/Civil liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic

Civil liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic

Marcella Alsan, Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer, Minjeong Joyce Kim, Stefanie Stantcheva, David Yang 13 November 2020

Two of the central roles of the state are the protection of civil liberties and the provision of public goods. Civil liberties – such as due process, freedom of expression, and the right to privacy – are foundational values that the state commits to respecting to the largest possible extent. In fact, according to political philosophers such as Hobbes (1651), Locke (1689) and Rousseau (1762), individuals agree to surrender some of their freedom and be part of the state precisely to ensure better protection of their remaining rights and liberties. Public goods – such as clean air and law enforcement – are goods that improve collective welfare and, absent government intervention, would likely be underprovided in a free market (Mas-Colell et al. 1995).

These core government functions – protection of civil liberties and provision of public goods – may come into conflict. For instance, it is possible that, in the pursuit of national security guarantees, rights to individual privacy may be infringed upon (Sunstein 2016, Acquisti et al. 2016). Governments often must strike a balance between competing demands and navigate complex trade-offs.

Those trade-offs are particularly stark in times of crises, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters, when safeguarding public welfare may require extraordinary measures that impose severe restrictions on civil liberties (Ackerman 2007, Argente et al. 2020). 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. As part of the response to the pandemic, civil liberties that had been almost universally guaranteed in democratic societies, such as free movement and free association, are being restricted for the sake of public health. 

Given the scale of the pandemic and the extraordinary measures adopted by governments to curtail it, the COVID-19 crisis provides a unique and tragic opportunity to understand how citizens view the trade-offs between civil liberties and improved public health conditions. What are citizens willing to sacrifice in response to the crisis and what are they steadfast in supporting no matter the circumstances? How do citizens’ views vary across countries and across demographic groups within a country? How do such views change over time in relation to the evolution of the pandemic?

Answering the questions above is essential for at least three reasons. First, in democratic countries, government policies should be responsive to the preferences of the citizenry. Second, compliance with the policies implemented by governments in response to the pandemic likely depends on the degree to which citizens agree with such policies. Third, the virus produces a spectrum of disease, from asymptomatic to critical illness and death; this heterogeneity may exacerbate polarisation across different risk groups, which in turn may hamper the proper functioning of democratic institutions.

Views of citizens around the world

In order to study how citizens view the trade-offs between civil liberties and improved public health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, our research team administered a large-scale representative survey to more than 400,000 people in 15 countries: Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, South Korea, Sweden, the UK, and the US (Alsan et al. 2020). The following conclusions emerge from our analysis of the survey responses. 

First, a large fraction of people around the world reported being willing to sacrifice their own rights and freedoms in order to improve public health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, aggregating the data over all the countries in our study, we find that more than 80% of respondents reported being willing to sacrifice at least some of their own rights during a crisis like the current one. 

Across the countries we surveyed, citizens ranked the importance of core civil liberties similarly. For example, people reported being least willing to give up their right to privacy or activities central to democracy, and most willing to endure personal restrictions or economic losses.

Some of the differences in views across countries are substantial: the citizens of Japan and the US, for instance, tend to be among the least willing to sacrifice civil liberties in exchange for improved public health conditions. Conversely, the citizens of China seem to be among the most willing to. EU citizens tend to fall somewhere in between. 

Figure 1 Share of respondents in different countries that, for the sake of public health, are unwilling to… 

Note: Vertical line is the US benchmark

We also find that, in democratic societies, individuals who have stronger connections to countries that historically did not provide extensive protections of civil liberties are less willing to sacrifice their own rights and freedom for the sake of public health. Specifically, we find that individuals who live in states that belonged to East Germany before reunification and individuals who have relatives from North Korea reported being less willing to give up their rights than their co-national counterparts.

A second main result from our survey is that individuals whose health, due to demographic characteristics and pre-existing conditions, is more vulnerable to COVID-19 risk are more willing to trade off civil liberties for improved public health conditions than individuals whose health is less vulnerable. 

Our third main result relates people’s reported willingness to trade off civil liberties for improved public health conditions to socioeconomic factors. Since the economic incidence of policies aimed at curtailing the COVID-19 pandemic is asymmetric as well, it is important to study not only how people with different health risk exposure view the trade-off between civil liberties and public health, but also how people from different socioeconomic backgrounds do. 

On the socioeconomic dimension, we find that individuals whose economic position is more fragile – such as low income and unemployed individuals – are less willing to give up their civil liberties in response to the pandemic. The result is consistent with the intuition that, for certain demographics, giving up liberties such as freedom of movement may have more dire economic repercussions than for others. It is also possible that individuals who are more economically advantaged have ways to ensure the protection of their civil liberties that fall outside the purview of the state.

The last main result that emerges from our survey is that, in most countries, people’s willingness to give up civil liberties in exchange for improved public health conditions closely tracks the extent to which they are worried about the pandemic. Between March and mid-June 2020, people became less worried about the risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and their willingness to sacrifice their rights decreased. After a plateau period that lasted until the early fall, worries are picking up again in countries that are experiencing a second wave of infections and people’s willingness to sacrifice civil liberties for the sake of public health exhibits a small uptick as well.

Figure 2 Dynamics of worries about civil liberties, worries about health, and willingness to sacrifice own rights

Note: All countries pooled.

Conclusion: A changing and heterogeneous willingness to give up rights 

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has put the trade-off between civil liberties and public health in the spotlight. According to our survey, the vast majority of citizens around the world are willing to sacrifice at least some of their civil liberties for improved public health conditions. 

Citizens’ support, however, is likely to be heterogeneous and depends on people’s own exposure to COVID-19 health risk, as well as on how much they fear the erosion of their civil liberties. Such heterogeneity in support causes challenges within countries by making it harder to achieve compromise and consensus. 

In addition, people’s willingness to sacrifice their rights in response to the pandemic decreased over time, in line with the decline in their worries about the health risks posed by COVID-19. Support for and compliance with public health policies may waver as health worries become less prevalent. 

Lastly, people’s concerns about the erosion of civil liberties during the COVID-19 pandemic and the changing willingness to give up rights over time suggest that it is important to have strong safeguards that the measures put in place during the pandemic will be rolled back once the crisis is over.


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