Ryan McMaken – May 11, 2020
In a world where the Left has declared everything from abortion to social media to be a human right, it is disheartening, to say the least, that so many who think of themselves as “progressive” have embraced wholesale violations of real human rights: namely, the rights to seek employment, to freely assemble, and to exercise one’s religion.
The ban on searching for employment is the most damaging in its immediate effects, and the war against this right looks something like this: in the name of preventing the spread of disease, civil governments have taken to issuing decrees—in many cases without any sort of legal process that allows for appeal or public debate—shutting down businesses and prohibiting the free exercise of one’s right to seek employment.
Why Looking for Work Is a Basic Human Right
In other words, individuals have been prohibited from entering into peaceful voluntary agreements with others to sell their labor in exchange for wages. For those who earn a living through independent contracting or selling goods and services, the effect is the same: commerce with others is forbidden, with the result being impoverishment and a loss of one’s income.
In the American context, this is violation of several rights outlined in the Bill of Rights, most especially the property rights outlined in the Fifth Amendment. To be cut off from one’s own labor and one’s own right to enter into contracts is fundamentally a destruction of the basic right to control one’s own property. But, of course, these rights are not specifically American. All human beings have these rights, whether recognized by government officials or not. A farm worker in Tanzania has these rights just as much as an insurance agent in Baltimore. To ignore these rights is no less backward than ignoring rights to free speech or the right to not be enslaved. Any governmental attempt to seize property in this way requires—morally speaking—due process.
The Inequality of Shutdowns
Those in favor of lockdowns and impoverishing millions insist that there is no other way. Unless we outlaw employment for millions, we are told, the death toll will be unacceptable. Of course, when pressed for what death toll is “acceptable,” no answer is given. Is it six hundred thousand (the number who die from cancer in the US each year)? Sixty thousand (the number who typically die in the US from flu and pneumonia each year)? Some lesser number? One? This figure remains a great mystery. We are only told that human rights are null and void until the “experts” decide otherwise.
Politicians still, begrudgingly, allow some people to exercise their right to work for a living. These people are the ones in so-called essential lines of work. Which types of work are essential? Well, that’s up to the arbitrary whims of the state governors who now rule by decree (and collect six-figure paychecks while consigning others to unemployment). In some places, hardware stores are “essential.” In other places, they are not. In some places, diagnostic procedures to find brain tumors are deemed “elective” and therefore verboten. In other places they’re allowed.
Should private citizens violate these many prohibitions and limitations, the result is anything but voluntary: the state uses force (or the threat of force) to impose fines, jail time, and to revoke business licenses.
The result, of course, is mass unemployment and the loss of access to a wide variety of goods and services, including housing, transportation, education, insurance, and even basic necessities like food. The newly and forcibly unemployed are expected to be content to sit at home, go on welfare, prepare for bankruptcy, and watch their children go hungry.
Meanwhile, those who complain about the regime’s callous and immoral disregard of human rights are denounced by the ruling (and very well-paid) technocrats.
Some especially out-of-touch pro-shutdown “COVID Warriors” rationalize it all by insisting that these prohibitions on earning a living are, as Dr. Anthony Fauci claims, mere inconveniences. It’s easy to see why someone like Fauci might think this way. His government salary is $400,000 dollars (not including whatever lucrative contract work he has on the side), and there is little risk he’ll be missing any mortgage payments any time soon.
Similarly, lots of white-collar “creative class” types who can work from home delight in lecturing other people about “staying home” and “flattening the curve” while working-class people who work in fields that require human interaction are just out of luck. Some simply can’t afford to give up their incomes and wait around for small, inadequate government checks that may take weeks to arrive. At some point in the near future those checks will stop coming, and even in places where the state plans to ramp up welfare spending, the fact is a community must produce wealth before wealth can be distributed. An economy that is in decline will simply be redistributing a smaller and smaller pool of resources.
Not surprisingly, some business owners and contractors will try to open their businesses anyway. And some workers will still try to provide services in the marketplace—which is now a black market thanks to government decree. In these cases, the police—i.e., more government employees with safe jobs and hefty paychecks—intervene and arrest business owners, just to make sure the destitute aren’t allowed to bring in a few bucks.
Those who support this systematic use of violence and harassment of peaceful citizens insist they have the moral high ground, and the crusaders for public health contend that they are the only ones who care about human life while those execrable working-class barbers, hygienists, and front desk receptionists care only about filthy lucre.
The Costs of Unemployment and Isolation
In the real world, however, cutting people off from earning a living comes with many costs indeed. There is a growing mountain of data showing that unemployment leads to more deaths via drug abuse, suicide, and stroke. Other side effects are even more grim, such as the increase in domestic violence and child abuse recorded during these “stay at home” orders. Forcing people into isolation comes with real physchological effects that shorten lives.
But ignoring this reality is to be expected of those who have adopted the tunnel vision of the busybody and the public moralist. In the minds of the COVID Warriors, all that matters is the lives of the people the COVID Warriors have deemed important. Everyone else’s life and well-being is of lesser importance. If there’s more suicide and more child abuse, that’s too bad, but it was all “worth it.”
It should not surprise us that this war on human rights—led largely by smug intellectuals, billionaires, and politicians—has come wrapped in the mantle of moral supremacy. But such is the usual m.o. of those who view human rights as an inconvenient impediment to one’s agenda. The Soviets insisted that they represented “the workers” and a revolution in favor of a more just world. The slave drivers of the Old South equated slavery with civilization itself. The absolutist monarchs of Renaissance Europe told themselves they were defenders of culture and God and national “honor.” Then, as now, moral crusaders justified the destruction of dissidents, traitors, and anyone else who refused to repeat some variation of the slogan: “we’re all in this together.”
Originally published at Mises.org. Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.