Rights and Government Confiscation During COVID-19

by John A. Lancaster


The onset of the Coronavirus has led to many state and local governments taking drastic actions such as curfews, stay-at-home orders, and gathering limitations, supposedly for the protection of citizens. Beyond setting restrictions, some governments have gone as far as to seize highly valued items. In Houston, Judge Lina Hidalgo signed an order to seize 750,000 masks at an auction house. California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to commandeer “hotels and other properties that could be…[used] as quarantine sites.”

If one were to go on the social media sites of these property capturing political figures, they would find a steady supply of citizens not only applauding these acts but pleading for further measures. But do the radical cries, widespread panic, and resulting judgement/rationale categorize resulting actions as rightful?

In order to determine rather or not the Coronavirus property seizures are rightful, there must be guidelines pertaining to what a right is. According to eminent economist Walter E Williams:

In the standard historical usage of the term, a “right” is something that exists simultaneously among people. As such, a right imposes no obligation on another. For example, the right to free speech is something we all possess. My right to free speech imposes no obligation upon another except that of noninterference. Similarly, I have a right to travel freely. Again, that right imposes no obligation upon another except that of noninterference.

Operating under this assessment, I have decided to reintroduce a definition of rights I constructed from a previous article of mine. The definition both entails the non-obligatory nature of rights and is universally applicable:

I construct the meaning of “rights” as privileges inherent to individual existence. That is, rights are the benefits we receive from being able to control our own bodies. For example, humans have a right to opinions since an opinion is comprised of thoughts and feelings generated by one’s own mind. Expression and speech are also rights because they originate within the individual’s personal vessel (i.e., the body). Since these abilities are intrinsic to human existence and controlled solely by the individual, it is impossible for them to be directed in a telekinetic manner. What humans can do is control the circumstances surrounding an individual, forcing said individual to make a choice they wouldn’t have otherwise, but this does not qualify as controlling another’s bodily functions. Therefore, the use of one’s personal vessel is strictly one’s own privilege and no one else’s.

When extended into the realm of human contact, rights must be expressed through voluntary exchange. Any exchange that is not the product of consent necessarily entails an entity seizing use of facilities outside the entity’s personal vessel, which they have no right to do (theft). If two individuals exchange goods that each has obtained in the absence of theft, then they are participating in an action that is purely the result of each participant using their personal vessel in a way that generates a mutually fit outcome.

A person who uses their body to steal would not be engaging in a rightful act. Although the thief would be controlling his own body, thus using the bodily functions he is privileged to control, he does not have a right to anyone else’s belongings since they are not a function of the thief’s own body. The thief perhaps could be able to spy, wander, and sneak since those actions involve the use of his own body, but when it comes to taking possession of entities outside himself, he has entered a realm where his rights are only extended by others using their rights.

-John A. Lancaster

With this serviceable definition of rights in mind, it is clear that the commandeering of property due to the Coronavirus is overtly unrightful. Circumstances do not undo the foundation rights are based on. No matter how sacred or valuable any person’s life or group of people’s lives may be, no person or entity has an entitlement to the belongings of others outside of what property owners allow them. While this may not be morally appeasing or emotionally satisfying, personal gripes about the actions or inactions of others are merely how one feels about a situation. Those feelings have no bearing on the necessity of consent in order for exchange to be rightful.

John A. Lancaster earned an economics degree from Frostburg State University and was a PhD Fellow for The Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University.

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