Liberty Without Life Is Not Liberty
Republican protesters reveal a fundamental flaw in hyper-individualism
Wednesday last week, thousands of demonstrators clogged the streets of Lansing, Michigan, to demand an end to the closure of small businesses in the state and to demand an end to the statewide shutdown. Though portrayed as a grassroots movement by its supporters, Operation Gridlock was a coordinated effort between major political organizations. One of them is the Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization that has financial ties to Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos. Other fringe movements like the Proud Boys and the Michigan Liberty Militia were also present, though that doesn’t discount the frustrations of many of the demonstrators. What these demonstrations reveal, however, is that there is a partisan hostility towards quarantining within some aspects of the Right where a collective American spirit ought to be.
Protests have sprung up across the country in Ohio, North Carolina, Minnesota, Utah, Virginia, and Kentucky, among others, condemning the so-called tyranny of state governments across America. One of the groups, the Michigan Liberty Militia, went so far as to bring firearms with them. With so much activity, it can be difficult to determine what exactly is the main point of these protests. Thankfully, one of the members of the militia, Phil Odinson, explained the point of these protests directly. In his interview with WXYZ News, he said:
It’s not about not being safe — we want to be safe — but I don’t think that we need the Constitution suspended in order to be safe. It’s a personal responsibility regardless. My point is that we don’t need it imposed upon us. The American people are smart enough to be able to make these decisions themselves.
Of course, such a position is in direct conflict with many of the public health experts who warn that American testing capabilities are woefully inadequate. More than that, these arguments fundamentally misunderstand the role of the individual within a free society. In his famous essay, On Liberty, English Political Philosopher, John Stuart Mill summarizes the limits of individual action, saying:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. -John Stuart Mill.
Mill argued that whatever the government does must be in the pursuit of preventing harm. Such a position, while mainly meant to address the limits of speech, still fits perfectly with the conditions we now find ourselves in and it is backed up by legal precedent set by the Supreme court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The case involved a pastor who was opposed to mandatory vaccination due to some complications involving his son’s vaccination. However, he was charged by the state for his unwillingness to vaccinate and was found guilty. When he challenged the constitutionality of the statute under which he was charged, the case was brought to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of Massachusetts, with Justice Harlan explaining the decision, saying:
The liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis, organized society could not exist with safety to its members.
We are faced with a pandemic that threatens the lives of many of our citizens, both old and young. Already, 37,625 Americans have died because of Coronavirus, and we have 715, 536 cases as of April 18th.
Significant portions of the population are at risk of this dying from this disease, as those with hypertension, high blood pressure, diabetes, and coronary heart disease are all targets for this virulent sickness. From 2015 to 2016, 29 percent of Americans had hypertension, as reported by The Center for Disease Control. Diabetes, another risk factor, is strikingly prevalent. An estimated 26.8 million people have diagnosed diabetes, and an estimated 7.3 million people have the disease but have received no diagnosis. I could go on about how many people have many more risks to their lives that this disease will only make worse, but that would be redundant. The critical point is that millions of Americans are at risk for this virus, and their right to live is no longer guaranteed.
Those who argue that the quarantines and stay-at-home orders violate their rights ignore the role of the individual in harming the rights of their fellow Americans. Theirs is a position of abstract individualism that separates the individual from the consequences of their actions and feigns shock when those consequences result in greater government action. Despite what they may argue, the demonstrators serve as a reminder that government enforcement of these restrictions on public life is necessary.
By ignoring the order to self-isolate, these activists reveal an axiomatic ignorance of the reality that we live in. Despite the general disdain for the collective sphere, collective action is exactly what is necessary to deal with this pandemic and the fact that some would deny that fundamental reality is not only concerning but is dangerous as well. With God-given rights come God-given responsibilities to our fellow man. We can’t have any rights if we don’t take collective action to defend the most sacred right of all: life.