It’s not news that we are a deeply divided nation with a seriously fractured relationship between the two political parties. The fact there are only two is part of the problem. See Gehl and Porter, The Politics Industry, 2020, for more on that. More recently, the fracture manifests as people’s different responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically the choice to be vaccinated or not. The real fault line seems to be how differently people interpret the word “freedom”.
Those choosing not to be vaccinated argue a vaccine or mask mandate violates their freedom to do as they please. We have never had such unlimited freedoms. The concept of unconstrained freedom is based upon the assumption one’s choices affect only him or herself, sort of like Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Nolan, in “Castaway”. Chuck was the only inhabitant of his island so he was totally free to do anything he pleased, without considering how his choices impacted others.
The critical difference between Chuck’s situation and ours is Chuck was all alone. We are not; we live in community with each other. Therefore, our freedom to choose is not infinite but limited because we live in relationship with, broadly, every other American. Our individual choices have benefits and costs (as an economist might say) for us individually, of course. But many, nearly all in fact, of our personal choices bring in train benefits and cost for others who had no part in the choice making.
The benefits and costs individuals’ choices that fall on others, in econospeak, are called externalities or spillover effects. Public health is the poster child for spillover effects, both good (positive spillovers) and bad (negative spillovers). In the case of COVID-19, a highly communicable, sometimes deadly pathogen, someone who is not vaccinated imposes spillover costs on the rest of us because it puts at risk everyone with whom that person comes in contact.
Therein lies the rub for those who hold the unconstrained notion of freedom. The flip side of it is those of us who are vaccinated are gifting a positive spillover to others. The vaccinated are protecting themselves but also provide a measure of protection for those not vaccinated, a positive spillover. In Mississippi, sadly, most of us are choosing not to be vaccinated so the problem is the negative spillover effects of the choices of the unvaccinated. As citizens, we have agreed to abide by a certain social contract that calls us to consider freedom of others as we make our individual choices.
The idea of a social contract is not new; Plato used the term 2,400 years ago. More recently the likes of Hobbs, Locke and especially Rousseau have written about the social contract. In fact, the title of Rousseau’s book is The Social Contract, 1762. In his very first sentence, Rousseau elegantly captures the essence of the matter. He wrote, “Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”.
Though we are free people, our personal freedom is circumscribed by the freedom of others when the freedom of one conflicts with the freedom of others. The social contract to which we are obligated as a condition for citizenship means we must consider the effects our choices have on others. That is true even when our obligation to society means we must sometimes make choices we wouldn’t otherwise make, if our choices had no impact on anyone else.
If someone chooses to act in ways that impose costs (risks, for instance) only on themselves, freedom means, “Knock yourself out!” However, when there is a highly communicable disease on the loose, we are not free to choose to deal with it in a way that palms off on others some, probably most, of the costs of that choice.
Our social contact means we have a responsibility to do all we can to attenuate the health risk to ourselves and others. In the COVID era, that means getting vaccinated, unless there is legitimate medical or religious reason not to. I suspect there are comparatively few such cases though.
It is obvious many non-vaxers are making a political statement. Making political statements we are perfectly free to do. But, in doing so the spillover effect of their choice is putting at risk the rest of us. That they are not free to do; it violates the social contract.
For those making a political statement by not getting vaccinated, get a bumper sticker or wear a t-shirt that says something like, “Yeah Trump, Boo Biden.” Your choice to run health risks violates my freedom to choose to avoid health risks.
Patrick Taylor is a Northsider.