The argument over mask-wearing and social distancing is a mess, one that exemplifies the state of our democracy.
The argument is confused three ways:
- Most liberals don’t understand the conservative definition of freedom.
- Most conservatives don’t understand the liberal definition of freedom.
- People who reject masks and distancing don’t understand either definition of freedom.
When liberals tell conservatives they should do what’s best for the common good, they don’t seem to realize that to conservative ears “the common good” can sound like a threat to freedom. Conservatives want to know, Who gets to define what the common good is? They argue that it can be used to justify the removal of individual liberty, under communism and potentially under democracy, when a majority dictates to a minority. This is the “tyranny of the majority.”
The Founders were very concerned about the tyranny of the majority. James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, warned about it in Federalist paper number 10:
The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is… an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.
But when conservatives, often citing Madison, argue for the supremacy of individual liberty, they don’t seem to realize that it isn’t worth much without the common good — collective freedom. On its own, individual liberty amounts to the “bread and circuses” freedom of Imperial Rome. Under the Caesars, citizens had great freedom to pursue their own prosperity and pleasure, but they had surrendered their freedom as a group. Because they were so fragmented, with the body politic atomized into individuals, the Caesars were able to wield absolute power over the nation as a whole.
Sound familiar? There are many of us in our self-obsessed age, on the right and the left, who seem to have trouble imagining any larger scope for freedom than the pursuit of happiness, however we define it. Meanwhile we abandon our responsibilities as citizens, to whomever’s in charge. That’s no longer a Caesar, but it might as well be, since it’s not us.
For a society to be truly free, both the person and the people must have — and take responsibility for — power. Madison recognized this public dimension of freedom as well, writing in Federalist 10:
When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.
Madison saw that “the public good and private rights” would always be in tension, and that this tension could never be resolved through choosing only one, much as we might want to.
As Madison knew, it’s human nature to prefer rules, habits, or personal preference over the hard work of thinking. As he couldn’t have known, that apparently is a result of evolution, as Daniel Kahneman shows in his classic Thinking, Fast and Slow.
But Madison did know that if a democratic republic is to survive, citizens must choose both the public good and private rights. They — we — must debate how to balance them. Describing in the same Federalist 10 how a larger republic is better equipped to contain factionalism, Madison wrote:
…In this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie.
To think the debate over individual liberty vs. the common good can be settled is to misunderstand democracy. Unfortunately, that misunderstanding is now rampant. In some cases it goes beyond misunderstanding to rejection: support for democracy has been declining for years, and here too the tendency is found on both the right and the left.
This brings us to mask and social distancing refusal. There is no definition of freedom that justifies it. Most refusers seem to believe they’re protecting the conservative view of individual freedom. They’re wrong, as Madison would tell them.
No matter how strongly one believes in individual freedom, there is no version of conservatism that says it’s acceptable to take away the freedom of others. A conservative argues for freedom over your life or property, but not over someone else’s — that would be the tyranny of the individual.
Opposition to tyranny in all forms is at the heart of conservatism. A strong conservative, i.e. a libertarian, might believe you should be free to put an oil well in your back yard. But that doesn’t mean you’re free to dump the waste into theirs. They’ll argue you have a right to own a gun, but not that you can shoot it at anything or anyone you want.
As the saying goes, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.
If refusing to wear a mask or practice social distancing only affected the individual who’s refusing, of course there would be a conservative argument for it, along with a liberal one.
But the fact that a virus is involved changes everything, because this exercise of individual liberty threatens others. It’s analogous to firing a gun in the town square.
This holds even if you think the advice from public health experts is wrong. That’s because there’s a high probability it’s you who is wrong, which means you’re still threatening the lives of others, by risking those lives on a long-shot bet that you know better than the experts.
Under no definition of freedom do you get to risk other people’s lives — only under the definition of selfishness.
The problem is, the confusion of selfishness with freedom is a defining characteristic of our society as currently constituted:
Bread and circuses.