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  • November 7, 2023

Trading rights for health security during the pandemic

Did the willingness to sacrifice civil liberties vary according to income?

Source: michael_swan

Robust civil liberties, such as due process, freedom of speech, and the right to privacy, are at the heart of liberal democracies. But in a time of crisis, even the most sacred rights can be called into question.

In a paper in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, authors Marcella Alsan, Luca Braghieri, Sarah Eichmeyer, Minjeong Joyce Kim, Stefanie Stantcheva, and David Y. Yang assert that the COVID-19 pandemic offers a unique opportunity to study the willingness of citizens to make trade-offs between civil liberties and health security.

During the first year of the pandemic, countries had few tools to combat the spread of the disease, so many resorted to curtailing basic rights on movement, privacy, and assembly. Many citizens supported these extreme measures, but backlashes against these regulations also quickly formed.

The authors captured these varying sentiments by conducting a survey with over 550,000 responses across 15 countries, from which they constructed a measure of how willing citizens were to forgo rights.

Figure 3 from the researchers’ paper shows how this willingness fluctuated in different countries over time and by income.



Figure 3 from Alsan et al. (2023)


The x-axes mark the year and month. The y-axes represent the willingness to sacrifice rights, where higher values indicate greater willingness to make a sacrifice. The blue series show willingness for individuals above their nation’s median income, and the red series show the same measurement for individuals below their nation’s median income. The vertical lines are 95-percent confidence intervals.

The chart shows that at the outset of the pandemic citizens were very willing to sacrifice civil liberties for perceived health security benefits. But this willingness drops off significantly in many countries after about four months. Across countries, citizens in India and Singapore were most willing to tolerate restrictions in response to heightened health risks, while citizens in Japan and Sweden were the least willing.

The chart also reveals that in every country except Spain, lower-income individuals were significantly less willing to sacrifice rights. Similarly, the authors show that other disadvantaged groups, such as Black Americans, also tended to be less likely to support policies that restricted their freedoms.

The authors’ results suggest that policymakers may want to take care crafting messages that explain the necessity of extreme measures, especially when it comes to allaying the concerns of socially disadvantaged groups.

Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis appears in the October 2023 issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics.