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Masks, pollution and implied consent

I occasionally follow the Institute of Economic Affairs’ weekly videoed chats about issues of the day, and obviously the IEA, as fronted by Mark Littlewood (he now sports a sort of “bovver boy” haircut associated with football gangs circa 1980 – the lockdown hairdo!), spends a good deal of its time on the pandemic. I thought the latest discussions were particularly interesting, and certainly did not lead to an echo-chamber of jolly agreement. In fact things got quite fiery when Sam Bowman, formerly of the Adam Smith Institute and now in public affairs, got going at 1.21:44.

Sam’s argument is, I hope I summarise fairly, something like this: Government experts now conclude that wearing masks in shops and other places is a good idea, even though it is annoying that they have changed their minds a lot and this has not helped public trust. Wearing masks cannot be left up to private discretion and choice; it is a response to a very serious menace, and wearing masks is more about protecting others than oneself. As Britons often lack any civic sense and the “negative externality” of not wearing a mask is potentially deadly, fines for non-compliance with the rules are acceptable, because experts say it is necessary, given what we know about how people can catch this virus. So stop being a bunch of anarchists, and do what you are told!

Okay, maybe I simplify but not by a lot. Sam talked about the “negative externalities” of human behaviour, such as coughing over others when you have an illness, or playing v. loud music late at night, etc. Translation: he means pollution.

And where I thought the discussion took an interesting turn was when Mark Littlewood, defending his stance, asked Sam where one draws the line about human actions that might affect others in a negative way? Isn’t there a “slippery slope” here – should the State, in its wisdom, coerce the benighted public to wear masks/other whenever there is a flu season or some other scare about health, etc? None of the other panelists gave what I thought was a very good answer to this, particularly for anyone coming to this discussion from a cold start. At one point, when responding to Mark L’s point about how all kinds of behaviour can negatively affect others, Sam replied that murder obviously harms people, and that is why we punish it. At this stage I rubbed my eyes – no-one consents to murder, by definition, but one might, for instance, consent to moving into a neighbourhood where people play music late at night if one knows that in advance.

This is the guts of the matter. This IEA discussion was flawed – albeit stimulating – because the issue of “implied consent” wasn’t really fully aired here. A shame because that is where it could have gone. Also, not enough was done to stress the importance of several property rights to handling issues, since a person entering a building is giving his implied consent to the rules of the place. This also speaks to the need for a “bottom-up” set of solutions to problems, rather than a requirement for a top-down approach.

There can be, of course, an issue of a “tragedy of the commons” problem where there aren’t walls or fences to keep a virus from harming A or B. It is for this reason alone that a State might have some justification to enforce pollution-minimising actions (like wearing a mask) but always with the proviso that such actions should be strictly limited by time, and second, that where possible people should be encouraged to do the sensible thing, and not endlessly nagged with contradictory advice, often doing so by wild exaggeration.

One feature of Sam’s comments I object to is where he said that there is no sense in trying to distinguish between the mask-wearing rules as they apply for vulnerable people with underlying health conditions, such as the elderly, and everyone else. But without some ability to distinguish between young adults and the elderly, we are faced with an indiscriminate and open-ended lockdown/enforced mask regime. Given the economic costs of the situation, this seems to ignore the cost/benefit issue. Sam rightly said that even younger people who get coronavirus suffer. But the death rate for the older population is of a magnitude higher, and to ignore that and demand everyone is treated the same is bizarre.

Another thing: there should be a burden of proof on those who demand coercive laws to deal with such alleged externalities, and not on those who resist or who are sceptical. That presumption of liberty, in my view, was shockingly absent in Bowman’s account and the others on this segment of the IEAs’ show did not really make that point. Perhaps what this also shows is that even in classical liberal think-tank land, understanding of the proper meaning of liberty is uneven.

For as we have seen, the apocalyptic predictions about COVID-19 and the drastic measures to contain it have undermined a great deal of public trust in the advice given to governments, and the actions taken by them. As even Sam Bowman acknowledged, this trust deficit is a big problem and being arguably made worse by policies that look more like arse-covering than the public welfare.

31 comments to Masks, pollution and implied consent

  • Itellyounothing

    The government can only take, never give. They can only change minds by fear of loss because there is nobody left who believes the government will actually deliver a gain. The virus is no worse than many diseases our nation has survived without destroying civil and economic liberty.

    The Westminster clique are turning into the Covid stasi because on some level they fear a massive loss of control is coming. They are driving that.

    I hear some big shops are refusing to enforce the ban. I know who will get my custom. It points the way though. Instead of a ban, let companies choose which they serve, the masks or The unmasked. Job mobbed.

  • Duncan S

    First hand evidence (I asked checkout-lady) of a branch of Asda in South Ayrshire, and second hand evidence (my aunt asked store manager) of a branch of Morrisons in Aberdeenshire:

    Staff in those two stores have been told by their bosses that the policy is to remind customers that the law requires the wearing of a face covering, but customers will not be turned away if bare-faced.

    I don’t know if this is store specific, or company-wide policy.

  • UsedtobeBanned

    Itellyounothing, Tesco, Lidl and JD Sports have said they will not be enforcing it, a Chief Constable and the Police Federation (Union) have said it is not policeable.

  • UsedtobeBanned

    Sam Bowman sounds like the sort of person who buys a second home in rural village then starts complaining about the cock crowing, church bells and noisy school playground.

  • bobby b

    And it’s not a binary solution set.

    I’m currently causing my relatives much anger and venting over the issue. After listening to many of them excoriating the maskless – to the point of “fine, if they don’t believe science helps us, no docs or meds for the maskless ever again!” – I started pointing out that they were mostly wearing cotton masks, which are about 20% as effective as N95’s (which are the masks I wear when a mask is appropriate.)

    Cotton masks are nothing more than signifiers of goodness and selflessness without the trouble of being good or selfless, I told them. They keep you from actively spitting on others, but that’s about all they do. If you’re not willing to wear a real mask, I told them, stay home.

    They’re like a guy who drives a car through the school playground at noon at 30mph demonizing the guy doing the same thing at 35mph, I pointed out. How handy it must be to always be able to draw the line of morality so that it contains the spot on which you’re standing!

    I fear I must now leave town for a while.

  • Mr Ecks

    The moral choice is no to masks–that don’t work anyway– and no to rushed vaccines. The max UK compo if it fucks U up is 120 thousand which is v little if the fuck up is for life. And no benefits until money is gone. I despise Gates and wont advance whatever plans the prick has and I’ll take my chances with damp squib flu.

  • JP Floru

    Sam Bowman, unfortunately, has gone full statist on this. If the state must prevent all human behaviour that could harm others, it should also ban cars and cigarettes and many many other behaviours and things. That is the logical consequence from what Sam Bowman says.
    Initially quite libertarian, he made a philosophical journey while still working at the Adam Smith institute, which ended him in a place which is pretty unlibertarian. In free market circles the penny apparently still hasn’t dropped.

    Another logical consequence of what Bowman says is that facial mask should be compulsory forever, as viruses are spread through human interaction all the time. We should also make condoms compulsory, or, saving even more lives, ban sex.

    As The Great Lady Said: No. No. No.

  • Glad to see I am not the only one who noticed Sam Bowman is not very pro-liberty, to put it mildly (actually on quite a few issues). This is someone who also feels risking your life to try and save someone else in danger should be legally mandatory.

  • Ian2

    Very good comment by Jonathan Pierce, because first it stresses that government only has a role to avert a tragedy of the commons, ie should only intervene in the public not private domain and second, the presumption of liberty is paramount, and so any measures adopted must be thoroughly justified. I live in Spain, where there was a very small but thriving liberal/libertarian community. As far as I can see, they have nearly all gone Bowman, with not the slightest attempt to justify lockdown or the absurd insistence on wearing facemasks in all public spaces, including beaches and forest paths. Very depressing

  • Itellyounothing

    Heroes one and all!

    The Police won’t hold out against threats to the pension.

    Tesco and Lidl are probably big enough….

  • Itellyounothing

    The Covid Stasi are popping up everywhere.

    Who would have thought Boris would take the bossy mask hole ticket in 2019? Not even sure Boris himself would……

    I noticed Bowman has gone very statist. Does wearing a mask stop it spreading?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “If the state must prevent all human behaviour that could harm others, it should also ban cars and cigarettes and many many other behaviours and things. That is the logical consequence from what Sam Bowman says.”

    Yes, he’s a minarchist, not a full-on anarchist.

    The Harm Principle states that the only justification for society to interfere with any individual’s freedom is to prevent unconsented harm being done to others. This is how libertarians answer the objection that ‘absolute freedom’ implies the freedom to murder, torture, poison, and enslave, and thus is logically inconsistent. The absolute freedom of one person logically contradicts absolute freedom for everyone else.

    Society must therefore have rules and constraints on behaviour – the Harm Principle aims to impose only the absolute minimum constraint consistent with everyone else enjoying the same freedoms. Those rules must be enforced by society. And the choices there are either the mob, or the state. Hence some libertarians being ‘statist’.

    Real life, of course, is rarely that simple. Usually you are faced with a range of options *all* of which do harm, and instead the question is one of balance – how do we prioritise one sort of harm against another, one person’s suffering against another’s, to minimise the harm and maximise freedom? Opinions differ. But the decision affects everybody, so we need some sort of joint decision-making process to negotiate compromises and safeguard against one faction imposing their opinion about the proper balance on everyone else. Representative democracy (constitutionally constrained by some version of the Harm Principle) is one such system.

    The problem to be solved here is one of balancing conflicting harms. On the one hand, not wearing a mask has a low but non-zero probability of killing other people. On the other, wearing a mask is uncomfortable and annoying with much higher probability. The question libertarians would ask is, what’s the probability of harm and at what threshold is it high enough to justify taking action? That’s a legitimate question for any libertarian to ask, or to differ on.

    But for some people, there is no balance. Single-issue fanatics see only the harms done on one side of the equation, and are blind to or dismissive of those on the other. Like an Environmentalist only sees harm done to nature – and allows no weight to the harm being done to people. They have their own opinion about the proper balance, which they regard as the only legitimate position to be considered. Such people are commonly only interested in their own freedoms, and not anybody else’s. Even the most ardent authoritarian will fight for their own freedom of action.

    So, is your argument with Sam Bowman that he’s assessed the probability of harm wrongly (like, you think it’s zero and he doesn’t), or is striking the wrong balance? Or is it that he’s interfering with *your* freedom, a freedom you value, and you see no reason you should have to put yourself out to save anybody else from harm?

  • Nullius in Verba

    “And where I thought the discussion took an interesting turn was when Mark Littlewood, defending his stance, asked Sam where one draws the line about human actions that might affect others in a negative way? Isn’t there a “slippery slope” here – should the State, in its wisdom, coerce the benighted public to wear masks/other whenever there is a flu season or some other scare about health, etc?”

    It’s a complicated question. The Utilitarian argument makes for a reasonable first pass – you add up the harms done by each option to all the people involved, and pick the option with the minimum total harm. There are a number of problems with that, though. First, it’s hard to compare the utility between different people. Alice and Bob both like cake, but Alice likes it a whole lot more than Bob, so giving more cake to Alice increases overall utility. But how can you know how much Alice likes it? This is what markets are for. If Alice likes it more, she will be willing to pay a higher price. And where markets don’t apply – externalities and public goods – this becomes a problem. A second issue is that humans have more complicated rules, associated with agency and evolutionary ‘game theory’. Psychologists explore this area with tools like the ‘Trolley Problem’ – situations where the straightforward utilitarian calculation conflicts with how the more complicated actual human moral systems work.

    Whole books have been written on the subject. But the short answer is, no there’s no ‘slippery slope’ here, because there are in fact *two* slopes, inclined in opposite directions, so long as we consider *both* sides of the balance of harms. ‘Slippery slopes’ arise from considering only *one* side.

    “At this stage I rubbed my eyes – no-one consents to murder, by definition, but one might, for instance, consent to moving into a neighbourhood where people play music late at night if one knows that in advance.”

    On the contrary – people knowingly consent to moving into neighbourhoods where the risk of being murdered is high, in exchange for other advantages like the house prices being very cheap. People limit the funding they give to the police, and security measures generally, knowing that a certain number of murders will happen as a result. There are harms on *both* sides – risk of murder versus high taxes – that we trade off against each other. The same principle applies to murder as it does to everything else.

    (And purely as a pedantic note – euthanasia to prevent suffering horrible illnesses and disability are a case of consenting to be murdered. There are worse things than dying.)

    “This is the guts of the matter. This IEA discussion was flawed – albeit stimulating – because the issue of “implied consent” wasn’t really fully aired here.”

    OK. By living in a representative democracy, does that ‘imply consent’ to the laws the democratically elected legislature passes? Is there a ‘Social Contract’ in place? Another interesting question.

    Implied consent can go in either direction – by going into a shop, do you thereby give ‘implied consent’ for other people to cough on you? Or do you give ‘implied consent’ to wear a mask? It’s true that sometimes the rules are widely enough known and agreed to be assumed. But we would need to see some public opinion surveys to find out what people are actually consenting to. Given the general public support for the lockdown, I don’t think you should assume that everyone else will be on your side.

    “One feature of Sam’s comments I object to is where he said that there is no sense in trying to distinguish between the mask-wearing rules as they apply for vulnerable people with underlying health conditions, such as the elderly, and everyone else.”

    I’m not sure what you mean. Are you thinking of masks as a way to avoid being infected by wearing one, or a way to avoid infecting other people by wearing one? If you’re thinking of the former, then it makes more sense for the vulnerable to wear a mask, and let others choose not to. But in that case there is no justification for mandating it. People should be free to harm themselves – it’s only preventing harm to others that merits coercion. However, the guidance is based on scientific advice that masks do little to protect the wearer from infection, but do help a little to prevent the wearer infecting other people. In this case, if you’re going to distinguish, then it makes sense to mask people most likely to be infected, like health workers and people who make contact with lots of people as part of their job.

    “Another thing: there should be a burden of proof on those who demand coercive laws to deal with such alleged externalities, and not on those who resist or who are sceptical.”

    Agreed. And when such evidence has been presented, the sceptical also need even better evidence to counter it. If there was no evidence of an epidemic in progress, it would be wrong to mandate masks just in case there was one we hadn’t yet detected. That has a cost, of course – COVID-19 was already spreading around the world before we even knew about it, and a lot of people died as a result. But in the case of COVID-19, there’s plenty of evidence.

    “For as we have seen, the apocalyptic predictions about COVID-19 and the drastic measures to contain it have undermined a great deal of public trust in the advice given to governments, and the actions taken by them.”

    Again, I’d like to see some public opinion surveys to back that assertion up. Because from the surveys I’ve seen so far, there are more people who are annoyed at the government for not having gone far enough and fast enough with the precautions than there are people who think they’ve gone too far.

    But I see this sort of statement constantly – “*I* hold this opinion about the government’s policy, so I am certain *everybody else* does too.” Do you have any evidence of that? Does the public agree with you? When I ask, nobody presents any surveys, so I guess you don’t actually know.

    Hindsight is 20:20 – you can only judge people’s actions based on the information and understanding they had at the time.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Nullius: So, is your argument with Sam Bowman that he’s assessed the probability of harm wrongly (like, you think it’s zero and he doesn’t), or is striking the wrong balance? Or is it that he’s interfering with *your* freedom, a freedom you value, and you see no reason you should have to put yourself out to save anybody else from harm?

    My fundamental problem with how Sam Bowman couched his argument was a, he dismissed consensual approaches to the matter (as I pointed out, there was no real discussion here of property rights or the implied consent to rules of owners of said, either by him, or, to some extent, by the other panelists), and there was no presumption for liberty. As I wrote, the onus should be on those who would use “negative externalities” or such harms to clamp down on freedom of action, to prove their case to a standard that is some basis in objective fact. Given how the Precautionary Principle has been used to enforce massive changes to human behaviours, often for the worse, such a presumption for liberty and autonomy needs to be in the mindset of anyone worthy of the term “liberal”, never mind libertarian.

    Society often deals with these issues via taboos and social mores that, at some times, we like to mock. Consider religious doctrines around eating certain foods, bodily hygiene, relations between the sexes, etc. All were ways of handling diseases and behaviours that, in the absence of medicines, would kill. To some extent then, we need to re-work an understanding of such traditions in a modern form. In a funny sort of way, certain aspects of “woke” culture (yes, I am serious) are attempts to reframe etiquette and interpersonal relations, although far too much of it is nonsense.

    I don’t rebuke Sam for talking about harms in the way he did; what I do disagree very strongly about is the complete lack, as I saw it from this video, of any gravitational pull towards liberty as a default position. And inevitably, as the comments on that video showed, a lot of people took the same view as I do.

  • John B

    Sam Bowman assumes masks are effective in viral spread control in general use. All available evidence indicates they are not. However let’s assume, as he does, they are. Infection control requires only one barrier.

    Therefore anyone wishing to avoid infection should wear a mask. Nobody else then need do so.

    The value of continued good health accrues to the individual whose health it is. If A suffers a loss – has to buy a mask, lose their freedom – to provide B’s good health, then B is getting a benefit at the cost of A who is not sharing that benefit. Therefore the negative externality falls on A. B then should pay a Pigou Tax to internalise the full cost of obtaining their benefit.

    Alternatively, B should buy a mask, the cost of their benefit is already internalised and A does not suffer a loss for no gain.

    We are a Common Law society in which we have (or should have, indeed used to have) passive Rights, such as freedom of choice about what we wear. There is no moral or legal case to be made or possible, against anyone enjoying a passive Right. If it were otherwise social interaction would be impossible, since everything we DON’T do might have consequences for another.

    Sam Bowman is also touting the precautionary principle, and making the same case as climate activists who want to stop us using fossil fuels, you are causing an externality, therefore you must pay carbon tax and ultimately stop enjoying your passive Right to ‘persuit of happiness’.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    John B: Sam Bowman is also touting the precautionary principle, and making the same case as climate activists who want to stop us using fossil fuels, you are causing an externality, therefore you must pay carbon tax and ultimately stop enjoying your passive Right to ‘persuit of happiness’.

    Absolutely. And that of course is another reason why the other panelists – Mark, Tom whatsisname and Syed Kamal – should have picked up more on this.

    In a way I don’t mind SB being the statist or “pragmatist” in this conversation – although he may deny it – because it created a debate, has got us thinking about this issue in a fundamental way, etc. But what I do have an issue with is how lame the responses were. I think the IEA as one of the main classical liberal think tanks can do better at giving a clear line on how to think about this sort of thing.

    To go back to an earlier point in my original post, I was stunned when Sam said that we punish murderers when talking about the case for masks. The parallel is utterly nuts – wearing a mask/not wearing masks is a matter of science and personal judgement in many cases, not a cut-and-dried matter of shooting someone in the head or putting an overdose of drugs in their coffee. And there is intent to consider: a person who refuses to wear a mask because he is unsure about the science, or finds it stifling, may be reckless or foolish, but is that the same as being a murderer? I expect folk as smart as those on this podcast to pounce on that sort of mistake, and call it out.

    (Grumpy old man alert!)

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    NiV:

    First, it’s hard to compare the utility between different people.

    Indeed.

    ‘Slippery slopes’ arise from considering only *one* side.

    Don’t ignore context. At the moment, the pressure is almost all towards more State powers: higher taxes, higher spending, more regulations, etc. The “slope” is towards that. I am not seeing much of a “slope” towards the alternative (although maybe in the not-so-distant future public annoyance with all this might create a lot of libertarians almost by accident).

    Implied consent can go in either direction – by going into a shop, do you thereby give ‘implied consent’ for other people to cough on you? Or do you give ‘implied consent’ to wear a mask? It’s true that sometimes the rules are widely enough known and agreed to be assumed. But we would need to see some public opinion surveys to find out what people are actually consenting to. Given the general public support for the lockdown, I don’t think you should assume that everyone else will be on your side.

    Not really. When I walk into a shop, unless I am a robber or blind drunk I am sufficiently aware that I am in a place where the owners of said premises set the rules. Sometimes there are even big signs up making this clear. There is also the “implied” understanding, of course, that staff will be polite and helpful to the customers, rather than rude or silly, because in the latter case they get fired. There is also the implied understanding that the customers don’t hurt or insult the staff. A lot of this is so internalised in human conduct we often don’t even consciously think about it unless it is spelled out.

    But in the case of COVID-19, there’s plenty of evidence. That is true; it is also worth pointing out that there has to be a cut-off point. This is not an open-ended demand for restrictions, masks and whatnot. There are also unintended impacts – if we over-protect, what happens to the ability to build natural immunity, creating an overly fragile population (this is the “herd immunity” argument), etc? Unintended consequences, the unknown costs of draconian steps, etc. And that is why the presumption rests with those demanding all this.

    Because from the surveys I’ve seen so far, there are more people who are annoyed at the government for not having gone far enough and fast enough with the precautions than there are people who think they’ve gone too far.

    Oh I am sure some people are upset that we haven’t had our windows and doors welded shut by members of the Chinese communist party, but the sheer contradictions and changes in advice about masks and other things haven’t left me thinking my fellows are all up for North Korea Version 2. And judging by how people have actually acted – flocking to beaches and parks, etc, there is a lot of scepticism out there.

  • Duncan S

    I will not wear a mask, because I do not own a mask. And I will not waste my money on buying a mask, because the law, as it is currently written (at least in Scotland) does not require me to wear a mask.

    It simply says that I have to have a “face covering”, which the regulation defines as something that covers my “mouth and nose”.

    My ski buffs/neck tubes (and turtle neck jumpers) are adequate for satisfying that legal requirement. Arguably a bee-keepers hat and veil would satisfy the letter of the law, and they wouldn’t cause my glasses to steam up.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “My fundamental problem with how Sam Bowman couched his argument was a, he dismissed consensual approaches to the matter (as I pointed out, there was no real discussion here of property rights or the implied consent to rules of owners of said, either by him, or, to some extent, by the other panelists), and there was no presumption for liberty.”

    On the first, I would assume Sam has no objection to consensual approaches – that’s the situation now. Any shop could already introduce it as a rule for its shoppers. Any shop could also invest in fire alarms and emergency plans, and buy in first aid kits in case of an accident or emergency for its shoppers. Or strict food hygiene measures for handling food. We could leave all that to consensual approaches, too. Should customers be able to expect that they’re not walking into a fire trap, or about to be poisoned by someone putting crap in the food? Does the urge to prevent harm to others overrule the property rights of a shop owner to set their own safety rules, and let their customers decide if they want to eat the kebab for themselves? I can certainly see the argument for your position – although ‘health & safety’ is firmly enough established in our society that I can understand it being assumed – it’s not specific to the coronavirus issue.

    On the second, I don’t know. I would suspect Sam simply took it for granted that everyone was well aware of the evidence, and hadn’t considered that it might be disputed. It’s not that he doesn’t think evidence is necessary – it’s that he thinks you’ve already seen it. And if nobody else asked him about it, maybe the assumption was a good one.

    “Therefore anyone wishing to avoid infection should wear a mask. Nobody else then need do so.”

    The evidence, as it was reported earlier in the briefings every time the question came up, was that it doesn’t work that way round. Simple masks have some effect preventing the mask wearer infecting others, but not at preventing the mask wearer getting infected.

    “To go back to an earlier point in my original post, I was stunned when Sam said that we punish murderers when talking about the case for masks. The parallel is utterly nuts – wearing a mask/not wearing masks is a matter of science and personal judgement in many cases, not a cut-and-dried matter of shooting someone in the head or putting an overdose of drugs in their coffee.”

    What if the person shooting someone in the head or putting poison in the coffee is firmly convinced that’s a harmless activity?

    There are, after all, cases of people surviving being shot in the head and being poisoned. It’s a question of probability. And once you have established that, all you’re doing is haggling over the price.

    Have you come across the concept of ‘statistical murder’?

    “Don’t ignore context. At the moment, the pressure is almost all towards more State powers: higher taxes, higher spending, more regulations, etc. The “slope” is towards that. I am not seeing much of a “slope” towards the alternative (although maybe in the not-so-distant future public annoyance with all this might create a lot of libertarians almost by accident).”

    That would suggest that most of the voting public think the appropriate balance is further in the direction of higher taxes and more regulation than it is currently. Politicians usually pay close attention to the public mood.

    The voting public are not very libertarian.

    As you say, annoyance with all this could change their view, but I haven’t seen evidence that it has happened yet.

    “Not really. When I walk into a shop, unless I am a robber or blind drunk I am sufficiently aware that I am in a place where the owners of said premises set the rules.”

    That’s not disputed. The question is, is the ‘implied consent’ about our liberty not to get coughed on by people not wearing masks, or our liberty not to wear masks? There are two inconsistent liberties here, pushing us in opposite directions. Which are we supposed to assume, and which to require explicit consent to?

    For what it’s worth, I don’t agree with Sam (or the law) about the masks, I don’t think the costs, benefits, and evidence justify coercion in this case, but I don’t consider Sam ‘not a libertarian’ for having a different opinion on the matter. Health and safety regulations are one area where the Harm Principle does in principle allow society’s intervention, and the argument instead is about the proper trade-off. I don’t agree with Sam on the trade-off, but that’s a question of our interpretation of statistics and the strength of medical evidence, not libertarian principle.

    There are other questions of liberty, like whether people should be able to freely cross national borders, or whether this should be subject to statist regulation, that I think the ‘Harm Principle’ case is much clearer on. But if I was to describe someone calling for the government to impose stronger immigration controls as a ‘statist’ and ‘unlibertarian’, would people here agree with me? Because that’s not been my observation.

  • APL

    NiV: “On the contrary – people knowingly consent to moving into neighbourhoods where the risk of being murdered is high “

    False.

    NiV: ‘risk of being murdered is high’

    ONS Over the ten-year period from 2009 to 2010 to 2018 to 2019, the rate of homicides has fallen from 15.7 to 11.2 homicides victims per million population.

    The risk of being murdered anywhere in the UK is quite low. So anyone can buy a house in a ‘deprived’ area and they are unlikely to be murdered, although they may have other quality of life issues to consider.

    NiV “people knowingly consent to moving into neighbourhoods”

    There are whole neighbourhoods in Chicago for example, where no one lives except drug dealers, and their clients. Miles and miles of formerly affluent properties now empty, derelict and vandalised. No one chooses to live in such a district because they know the chance of being murdered is high.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    NIV,

    Sam Bowman does object to consensual approaches. He even says so and argues that things like masks can’t be a matter of personal choice, or even incentive. Look at the video: he makes it quite clear that voluntary interaction isn’t enough. That’s why I am shocked at how he argued.

    a person who thinks shooting someone in the head is a harmless activity is a lunatic. That’s why there is the category of diminished responsibility.

    As far as crossing borders is concerned, being a terrorist, murderer or someone carrying a deadly disease are grounds for control and fall under defences I’d live and liberty. As such they are ultimately decided on liberty defence grounds although science provides an element of information

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Sam Bowman does object to consensual approaches. He even says so and argues that things like masks can’t be a matter of personal choice, or even incentive. Look at the video: he makes it quite clear that voluntary interaction isn’t enough.”

    Saying he doesn’t think consensual approaches are sufficient is not the same as objecting to them.

    Most of us would consensually agree not to murder one another, and for most people, that’s how it works. We don’t murder one another because we don’t want to, not because we fear punishment by the state. And I would think Sam had both considered it, and would have no objection to people doing it that way. That doesn’t mean a purely consensual approach is sufficient to prevent deaths.

    Some people will choose not to go along with your consensual approach, and other people will die as a result. If you think preventing that harm is worth the cost, then non-consensual approaches would be appropriate. I don’t see anything strange in that.

    “a person who thinks shooting someone in the head is a harmless activity is a lunatic.”

    There are people who would say that someone who thinks it’s harmless to give somebody a contagious and potentially fatal disease is a lunatic. I’ve heard that sentiment expressed any number of times in the past few months. The difference is a matter of degree, not kind.

    If R is 2, say, then one person passes it on to two people who pass it on to four people who pass it on to eight and so on, and within a few months that one careless infection has infected several hundred people and about 1% of those will have died. It’s as certainly lethal as firing a bullet randomly into a crowd, although responsibility is shared with everyone else who passed it on.

    In Uruguay, Carmela Hontou went to a wedding reception with 500 guests, and then another party with “lots of people”. At least 44 people are known to have been infected at that wedding party, and at one point about half of the entire nation’s COVID-19 cases were reckoned to be directly traceable to her. “They are saying I’m a terrorist who brought the virus to kill everyone,” she tells reporters. She may face legal charges under article 224 of Uruguay’s penal code regarding “the spreading of contagious diseases”, according to press reports.

    Knowingly spreading a lethal disease kills people dead. You just don’t get to see them die, so it feels more emotionally remote. This is not a game. It’s not something that only happens in some abstract mathematical model of hypothetical possibilities. If by your conscious negligence, somebody down the chain of infections you start dies, and in a major ongoing epidemic it is virtually certain that many would, then you’re as culpable for their death as if you shot a gun blindly into a crowd.

    That’s how a lot of people see it. And they regard the small number who don’t see it as lunatics. I’m a little more understanding of the difference in opinion, but I can certainly see their point.

    At the moment, with R less than 1, it’s arguable that the chain of infections likely to die out before kiilling anyone. But the public are in no mood to consider subtleties like that. They take it seriously.

    “As far as crossing borders is concerned, being a terrorist, murderer or someone carrying a deadly disease are grounds for control and fall under defences I’d live and liberty.”

    Yes. And that logic applies just as much to the borders of a city or village or supermarket as it does to a nation. But I was talking about the people who support statist regulation of who can cross borders without them being terrorists, murderers, or carrying deadly diseases, but simply because they’re foreigners. I’ve suggested that’s not very libertarian, and been criticised for it. Why the difference?

  • UsedtobeBanned

    In a recent article in UnHerd it was suggested that there might be a moral basis for the policy that ‘saves’ potential Covid19 deaths even at the cost of an unknown number of non-Covid victims.

    It then goes on to ask whether that same morality would apply if shooting 2 random people in the head was proved to miraculously ‘save’ 3 other people from the covid.
    Same applies with the masks since the State tries to oblige me to endanger my health by wearing one against the highly unlikely risk of me infecting someone else who if High Risk should be shielding anyway.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    NiV:

    Most of us would consensually agree not to murder one another, and for most people, that’s how it works. We don’t murder one another because we don’t want to, not because we fear punishment by the state. And I would think Sam had both considered it, and would have no objection to people doing it that way. That doesn’t mean a purely consensual approach is sufficient to prevent deaths.

    Rational self interest is the key: most people want to live in a world where others respect their lives and liberty, and know that behaving in such a way is more likely to foster such a happy state of affairs. (Game theory has useful things to say about this.) Hence the sort of “social contract” (okay, a sort of handy fiction, but you get the idea) to respect the lives and justly acquired property and dealings of others, because you hope and expect that will be reciprocated. Some of this respect might be reinforced by the deontological ethics of “thou shalt not do A or B” that come from revealed religion, but certainly in this day and age, the “do unto others as one would expect them to do unto you” is a rough and ready way of handling everything from murder to playing loud music in the middle of the night. And in a healthy civil society, there is a web of rules, and unspoken but important social conventions that arise: from table manners to how you address people on the phone, to giving a seat to a pregnant woman on the Tube, to refraining from killing puppies for sport, etc.

    Knowingly spreading a lethal disease kills people dead. You just don’t get to see them die, so it feels more emotionally remote. This is not a game. It’s not something that only happens in some abstract mathematical model of hypothetical possibilities. If by your conscious negligence, somebody down the chain of infections you start dies, and in a major ongoing epidemic it is virtually certain that many would, then you’re as culpable for their death as if you shot a gun blindly into a crowd. That’s how a lot of people see it. And they regard the small number who don’t see it as lunatics. I’m a little more understanding of the difference in opinion, but I can certainly see their point.

    The problems with this line of reasoning are several. People often don’t think or even know they have the virus, and so they simply aren’t conscious at any level of inflicting danger, either recklessly or otherwise; further, contradictory advice about masks means people don’t trust what they are told to do. Shooting a gun randomly into a crowd is going to likely kill someone – you don’t need a chap called Dr Whitty of Big Cheese University to tell you that. Playing James Brown’s top hits at 3 am on a Wednesday night with the windows open is not an ambiguous act.

    Another issue is unintended consequences. We don’t know, but can get some sort of guess, about what will happen to young people’s immune systems if they are shielded from contact for years, such as by not letting them go to school. There is already a well-documented worry about how fragile people are emotionally (look at the whole “snowflake” thing in universities, the nonsense and thuggery in the streets around statues and Cancel Culture, etc, etc). Inevitably, there is a significant side effect cost from a Precautionary Principle that must be weighed in the balance.

    Life is for living. I weigh any proposal for government controls on our lives with regard to whether it enhances autonomy, liberty and the ability to flourish overall. Wearing a mask might be preferable to lockdowns because the former is less intrusive than the latter, etc. But even then, I must insert requirements such as strict limits on time, a high standard of proof, consistency of reasoning, and awareness of unintended effects.

    In the end, life is about living and flourishing as productive, adventurous human beings, not a state of semi-permanent paranoia. Without ragging on Sam Bowman and his fellow panelists too much, it seems to me that the IEA and other parts of the liberty movement in the UK need to make this point far more than they do.

    I am off to the coast for a long walk, so won’t reply to any rejoinders until Sunday evening. Stay safe and have fun.

  • Paul Marks

    Someone who believes that the state should have such vast powers (able, for example, to shut down all business enterprises and all churches – with NO EVIDENCE against specific places) is most certainly not a “minarchist” mimimal statist – they are far more like a maximum statist. I can think of only one reason why Nullius claimed that unlimited state power is “minarchist” i.e. a MINIMAL state (when it is the opposite) – and that reason is that Nullius is what is called a “Troll”, his purpose in being here is to annoy (and I have just made the mistake of “feeding the Troll” – but there we are).

    As for the concept of “implied consent” – it is nonsensical in this context. Anyone who believe (as the senile puppet Joseph Biden reads out) that everyone in the United States should be forced to wear a mask (including people who fled totalitarian States to go to the relative freedom of places such as Wyoming and South Dakota), or that every church in California should be closed for ever (thus turning the 1st Amendment into toilet paper) is a totalitarian or a puppet (dupe) of totalitarians.

    As for masks – to demand their use four months AFTER the lockdown is clearly nothing-to-do-with-public-health. It is a matter of POWER and CONTROL – people are being forced to wear masks as a sign of SUBMISSION to the unlimited state. It is much the same principle as people (including the English Cricket Team) “Taking the Knee” to show SUBMISSION to the Marxist Black Lives Matter movement.

    Perhaps the next step will be for people to engage in submissive sexual activity in order to be ritually humiliated (although they will have to remove their mask if they are to suck a portion of the human body) “impossible Paul” – a few months ago it would have been “impossible” that people would all be forced to wear masks, or to “take the knee” to show submission to the alliance of Big Business and the Marxists (an alliance which also used to be considered “impossible”) – so the population being forced to engage in submissive sexual behaviour as ritual humiliation is NOT inevitable, but it is certainly possible.

    Remember that the Frankfurt School of Marxism “Diversity and Inclusion” agenda (which excludes and persecutes anyone with traditional Western beliefs) is the law in the United Kingdom – every “public body” must push the Frankfurt School of Marxism concepts. That was passed under Mr Blair – although the agenda goes back many decades before him, for example the Marxist academic father of Lisa Nandy was writing the policy of the Home Office as far back as the 1970s.

    My own persecution by Conservative Party Central Office (who were pushing the Frankfurt School “Diversity” agenda – just as the permanent government, the bureaucracy, is now pushing masks as RITUAL HUMILIATION of the population) occurred last year. So none of this is anything to do with the death of Mr George Floyd – as it was happening long BEFORE he was killed. Although the killing of Mr Floyd was also NOTHING to do with race – the whole “systematic racism” Marxist narrative of the education system and the media is a LIE.

    It is nothing to do with “public health” either, after all the same “public health experts” – i.e. totalitarians, who condemned the anti lockdown protests SUPPORTED the Marxist Black Lives Matter riots, looting and burning – as did Amazon and Google partly for ideological reasons, but also to destroy small business competition.

    The education system (the schools and universities) have produced a generation of people in both government (including the “Public Health” totalitarians) and CORPORATE (Big Business and general establishment circles – such as the Football Association and the English Cricket Board, and Conservative Central Office), who are fully on board with the idea of unlimited collectivism and no rights AGAINST the state.

    This goes back long before Karl Marx – the evil is clear in such thinkers as Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Jeremy Bentham.

    When President Trump goes (in spite of his many faults – President Donald J. Trump is the last line of defence for what little is left of liberty in the Western World) the power of the totalitarians will be unlimited. They will produce a world whose evil will be a shadow of Hell itself.

    Truly the living will envy the dead – which makes the LIE with which the measures are justified “we want to SAVE LIVES” rather ironic.

  • James Hargrave

    One imagines that most ministers wear masks of a sort over their backsides. If the mesh is small enough it will keep their brains from dropping out.

  • Snorri Godhi

    A couple of months ago, having found no intelligent commentary on covid19 elsewhere (i.e. where i expected to find it, on links from Samizdata and Instapundit), i started reading Nassim Taleb’s twitter feed and Steve Sailer’s blog. Even now, they remain the only places where i can reliably find intelligent comments on this subject.
    Even though, ironically, they are at opposite poles on subjects such as IQ. (I believe that both Taleb and Sailer are wrong on IQ, but i won’t go that far off topic.)

    Taleb has kindly linked yet again to his article on masks.

  • Paul Marks

    As “Tony Heller” has pointed out – masks FAILED at the Marxist Black Lives Matter events (including the vast Houston “Trans Lives Matter” event) – and Compulsory masks are failing in California right now.

    Wearing a mask does not prevent you getting the virus. The idea is for the government to take the credit for the herd immunity which is coming anyway.

    Every step of the way the American bureaucracy, government (Federal, CDC,State and local), Corporate and Media, has pushed policies designed to inflict as much HARM as possible – the idea being both short term and long term.

    The short term aim of the establishment bureaucracy is to defeat President Trump at the election, the longer term aim is to get people used to a totalitarian future (Agenda 21, Agenda 2030, “Sustainable Development”).

    The Corporations are fine with this – as it will get rid of such pesky things as individual private property and free competition. The distinction between Corporate Managers and Government Officials will vanish.

    After all what is, for example, Dr Fauci – is he a “Public Servant” or a Corporate Manger? He is really BOTH.

    The French thinker Saint Simon in the early 19th century laid out a vision of Collectivism where the Big Business managers would NOT be killed – on the contrary they (led by the Credit Bubble Bankers and the “scientists”) would rule the world.

    This may sound insane (because it is insane) – but it is the plan. The fact that the plan is insane and society will collapse from tyranny into savage chaos, is a bit of a problem.

    By the way Saint Simonism was very popular in Trier when Karl Marx was young – he most certainly knew about it.

    I think the average “Black Lives Matter” psychopath will NOT settle for a world ruled by “Bank of America” (just pledged a Billion Dollars to the looters, burners and murderers of BLM) Google and Amazon rule – using the psychopaths as a way of physically destroying small business competition.

    Indeed I suspect that the men and women of “Black Lives Matter” will not be very happy to be ruled by some old white man such as Dr Fauci ruling them as part of a Technocratic Corporate elite – I doubt they really like Bill Gates either.

    Who will win? The Saint Simonist Corporate types or the Marxists of the streets?

    I do not know – and I do not CARE either.

    I must confess that I am indifferent to the Corporate types being killed by the monsters they have been SUPPORTING and FUNDING for so long, under the “Social Responsibility” doctrine of the Business Schools.

    Duke of Orleans – French Revolution.

  • neonsnake

    Taleb has kindly linked yet again to his article on masks.

    That’s a good article, Snorri. I don’t know the guy, at all, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of him, so I’m unaware of any of his other views.

    But he does a good job in that article of exposing “faux-libertarians” for what they are.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Snorri, you can also get a lot of decent commentary via The Critic, as edited by Toby Young.

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