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By Patrick McAuliffe

In ThEsE uNcErTaIn TiMeS, questions about public obligations and private rights are brought to the forefront of people’s lives. The true application of abstract ideals such as one’s civic duty or the non-aggression principle is no longer something relegated to the ivory tower, but to the concrete sidewalks in front of government buildings and the wire fences around the entrances of Walmarts. For the sake of both the healthy and the vulnerable, a solution must be found to mitigate the damage caused by COVID-19 and simultaneously reconcile our rights as Americans and as free human beings.

The NAP, or non-aggression principle, is a catch-all for many libertarians in describing their ideal society. Luckily for them in their ideological struggle to seriously enter relevant political circles, it is something most people already agree with on a common-sense level. The general gist of the NAP is that force should not be used on someone without provocation. It seems reasonable enough; you shouldn’t punch someone unless they hit first, and you wouldn’t attack a random person unless they broke into your house. Getting to the details of such a principle, however, is not something that some advocates of the NAP have fully mapped out. In this same vein, not all libertarians can even agree on what constitutes “libertarianism” in quotes beyond a general trend toward freedom. Anarchists, minarchists, and Justin Amash (a new presidential candidate for the Libertarian party, I should add) all have different ideas about how governments and societies should be run, but they can all claim the moniker of “libertarian.”

What is the basis of the NAP? It relies, for the most part, on a clear conception of property rights, first and foremost being bodily autonomy. A person owns and controls their own body, by nature of an individual’s subjective consciousness. An attack on one’s person is an egregious assault on one’s autonomy, and the right to defend it is a key foundation of any free society. Any government or philosophy that argues otherwise operates from a view of the world that holds that individuals have no right or ability to choose for themselves; one’s life is not one’s own, and can be taken and sacrificed for anyone and anything. Even if a decision is clearly not in a person’s self-interest, they still have the right to do it (with limitations to be touched on later). From here, property rights of external property extend: one owns what they work for, what they have traded for as a result of their work, or what someone else has given to them voluntarily from what they themselves have worked for. Again, defense of these property rights is another key foundation of a free society.

While these rights may exist for the individual, can they be defended justly on one’s own? Can an individual hope to grow their work into something bigger than themselves by just doing it all themselves, fending off robbers at every turn? Reality has shown that this is impossible, because without cooperation and specialization, humans could not build railroads, skyscrapers, iPhones, or satellites. World-changing ideas may originate with individuals, but to make them a reality, others must voluntarily work together to make those ideas concrete. Much of human history’s past accomplishments have, admittedly, relied on force and slavery, but in the past 150 years, we have accomplished more through voluntary cooperation under capitalism than any of our ancestors could hope to accomplish in hundreds of years. All of this was possible through a defense of property rights enforced, however imperfectly or inconsistently, by the US government.

This is one of the things that the NAP, for all of its appeals to common sense, fails to specify about. “No aggression unless provoked” – but who enforces the retaliation? Should justice be punitive or rehabilitative? Should it be proportional to the harm done, or should the victim decide the punishment? What if the victim is dead, or is no longer in a mental state to decide on the punishment? These questions are vital to social order and cooperation, and no matter how vehemently “rugged individualists” may deny it, social order and cooperation are necessary to living the lifestyle they’d like the freedom to lead. Even Ron Swanson got his food and stuff from Food ‘n Stuff, relying on the supermarket’s cashiers, stock people, and suppliers in order to grill his simplistic but tremendously delicious hamburger. (I’ve been rewatching Parks and Rec to fill the Tom and Marty’s-shaped hole in my heart, sue me.)

Some things in society, no matter how they may seem to conflict with one’s self-interest, must be done. The biggest one that many libertarians (and a past version of myself) object to is taxation. What the rate and distribution should be specifically is a can of worms to open another time, but in principle, taxation is necessary for the defense of the individuals’ rights within a society and the national defense of that society from other societies. For this reason, taxation may even be in a person’s self-interest, if they hope to see their rights continue to be defended. 

This gets at another economic, but also philosophical, problem called the Tragedy of the Commons. Given a public good among a group of people—whether this be a public field for farmers to graze their herds in as in the original problem, or the defense of property rights entrusted to governments—most people will freeride off of those that voluntarily choose to give to support the existence of the public good. With enough time, those that support the public good no longer see a personal incentive to do so, and the public good is destroyed or expended. For grazing fields, this may not seem to be too much of a setback, but for the breakdown of defending property rights, it is a difference of life or death for some, perhaps all, of the people in a society. Humans may have an altruistic survival instinct, but if some members of one’s tribe don’t contribute to the wellbeing of the tribe, it breaks down.

This is happening right now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaving aside the giant mismanagement of a quick response to the spread by US governments from the top down, the thing that will lead to more death and higher economic ruin in the long run is the admirable but stupid response by some people that can only be described as “American.” Signs of “my body, my choice” and “crimes against humanity” were two of the messages displayed at Binghamton’s own protest to reopen the state on May 1st. For several weeks this has been the sentiment of a small but vocal minority of people in our country as protests over the shutdown have spread like wildfire from city to city.

I struggle to find the words to adequately express the unbelievable idiocy of these protesters. Wisdom comes from a most unlikely source in Kourtney Kardashian: “Kim, there’s people that are dying.” 

The ideological battleground over the coronavirus shutdown is a collision of so many different forces that trying to undo the Gordian knot to find a practical solution on moving forward is nearly impossible. How can the negative externalities caused by the pandemic be reconciled in our capitalist system? Assuming businesses and public places are allowed to return to normal operations while the virus is not completely contained (let alone has a viable vaccine option or proper cure), a person that doesn’t feel comfortable about the potential exposure could refuse to return to work. This may cause them to lose their job, potentially their only source of income, and put them out of an economy that would just be starting to recover. Outside of government assistance, they could find a job as an essential worker; they voluntarily put themselves in this position, so they can choose from the options available and find a new job. This doesn’t get to the root of the problem, however; being in public at the same level as before the shutdown, whether employed or jobless, while the coronavirus is still a serious concern is still causing the same negative externalities to others as trying to maintain a pre-shutdown public lifestyle. 

This is where individual choices reach their limits. A coronavirus carrier chooses to leave their house and unwittingly spreads it to someone else, who may die or spread it to someone more at risk. Even though it wasn’t the carrier’s intent to do so, their actions caused someone to die. This is the reason Typhoid Mary was locked up in the 1880s. This is the reason companies are heavily fined for polluting rivers and oceans, killing the environment and poisoning those downstream. Whether or not the offender wanted to cause harm to others is inconsequential. A harm was done to an innocent bystander that had no choice in being in harm’s way. They have the same autonomy and rights as the offender, and to be so negligent of one’s actions as they pertain to others is morally reprehensible. In a time of crisis such as this, the damage done could be magnified tenfold.

I don’t claim to support South Korea’s policy of tracking and doxxing their own citizens to prevent the spread, nor Utah’s disclosure policy on the travel plans of all adults entering the state without a positive coronavirus test to warrant such an invasion of privacy. However, it is clearly a moral problem to even consider reopening the country to what it was before the pandemic shutdown. Until a trustworthy vaccine is developed and better care is widely available (in other words, the negative externalities of one’s actions can be mitigated or negated), calling for the “right” to get a haircut or go to a Hooters violates the NAP of the most vulnerable among us. Stay the fuck home.

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