As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, people are understandably alarmed and governments have responded by imposing draconian restrictions, mandating business closures and requiring people to remain at home. Despite the economic costs, mandates are widely supported by citizens who are justifiably afraid of the spreading virus.

Some governments have imposed less-draconian measures. In Sweden the government recommends social distancing, but schools, stores, and restaurants remain open, and nobody is required to quarantine. As the pandemic continues, Sweden’s policies come closer to “business as usual” than in other nations. Sweden has minimized the economic costs imposed on its citizens and recognized their freedom to choose their best course of action for themselves.

We can already see that in some cases mandates in the U.S. were too stringent. The prohibition on nonessential medical procedures in hospitals was designed to free up hospital beds for a surge in COVID-19 patients that didn’t materialize. As a result, many hospitals have been operating well under capacity, causing them financial stress and forcing staff layoffs. Many rural hospitals may go bankrupt. A mandate designed to strengthen the health care system in fact has weakened it.

A better alternative would have been for governments only to recommend eliminating nonessential procedures, allowing hospitals to make their own decisions. Now that the miscalculation is evident, governments have been moving to eliminate the mandates, but if they had been recommendations, hospitals could already have acted on their own without having to wait for government permission.