Our country was born in rebellion against authority, so it's no surprise Americans have always had a strong libertarian streak. We bristle at being told what to do, especially by the government — even when it's demonstrably in the public interest. Millions of Americans angrily objected when health officials and the government began warning that cigarettes could kill them, and banned indoor smoking, and required motorists to wear — ugh — seat belts. Such bondage! Each of these impositions on personal freedom saved immeasurable suffering and many, many lives. Government can also overreach, of course; finding the right balance between individual liberty and the common good is a perpetual struggle. Now, in the midst of a catastrophic pandemic, it is masks, social distancing, and the closures of public places and businesses that have provoked cries of nanny-state tyranny from such diverse voices as a Dallas beauty salon owner and Elon Musk.
Infectious diseases, however, have a strong anti-libertarian bias. Without knowing it, a single infected person sheds billions of viruses and can spread illness and death to anyone standing near him or even sharing the same enclosed space. And if COVID-19 lands that free spirit in the hospital, the cost of a typical, 20-day hospitalization is $30,000 and up, which all of us pay through higher insurance premiums and taxes. The freedom to ignore the virus isn't free. Several countries have used strict closures, testing, contact tracing, and masking not only to flatten their curves — but also to crush them. Taiwan (population 24 million) has had just 440 cases and seven deaths. Densely populated Hong Kong has had just four deaths. The U.S. may be stumbling into the worst of all worlds: repeated waves of infection into 2021 and a devastated economy paralyzed by ongoing, legitimate fear. This is not a good time to act like a 5-year-old shouting: "You're not the boss of me!"