparently nothing else matters. As long as a lockdown lowers cases, we need not consider any other effects lockdowns may have, apparently.

Now the conversation is shifting to vaccine passports. Its defenders so far argue that this would be a worthwhile public health measure to get people vaccinated to stop the coronavirus. But beyond that, there is no argument. That is all that apparently matters. They don’t stop to consider that such a tracking system being heavily pushed by states and corporations could possibly be abused. It’s not that they don’t think it could be abused. It’s that they never consider it to begin with.

Meanwhile, reasonable people will wholeheartedly oppose vaccine passports, as the consequences and expected abuse clearly outweigh any possible benefits. They won’t waste their time complaining that such opposition to vaccine passports might be insensitive or hyperbolic when misinterpreted by unreasonable people.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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