Opinion

The very American conflict between liberty and lockdown

We are a nation of individualists, but we must look out for one another

What do we owe each other?

This is a famous philosophical question, one that received prominent attention the last few years thanks to the late, lovely sitcom The Good Place. If you were to pose such a query to the protesters in some parts of America who are demanding an end to "stay at home" orders issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, I suspect their answer would be: "not much."

This is a mistake, but an understandable one. Liberty, after all, is hardwired into the American psyche, and the limiting obligations of quarantine are in conflict with that instinct.

To recap: Demonstrators have hit the streets this week in Ohio, Kentucky, and North Carolina. On Wednesday, a protest in Michigan was dubbed "Operation Gridlock." Despite the firearms and Confederate battle flags, the protesters' demands might seem familiar, even sympathetic to most Americans. They want freedom — freedom to go shopping, freedom to open up their businesses, freedom to go sit in a restaurant and have dinner with friends, freedom merely to do what they were doing unencumbered two months ago. Don't we all?

"Quarantine is when you restrict movement of sick people," one of the Michigan organizers told Fox News. "Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people."

But what if the free movement of healthy people creates more sick people? The protesters may soon find out — many defied "social distancing" requirements, clumping together in close groups without masks and raising the possibility that this week's protests will be the source of next week's outbreak.

"We know this rally endangered people," Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) said afterward.

The anti-quarantine stance is driven by a powerful American impulse. Our country's story has been told to us primarily in terms of freedom: who has it, who doesn't, how we got it, how some of us had to fight for it for far too long, how some of us are still fighting for it, and even how we define it. Individual liberty isn't just one of our chief national values — it can sometimes seem like the only principle we collectively share across the political spectrum. It's difficult to think of a song about America that doesn't include the word "freedom."

"Stay at home" orders are rooted in another, somewhat less-lauded virtue: community. We are staying home — those of us who can — not just because we don't want to risk contracting the virus, but also because we don't want to risk spreading the virus to others. We're looking out for the collective good. We don't necessarily have training for this. Our national stories and culture don't often highlight the merits of taking care of each other, though E pluribus unum is a notable exception. We fancy ourselves rugged individualists, and some of us even make heroes of fictional characters like John Galt, the Ayn Rand protagonist who went on strike against the very notion of collective obligations.

And yet the collective good exists. Without it, we might not have volunteer fire departments, public hospitals, or even book clubs. We are healthier, safer, and happier when we work together to create things we couldn't on our own. For all our love of rugged individualism, very few of us move to the country to live off-grid. We need freedom, but we also need each other. It isn't always easy to find the right balance, but in some circumstances — like during a global pandemic — we have to accept limits on our own lives so that others might benefit.

That's not to say all the restrictions being imposed by governors and mayors across the country are always smart or effective. But the public at large seems to recognize that some limits now might be good for the long-term health of the country. We owe each other — and ourselves — the chance to live. You can't enjoy your liberty if you're dead.

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