It’s a free country; I can do what I want!” When was the last time you heard, or possibly uttered, that claim? Your elementary school playground? Junior high? Unfortunately, as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to kill thousands of the afflicted, overwhelm large segments of the healthcare system, and wreak havoc on the economy, many Americans and opinion leaders have downplayed the severity of the threat. Behaviors illustrative of the radically individualistic attitude conveyed by the assertion above include citizens refusing to wear masks in violation of emergency orders, groups ignoring social distancingpolicies by holding large meetings, trafficking in conspiracy theories about the origins of the pandemic, and the gathering of unmasked protestors around the country demanding that their states’ economies open up immediately.
I think most Americans understand that while our country was founded to protect liberty, no freedom is absolute. Unfortunately, though, what all of the above examples have in common is what Mary Ann Glendon, in her 1991 book Rights Talk, describes as 1) a tendency to confuse fundamental liberties with less significant personal desires, and 2) a failure to recognize how individual rights demand civic responsibilities if we are to protect everyone’s freedoms.
Take, for example, the refusal to wear a mask when mandated by public health authorities, a decision typically defended along these lines: “It’s my right to risk getting sick by not wearing a mask.” Or, “Government shouldn’t force me to wear one against my will.” First, the “right” to go mask-free in public is not constitutionally guaranteed; asserting such a trivial desire as a “right” diminishes the fundamental rights protected by the constitution. It’s the same argument frequently made about refusing to wear a seatbelt, or a motorcycle helmet, or when chafing at laws prohibiting smoking in public. Second, these claims fail to acknowledge broad societal consequences of engaging in such behaviors, including causing everyone’s health care costs to go up from motor vehicle accidents, and diseases and deaths caused by second-hand smoke. To say, as some recent protestors have, “My liberty does not end at your fear!” fails to recognize that protecting everyone’s liberties and lives depends on all of us responsibly adhering to behaviors that promote the common good, even when it’s obviously costing us all tremendously in the short run. Prioritizing constitutional rights over personal desires encourages us to find ways to support those whose lives and fundamental liberties have been so endangered as to be a threat to their survival.
The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on our nation’s disparities in access to health care, education, and economic opportunity. Let’s not further exacerbate these gaps by refusing to cooperate with reasonable, though difficult, responses for the greater good. It has perhaps never been truer: united we succeed; divided 328 million ways, we fail. Will we use this unprecedented crisis to protect one another and build a better future for all?