Conservatives versus Lockdowns

Conservatives versus Lockdowns

Spurred on by conservative groups, protesters are demanding that their states go back to business as usual.  This sentiment isn’t limited to the kinds of hotheads who insist on congregating in public during an epidemic, or even to  conservatives like Betsy DeVos who  help to fund these groups and promote their protests. It also includes other, more sober, conservative commentators. It’s important to understand the reasons for this pushback, which are not unlike the reasons for many of the same commentators’ indifference to climate change.

One reason for the pushback is a continued refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, just as with climate change. An example is Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the NY Times who has downplayed both the threat of the coronavirus and the threat of climate change.   In a column published over the weekend, he argued that the virus is really just a New York problem and that the rest of the country should be allowed to go back to work.

We’ve heard this kind of thing before. You may recall that originally the virus was just a Chinese problem.  Then, in Europe, it was just an Italian problem.  After that, it was a European problem but not an American problem, so we closed our borders. Now, we’re told, it’s a New York problem.

At root, this is a failure to understand the potential of epidemics to undergo explosive growth from a small number of cases. Yes, up until now, New York has been the major hotspot.  But deaths in New York are going down, while they are steadily rising for the country as a whole. Even areas where cases are growing slowly now are not exempt from risk. The success of various types of lockdown orders in slowing the spread of the disease does not mean that the disease will stay quiet when those orders are removed.

Stephens also attacks a straw man.  No one advocates that exactly the same measures have to be taken on the same timetable across the country.  Nor does anyone think the country can stay locked down until a vaccine arises in a year or two.  For that matter, no one thinks that lockdowns must be pursued at all costs, regardless of consequences. What experts do believe is that we have to get the number of cases low enough, and the number of tests high enough, so we can use contact tracing to limit fresh outbreaks.

Many conservatives are rightfully concerned about the undeniably heavy economic costs of lockdowns.  Economic analysis indicates, however, that those costs are presently outweighed by the value of the human lives saved by continuing  lockdowns.  This is at least true on a national level, although it’s possible that there are some communities where restrictions can be safely eased.

There’s also a sense, from a libertarian perspective, that we shouldn’t restrict personal liberties for the sake of the community, at least not unless the alternative is catastrophic.  That may be behind the eagerness of libertarians like Richard Epstein to reopen, as I’ve discussed previously.  But there seem to be liberty interests on both sides: the liberty of those who would like to escape the lockdown, and the liberty of others to live their lives in safety.

No one is in favor of extending the serious economic pain of the lockdown any longer than necessary.  But we shouldn’t let ideology get in the way of the facts when making policy decisions of such life-and-death importance.




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Reader Comments

5 Replies to “Conservatives versus Lockdowns”

  1. Let’s face the most brutal fact of life in Washington today, Trump is all about Trump and his actions keep proving daily that he doesn’t give a damn about human life when it comes to getting what he wants for himself.

    Another fact is that republican politicians like McConnell will give him whatever he wants regardless of consequences against our democracy and the human race as long as he keeps giving them what they want.

    The tragedy for America, and our civilization, is that Trump gets away with following in the footsteps of WWII fascist leaders and we see him doing it on TV every day. Yet Trump still has a 45% presidential job approval rating, per RCP polling reports, proving beyond all doubt that both our politicians and intellectuals never learn from the lessons of history and fail protect our civilization from out of control environmental destruction and the evolution of diseases that are killing thousands of us on a daily basis.

  2. Dan, I’m a product of the Free Speech/Equal Rights period who believes in these issues more than ever before.

    They have taken a new meaning at a time of my life, in my 80s, where I must keep thinking and communicating to protect my brain from cognitive decline because the term Use It or Lose It is imperative.
    Thus I wish to highlight two paramount facts of life:

    1. We must fight to produce and implement new ways protect and perpetuate our civilization because what our political and intellectual leaders are doing/not doing things today aren’t working. Today, with out of control environmental destruction and disease, believers and fighters for producing a legacy of an acceptable quality of life for our newest and all future generations must keep pushing and fighting harder than ever before time runs out.

    2. Political and intellectual leaders MUST WITH GREATEST URGENCY present unified messaging about the reality of climate change and pandemics, and the steps that must be taken and implemented immediately to halt out of control destruction of our civilization today.

  3. In California a member of the public has a constitutional level right to be on the navigable water and on the shore zone for recreation; and, a constitutional right to be on state-owned land and land formerly owned by the state and conveyed out after November 8. 1910, for fishing. Public agencies and officials must not interfere with these rights, except when necessary; and then only to the extent necessary, Decision which interfere with these rights must be made in a public and transparent manner. How long are our government officials going to act as if Covid 19 needs are “sudden and unexpected ” and on that basis limit public access to public lands by rules made outside of the light of day and without a rational explanation? Covid 19 has been the new normal for two months. Why are lone surfers being ticketed. Why are people on public lands, who are complying with social distancing rules, being cited? Is there a rational basis for these rules.

  4. I think that everyone agrees that constitutional rights should be limited no more than actually necessary in an emergency situation. The question of how much courts should second-guess restrictions is coming up in a lot of contexts, including abortion, the right to travel, and free exercise of religion. Courts seem unsure of how to handle these cases. The historical tradition has been great deference to the government. Clearly, in an emergency, the government shouldn’t be expected to proceed with as much care, transparency, and public administration as normal. The question is how much we should relax those standards. I think what we’ll find is a greater willingness of courts to intervene as time goes on and the need for speed fades. Even so, do we really want them making their own medical judgments about what restrictions are necessary?

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more