Troubled and Troubling Notions of “Liberty”

This piece appeared in the newspaper on July 18, 2020.


Patrick Henry famously presented “Liberty” and Death” as alternatives. But lately in America we’ve seen a troubled and troubling notion of Liberty in which Liberty and Death come packaged together.

How many on the right, for example, would reject that famous idea, “No one is free to falsely shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater”?

A recent flagrant example of the problem involved armed men who, a little while back, posted themselves around the Michigan State Capitol to denounce the lockdown (which had been instituted to stop the spread of the pandemic) as an act of tyranny and an infringement of their rightful liberty.

The great Supreme Court justice who penned that famous line about shouting “Fire!” was saying that the right of free speech –as essential as it is – is not so absolute that it allows one to act with reckless disregard for the public safety. (Because a false cry of “Fire!” threatens to panic a crowd into a deadly stampede.)

Our founders gave us rights. But they also wanted the nation they were founding to be able, when necessary, to implement coordinated strategies to protect the people’s collective well-being. (Which is why the draft, for example, has not been declared an unconstitutional infringement on individual liberty.)

Powers to implement quarantines have long been recognized, as a legitimate means to minimize the loss of life during a dangerous epidemic. These have been considered necessary infringements on our liberty.

(Accordingly, in response to this pandemic, virtually every free and enlightened nation on the planet instituted some such systematic limitations on people’s freedom to spread this deadly disease.)

Yet there is a strain of political thinking in America in which individual rights are consistently treated as absolute, even when the nation’s collective well-being is serious jeopardy.

For example, many in the same political subculture in which the necessary measures to control a deadly pandemic are denounced as tyrannical likewise argue that their “right to bear arms” is absolute – that it cannot be restricted in any way to protect public safety.

They reject the idea that, just as the right of free speech does not extend to causing a deadly stampede, so the fact that our nation has a homicide rate ten times that of other free nations indicates the need to find a better balance between individuals’ rights “to bear arms” and the right of the people as a whole to be protected against wanton gun violence.

From that same political subculture, we also get consistent opposition to instituting any coordinated measures to meet the challenge of the global climate crisis.

None of these challenges – pandemic, rampant gun violence, climate disruption – can be met by people acting individually. Each, rather, requires a coordinated, collective strategy.

That’s the context in which I’ve pondered those heavily-armed men around the state capital in Michigan protesting against the measures required to minimize the damage to the American people inflicted by this pandemic.

I wonder: How do these people – who discount so thoroughly the legitimate needs of the society as a whole – see their relationship to society? Are they indifferent to ideal outcomes where our society

  • defeats the viral contagion that has invaded us, through all of us Americans acting as a team under good “wartime leadership,” to protect the vital interests of everyone;
  • successfully navigates the climate challenge to avoid harming our children and grandchildren and the future of humankind;
  • finds an optimal balance between the rights of individuals to have firearms and the need of the society to avoid that American slaughter from gun deaths that’s put our nation off the charts among free societies?

Yet many of these same people are vociferous in declaring themselves “patriots.” Which leads me to wonder: In view of this political subculture’s consistent discounting of the needs of the nation as a whole, what does their patriotism (e.g. that of people like those who accuse Michigan’s Democratic Governor of being a tyrant) consists of?

What I’ve seen leads me to believe their patriotism is of the “We’re # 1” kind. That’s what we’ve seen about the patriotism of “Make America Great Again”—that it’s not about the “greatness” of an America that – as “the leader of the free world” — leads the community of nations into a better future for all, but about an aggressive assertion of our nation as a dominant and aggressive power.

Such a patriotic stance toward the wider world looks like a repetition of the same attitude that those “liberty-loving” people manifest as individuals toward their wider society, i.e. an aggressively defiant attitude that rejects whatever claim the surrounding world makes on them to help advance the greater good.

I wonder what is at the root of such an attitude—one that, in the name of “Liberty,” rejects the right of society to require anything of them, and that displays angry defiance toward the authority our founders established to enable the nation to take effective, coordinated action for the common good.

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