Every year, the leaders of the G20 meet to assess the financial state of the world. This year, the Covid-19 pandemic was, unsurprisingly, a major point of discussion. Since the first vaccines are now being approved and distributed and many companies and institutions are still developing their own, the political leaders were especially concerned about who will have access to these vaccines.
In their joint statement, the G20 leaders pledged that they would “spare no effort to ensure [the vaccine’s] affordable and equitable access for all people.”
The G20 leaders speak as if a vaccine were theirs to do with as they please.
The vaccine was not created by governments. It was created by the scientists who laboured day and night, studying the virus and devising the means to defeat it. All the government can do is distribute the products of their work.
Aside from Pfizer, whose vaccine has begun to be distributed in the UK and US, other private companies currently developing a vaccine include Bharat Biotech, Novavax and Johnson & Johnson. That work is being funded by those companies’ private fortunes. Wealthy individuals, such as Bill Gates, have also reached into their own pockets to fight the pandemic. Gates has donated millions to help ensure a vaccine will be as affordable and accessible as possible.
By pledging to make a vaccine affordable and accessible to everyone, the G20 leaders are making decisions about goods they have not produced. Affordability involves price, what you charge for your goods and services. Accessibility concerns who you are willing to sell to and the trouble and expense you are prepared to incur to ensure they receive your product. These are decisions for those who own the goods and services.
Property rights include the right to possess and use your own property as you please, to the exclusion of all others.
Anything a person creates is that person’s property: it does not matter if the product is intellectual, such as a book or an idea, or physical, such as a steel mill or a day’s work. Ownership of the products of your efforts is an extension of self-ownership. Books and steel mills are extensions of the people that produced them.
Laws that protect property assure all producers, from inventors and industrialists to day labourers, that they cannot have what is rightfully theirs lawfully taken from them. It also warns thieves and fraudsters that they cannot take what is not rightfully theirs without risking punishment.
A world without property rights would be a world of robbers and the robbed. Anyone could seize the products of another person’s work without fear of punishment. Creators would live in constant fear of what they produced being stolen by thugs and looters.
Since the state possesses a monopoly on the use of force, governments have the luxury of not having to respect property rights. They can merely give the rationale that circumstances demand the theft. An average citizen who did such a thing would be considered a criminal. It was for this reason that John Locke and the other political philosophers of the Enlightenment stressed that the government must be subordinated to moral law and have its powers restricted by rights enshrined in the law. The formation of modern liberal democracies was the legacy of this idea.
The disregard for property rights displayed in the G20’s statement is to be expected from the leaders of China and Russia. In fascist nations such as those, it is a basic principle, whether acknowledged or not, that the rights of the individual will only be protected so long as the state wishes. Those in power may take whatever they want whenever they want. But it is disheartening and slightly ominous to see such disregard for property rights from nations like America, France, Germany, Australia and India that have private property as one of their founding principles. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that “every country needs to have access to and be able to afford a vaccine.” French President Emmanuel Macron also stated that governments need “to guarantee [the vaccine’s] universal access and to avoid at all costs a ‘two-speed’ world where only the rich will be able to protect themselves.” Such neglect of property rights is exasperating.
Politicians might very well be using the vaccine to gain popularity. The cost of the pandemic, measured both in headstones and deficits, has only been exacerbated by government failures. With the exception of Taiwan and New Zealand, no government has an entirely perfect record. The pandemic has already brought down Trump and may prove the downfall of Boris Johnson’s government in Britain and Jair Bolsonaro’s in Brazil.
Politicians see the vaccine as a way to simultaneously wipe away their failings and elevate them in the eyes of the people. They want to receive the credit for delivering us from the pandemic, rather than those who actually created and delivered a vaccine. This is not fair.
We can see this farce already playing out in the Russian government’s mad scramble to approve a vaccine. Russia’s Ministry of Health has already approved two vaccines, developed by two Russian companies with ties to the Russian government, without adequate testing.
This year’s G20 summit shows that, when push comes to shove, the leaders of the world do not believe in property rights. Whether the producers of the Covid-19 vaccine should give it to everyone free of charge is not the issue. The issue is whether the government has the right to force them to.
A Covid-19 vaccine that is accessible and affordable for all would be an ideal situation. But a 0% crime rate would also be ideal. Should we then remove the right to privacy and place everyone under 24-hour surveillance? Of course not. The right to privacy is a human right. So is the right to property. Both are political and legal axioms derived from human nature, which safeguard a social, political and economic order that allows for human flourishing.
Rights by nature must be inviolable. If they are compromised, if they no longer apply totally and eternally, then they are no longer rights, but only license, which may be revoked at any time. Any violation of any human right, no matter how slight, is a step away from the society envisioned by Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke and a step towards a society of robbers and robbed.
The motive of the G20 leaders is humanitarian—but a rights violation is still a rights violation, no matter how noble the intention.
Macron said they would distribute the virus “at all costs.” Those costs include a fundamental human right. And the price will be paid by others.