On the Freedom Debate
Terry H. Schwadron
May 21, 2020
The protests — and inevitably the associated tee-shirts — are pretty clear: My Rights Don’t End at Your Fears, reads one.
Actually, I do think that your rights for individualism end at my right to avoid contagion. But let’s go a little deeper.
To make it a debate, we need to look at the thinking here that rules to forestall disease are being pit against the willingness for thousands of others to die to protect our individual right to live however we choose as individuals, even in avoidably dangerous settings, towards attaining Life as a rich, full banquet.
The gist of the debate is giving rise to essays about the limits of freedom, of asking whose freedoms are predominating, of whether the divisions on this question reflect splits in racial, age, class or political affiliations.
Largely, these interesting questions feel a little divorced from the realities of seeing actual sick people in front of you and of hearing the nearly constant whine of ambulance sirens taking neighbors to the hospital, as has been happening in my Harlem neighborhood. But as we now start to see a downturn in cases, however temporary, the rights questions step more forward.
At the outset, there is a proposition on the table that we should be willing to let some people — sick people, old people, those with underlying conditions — die. Or that preserving Life alone is not enough if it means that it is separate from living a life of going to bars, movies, workplaces, stadiums, and generally mixing it up with others — even if for a limited time until there is a vaccine.
Of course, these proponents are exactly the same protesting groups who insist on other state-ordered rules, including the Right to Life in abortion questions, without question for what happens after birth to children born into poverty, or opposing euthanasia, or for state death penalty laws.
In that regard, it might be interesting to revisit our experience anti-smoking regulations or other health-oriented rules.
One recent essay reviewed postings in The Federalist, an online mainline conservative thinking lab. “String together coverage of COVID-19 “stay-at-home” orders in The Federalist, the conservative website, and it begins to resemble an ode to death itself,” argued Matt Shuham.
The posts generally argue for re-opening quickly as an expression of public bravery in the face of disease, and at one point even promoting “chickenpox parties” to promote the idea of hastening a “herd immunity” to coronavirus. Writers for the Federalist have posted comparisons between lockdown orders to shutting down all automobile traffic because tens of thousands of people die in auto accidents in this country every year, and screeds against enforcement of distancing guidelines — all in pursuit of independent individualism and the pursuit of happiness.
At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick noted the rising number of lawsuits challenging stay-at-home rules, noting that plaintiffs have been quick to claim freedoms not written into the Bill of Rights. “Beyond a profound misunderstanding of the relationship between broad state police powers and federal constitutional rights in the midst of a deadly pandemic, this definition of freedom is perplexing, chiefly because it seems to assume not simply that other people should die for your individual liberties, but also that you have an affirmative right to harm, threaten, and even kill anyone who stands in the way of your exercising of the freedoms you demand. We tend to forget that even our most prized freedoms have limits, with regard to speech, assembly, or weaponry.”
In another piece, Lithwick challenges the uniquely American aversion to wearing masks as a matter of Constitutional law.
Living by Right
The protest argument here seems to skip over the fact that as individual citizens we have voluntarily ceded some rights to government, indeed voting every four years for those whom we think will provide leadership from the state towards issues of common good.
So, we accept that to drive in public, we need a state-issued license, that there are rules of the road, that we have speed limits and lanes, that we even can require insurance coverage, and written, driving and eye tests to get a license. Those are in place as part of the compact we make as citizens.
Nowhere in that example are people rising up to challenge would-be drivers on their way into a Department of Motor Vehicles office or to accuse the news media of trying to kill individualism on the nation’s highways. If anything, the only driver license fights we have concern whether they can be used as unwarranted examination of the personal rights of immigrants or to wrongly challenge legal voter registrations.
Or in the case of anti-smoking rules, we accepted the idea that restaurants, for example, might set up separate areas for those who insist on smoking. Perhaps that is a model here for mask-less contact. If people insist on forgoing masks, perhaps they should be in outdoor areas or closed-off sections.
Masks are easy. What do we plan for those who will resist vaccination?
From a strictly partisan political viewpoint, the protests have tried to follow Donald Trump’s zig-zagging on forestalling virus and re-opening a dead economy without regard to disease. Doing so has left a weird, often contradictory mix of politics, meanness and individualism.