During the COVID-19 virus pandemic, we all have heard some Americans claim that they have the right to freedom of speech and liberty, protected by the Constitution, and that the state cannot regulate those rights. These Americans resent government regulations and 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. Some Americans, in addition to violating regulations and advisories, sometimes 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.

It is unfortunate that 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 freedom of speech, 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 your freedom of speech, but it does not guarantee the right to deprive others’ 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.” It is clear that exercise of these individual rights do not involve violation of others’ rights.

There are two types of goods, private goods and social goods. Private goods are those that primarily benefit the individual who consumes these goods. There is a market for those goods, such as cars, clothing, food products, and 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.” An individual person who pays the prices for the private goods has the right to consume those goods and thus excludes others, who do not pay for them, 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 cleaner environment, national defense and protection from contagious diseases and quasi-social goods, such as public education, Medicare and Medicaid. Market failure occurs 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, when the goods are provided, it is not feasible to exclude others’ consumption of those goods (non-excludable property). In the case of contagious disease 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 his or her freedom of choice, and perhaps is a carrier of COVID-19, may deprive others’ freedom from sickness due to the virus (cost externality). Most Utahns, 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.

Americans, who want less government but benefit from government provided goods and subsidies do not realize that our economy is a mixed economy consisting of both private sector providing private goods and public sector providing social goods, quasi-social goods and other goods and financial assistance. I am sure all Americans are aware of the public sector’s provision of other goods and financial assistance such as public housing, energy production, housing subsidies, food subsidies, agriculture subsidies, tax relief to individuals and businesses, and many more.

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 the virus COVID-19, regulations ask all Americans to exercise their freedoms responsibly to protect others’ freedom to sickness. 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 Mathur is former chairman and professor of economics, Department of Economics, Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH. He blogs at mathursblogonomics.blogspot.com.

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