Vijay Mathur: Advisories for COVID-19 promote social goods and freedom for all

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

— Nelson Mandela

Some Americans claim that their constitutional freedom and liberty is violated by COVID-19 advisories and regulations. These Americans resent advisories that ask people to wear face masks, keep a distance of 6 feet from others and not participate in large gatherings in order to diminish the spread of highly contagious COVID-19.

Sometimes some even engage in violence against employees of establishments, such as hospitals, retail stores and government offices, who ask them to follow the regulations when they enter those establishments.

COVID-19 advisories promote social goods. Let me elaborate. There are two types of goods, private goods and social goods. Private goods are those that primarily benefit the individual who consumes those goods. There is a market for those goods, such as cars, clothing, and food products. Those who wish to consume such goods have to pay a price to obtain them. The market’s function is based upon the “exclusion principle.” When the market provides the goods only those individuals who are willing to pay for them benefit from the consumption of those goods.

However, in the case of social goods (with benefit externalities), the market fails. Hence, in general, the government has to provide social goods such as a cleaner environment, national defense and protection from contagious diseases. The market fails because an individual’s consumption of goods does not reduce other individuals’ consumption of those goods, if the goods are provided (non-rivalry property). In addition, it is not feasible to exclude others’ consumption of those goods (non-excludable property).

In the case of COVID-19, a person who follows regulations and advisories for wearing face masks and/or maintaining 6 feet of distance from other individuals benefits himself or herself as well as others (an externality). A person who does not follow these rules of behavior in the exercise of freedom of choice, and perhaps is a carrier of the virus, may deprive others of freedom from sickness due to the virus (cost externality).

Most Utahns in many areas, in general, have behaved more responsibly than many Americans in some other states, with the beneficial results of less spread of the virus and deaths. However, danger still lingers in some areas.

Many Americans do not realize that our economy is a mixed economy consisting of both private sector providing private goods and public sector providing social goods and quasi-social goods, such as public education, food subsidies, agricultural subsidies and many more.

Unfortunately there is a misunderstanding about the Constitution and the role of government in the provision of social goods. The fundamental idea is that people have free choice and liberty, so long as the exercise of their freedoms does not deprive others of their freedoms. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but it does not guarantee the right to deprive others of freedom of speech.

The Ninth Amendment is more specific on this issue. It states, “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” The Fourteenth Amendment also guarantees " … any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of laws; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Clearly, the exercise of individual rights does not involve violation of others’ rights.

Personal freedom and liberty comes with responsibility to other fellow Americans and to the nation and its laws. In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a highly contagious virus, regulations and advisories ask all Americans to exercise their freedoms responsibly to protect others’ freedom of maintaining health and sickness from the virus.

I hope Americans keep in mind that unregulated freedoms sow the seeds of anarchy, a society without government, political and social order and laws.

Vijay K. Mathur

Vijay Mathur, Ogden, is former chairman and professor of economics, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio. He blogs at mathursblogonomics.blogspot.com.