The presumption must always be in favour of individual rights and personal freedom

This was posted at the Societies for the History of Economics website a couple of weeks back.

Of course, with the spread of the COVID virus, I have been thinking of the libertarian arguments of the constraints of government on liberty. But now the constraint on liberty is not from the government but from nature where one’s individual actions can harm others. I would assume that for a responsible libertarian, they would recognize their behavior affects the liberty (health) of another, and change their behavior. Besides having rights, liberty also means individual responsibility to protect the liberty of others from one’s actions. But what if individuals don’t and add to the tragedy of the commons?

If one believes ecological economists, individual constraints are going to increase with global warming. It is only by acting collectively to control global warming that we will be able to protect personal liberty from the constraints that nature will force on us. The point I’m getting at is that besides demanding rights, individuals need to act responsibly. If not, then collective action needs to step in to protect the common good. The libertarian argument for me has only made sense if individuals besides demanding rights are also willing to respect and act to protect the rights of others. If not, you get too many tragedies of the commons.

Irritating, specially when he brought global warming into the picture, and then another pair blew in to support this same argument. But before I could buy in myself three others joined in to argue the other side so I let it go, until yesterday. Then I posted this:

I am sorry to be buying back into this exchange of views after so long, but in editing something today I came across a passage in John Stuart Mill from his On Liberty. These are the first two paragraphs of Chapter V, “Applications”, which I believe discusses the point made in this earlier post.

The principles asserted in these pages must be more generally admitted as the basis for discussion of details, before a consistent application of them to all the various departments of government and morals can be attempted with any prospect of advantage. The few observations I propose to make on questions of detail, are designed to illustrate the principles, rather than to follow them out to their consequences. I offer, not so much applications, as specimens of application; which may serve to bring into greater clearness the meaning and limits of the two maxims which together form the entire doctrine of this Essay, and to assist the judgment in holding the balance between them, in the cases where it appears doubtful which of them is applicable to the case.

The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct. Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishments, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

If, during a pandemic, wandering down the street in the middle of the day, going shopping, or showing up at a cafe with friends, is deemed to be “prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable” then our individual rights may in such circumstances be abridged. Being restated was what John Stuart Mill had already made clear in 1859. With this found not just in Mill, but in his On Liberty, then it is hard to argue this undefined belief system he described as “libertarian”, whatever this may in reality be, is opposed to communal action of this kind on principle. Even so, the presumption must be in favour of individual rights and personal freedom. At the beginning when this virus had only begun to have an effect on individuals and our communities, no one had any clear idea of the extent of the problem we were dealing with. Now that the smoke is clearing, and we have become aware of how much of an exaggerated concern there originally was, the issue must surely have become not whether but how soon the restrictions that have been placed on society ought to be lifted. That too would be consistent with the arguments made by Mill, whose argument must be the terms in which these issues are discussed if we are to continue to live in a free society.