“The struggle between liberty and authority is the most conspicuous feature in the portions of history with which we are earliest familiar…”
Don’t take my word for it. That is from one of the most famous works on the subject published in the English language, On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill, and published in 1859. It’s been on my mind a great deal lately. I wonder what it would cost to send copies to Ron de Santis and Greg Abbott. But then why would they read it again? I thought all conservatives had made their peace with Mill, just as you suppose they had done with Burke, or even Rousseau. I suppose Yale and Texas aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. I wouldn’t know. My AB is from Villanova, one of them Catholic sinks of ignorance where the card catalog still contained the stamp “on Church Index” and in which old Falvey Library still had a cage in which the books on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum were, ah, housed. I guess I’m glad I started in 1969. We may have still had a Draft, but there was no longer an Index. Besides you could always sneak over to Haverford or Penn if you were desperate. They had big boy books. And I had to read Mill.
I can’t assume the mantle of a social philosopher. I’m not qualified. Yet I do remember Mill defining a private act as one that had no public consequences. So if I sit here and quietly chant Satanic verses about Texas Republicans, it’s a private act. Other than my cat, and maybe my spouse, I bother no one. In economics, if I and I alone bear the cost of action, it’s private. There are no spillovers. More or less the same idea. Sometimes it gets tricky, you know, because a private action in economics rarely has no other public consequences, but you draw the line somewhere, or, at worst, you practice tolerance and negotiate, especially over trivial matters. A society in which everyone insists on their absolute right to do something or other is usually not a pleasant one. Like America in 2021. We’ve been headed in this direction for several decades. And the consequences are all too clear. This is no way to live, because constant conflict is the result. You’re probably sick of it. So am I. If the private solution doesn’t work because the cost of trying to herd all the cats is simply too high, a society delegates the right to the state (government) to make a uniform decision for all of us. It’s efficient–it consumes far fewer resources. And it’s “fair.” Because everyone who is a citizen is affected. You know, that incomprehensible line in Rousseau about “forcing people to be free.” Well, there you go. That’s how a modern liberal society is supposed to function. As we used to say, if you don’t like it, leave. We settled this in 1865, supposedly. Except, obviously, in the South. Oh, wait……
Not to put too fine a point on things, but if you ask an partner in intimacy to wear a condom and they refuse, you can do something. Obviously, you can simply refuse to have sex with them. End of story. Their STD is not your problem. Period. But for obvious reasons, our current mask and vaccination wars are a bit different.
If I say the state has no right to compel me to be vaccinated–as a matter of personal autonomy (liberty)–I may well contract Covid and die. If I do, it’s no one else’s problem. I made the choice. But suppose, given the highly infectious nature of the Delta variant, I insist the state has no right to require me to be vaccinated. I survive, but I infect someone else who dies. Then what? I have no right to kill you of which I am aware. I’d suppose–and I’d ask my lawyer friends for help–if you could prove that I infected a person who subsequently died (I have no idea how), I could well be liable, perhaps even criminally, for that person’s death. Alas, the same problem attends the willingness to wear a mask or not. The general sense is that we wear masks not only to protect ourselves, but to protect others who may be vulnerable. Do we really think that state has no interest in preventing me from killing others by refusing to wear a mask? Really?
If we look at the source of this anti-masking idiocy–and it is idiocy–we will find that much of it goes back to you know who, Donald Trump. Once it became apparent to serious physicians and epidemiologists that masks reduced the transmission of Covid, they recommended masks in all the circumstances of which you are probably aware. Joe Biden wore a mask. But Donald Trump refused to wear a mask. Why? Was there some compelling medical reason. Not exactly. Trump is quoted repeatedly in “I alone Can Fix It” as complaining making a mask made him look “weak.” Weak. Yes. I have absolutely no interest in the armchair analyses of Trump as some sort of psychoneurotic, although a number of serious people believe him to be so. He does appear to enjoy acting like a bully, and the worst fear of a bully is not actually weakness, but the appearance of weakness. The appearance invites inevitable challenge, and the bully may likely know just how tough he (or she) is or isn’t. So why risk it?
When I read Bagehot’s The English Constitution, I actually began to get why some of my British friends were monarchists. The Crown is supposed to set the tone for the rest of society, particularly where deference is valued. You may scoff at some of the birds who our British friends were supposed to regard as models, but there you have it. You may say we don’t have a king, so what does it matter what behavior the President models? You may even believe that. If you do, I pity you.
I remember thinking that much of the real damage Richard Nixon did as President came from his clear willingness to violate the law, as if, to paraphrase Leona Helmsley, only the little people obey the law (or pay taxes). I hardly agreed with everything Barack Obama did, but I appreciated the manner in which he conducted himself. I detested Bill Clinton for the same reason. I often wonder if we don’t owe certain changing sexual practices as much to Mr Clinton as we do to films shot in the San Fernando Valley. Hey, Bill and Monica do it…..
Trump tried to discredit wearing masks for political reasons. And the ilk that took their cue from him became America’s little army of super-spreaders. I don’t know about you, but I try to see public health measures for what they are–and not as political signals of some sort. If you do, please, stay away from me and my family. When I was a kid in Philly, the subways had signs saying “No spitting.” They were a holdover from the days of the scourge of TB. You might refrain from spitting too, as a favor to my liberal sensibilities, right? God help us.