Remember when “liberty” was an inspirational principle, as in the first of the three guiding values of the French Revolution, or the name of the revered statue that has welcomed millions of immigrants to American shores? Those, apparently, were Liberty’s halcyon days. Now, we are confronted with protestors mid-pandemic, waving flags and symbols of a more dubious nature, demanding city lockdowns be ended in the name of liberty. John Stuart Mill could only blush. It was Mill in his influential treatise On Liberty who endeavoured to establish criteria for when authority could legitimately restrict individual freedom. Mill quite rightly averred that a person should be left as free to pursue their own interests as long as this does not harm the interests of others.
Admittedly, there are cases where it is difficult to identify how pursuing an interest could harm the interests of others. For example, some people might say the decision to smoke cigarettes, as long as there are no captive people around experiencing second hand smoke, is an individual one. If I want to smoke, the argument goes, then it will affect me and that’s my business. Or is it? For if continued smoking results in lung cancer or any of the other diseases that regular smoking has a correlation with, where do you think the individual goes? Yes, to a hospital where they will occupy a bed and the attention of medical authorities. Maybe that bed and medical staff are not available for others as a result. So, there are times in a high tech, fast paced, interconnected world when it is difficult to disentangle personal and communal interest. Opening up cities to “normal” behaviour in a pandemic is not one of these tricky cases. It is dead simple. Going to a hair salon or a gym or a restaurant or a theatre in a pandemic is not a liberty you can with any legitimacy claim. It is the same reason why people are not allowed to drive drunk or serve food at a restaurant without regulation.
So, what are we to make of these protestors? These protestors, it should be remembered, are a tiny minority of the population who have received disproportional media attention. Well, I think we can safely link them with the gun lobby and the anti-vaxxers. And not just because in some protests, like in Michigan, there were a number of citizens carrying semi-automatic guns as evidence, I suppose, of their enhanced sense of liberty. No, the reason we can lump these groups together is because, as Anna Merlan has stated, “they don’t think their choices affect other people”.
How is it that you can live in a globalized world and not understand this? What you do or choose not to do impacts others in every sphere I can think of: in the political sphere, who you vote for or whether you vote at all and your level of civic engagement affects others; as a consumer, what you buy or avoid buying affects others; as a citizen, your behaviour affects the natural environment in innumerable ways; as a family member or as part of a relationship, can there be any doubt that what you do affects others?
That liberty has been reduced to the role of ubiquitous mask for selfishness is appalling. That it is now conflated with carrying guns around cities, getting your hair done in the middle of a plague and being able to golf whenever and wherever is sickening. Did Delacroix paint and Bartholdi sculpt so the tanning salons could stay open? And it’s sad too that the natural reaction of the majority of rational beings is now to flinch ever so slightly at the contemporary mention of “liberty”. This is what happens when a noble principle gets hijacked by a small group of cretins that shelter behind the aura of a word that historically has a revered place in our society. Well if usage really dictates meaning, then liberty now means ‘a misguided rationale for harmful and irresponsible behaviour’.
That sound you hear is John Stuart Mill weeping.