In March, an employee of a Melbourne bank was sacked after the bank concluded they had falsely claimed to be infected with coronavirus, triggering alarm for everyone working in the same building.
The hands-off response of the local police chief: “It’s not against the law to be a dickhead”.
For weeks, much of the world has been locked down in an attempt to suppress the spread of the virus.
The severity of the rules, and the relentlessness with which they have been enforced, has varied from place to place, but the broad theme has been the same: the rules are wide, restrictive and legally binding.
Flout them and you will be punished: so it is “against the law to be a dickhead”.
It is easy to lose sight of an alternative approach: a libertarian lockdown.
If you want to open a nightclub, rub shoulders in a choir, or offer to shake hands with everyone you meet in a hospital: “It’s not against the law to be a dickhead”.
The sanctions will be social or commercial, not legal.
Before considering the objections to this idea — and there are plenty — take a moment to consider its appeal.
First, freedom is valuable. To make something punishable by the power of the state is not a step to be taken lightly.
Second, most people try to do the right thing.
We are social animals: we look out for each other, especially in a crisis, and we also fear being ostracised. In the UK, the vast majority of people complied with the lockdown, and not because they expected the police to come knocking.
Still, we do not rely on peer pressure as a substitute for making murder illegal. When life and death are on the line, laws and punishments are reasonable.
So the third argument is, I think, the most persuasive: the next stage in the fight against Covid-19 requires a subtlety that the law cannot provide.
With coronavirus spreading rapidly, there was a strong case for a blunt, one-size-fits-all message: “stay at home, save lives”. But now the task is different.
We are not trying to suppress a spreading epidemic; we are trying reopen our countries where possible while preventing a second wave.
That means seeking out the most effective ways to prevent infections while still allowing both the economic activity that supports our livelihoods and the social activity that makes life worth living.
Last week, I discussed ways in which the government might try to discriminate — between young and old, or between different regions.
But there is an alternative, which is to let people decide for themselves.
*Featured post photo by Andrew "Donovan" Valdivia on Unsplash