For many people the battle against COVID19 has been transformed from a public health crisis into a political freedom crisis. It’s a well understood pattern for certain factions. Once the battle cry of “Freedom!” has been sounded rational discourse ceases, the tribe rallies, guns are drawn and anyone not in the tribe become satanical communists who hate America. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs. Ring the bell and the drooling begins. If only it were that benign. As is often the case, once that clarion call is sounded, America begins crumbling and losing. In this case, it’s right there in the charts. The transition from winning to losing is a sharply defined inflection in case counts followed by hospitalizations and, eventually, deaths.
Death is no deterrent to those with the proper Pavlovian training in how to react to “Freedom!” In fact, it’s a perverse form of psychological reward, a source of identity and morality. As one Texas politician put it, “there are more important things than life.” He’s been well trained. Give him a pat on the head and another doggie biscuit.
So, what is this thing called “Freedom!” anyway? To begin, we need to distinguish between “freedom” an incredibly important attribute in human social affairs that’s well worth strong, even impassioned debate; and “Freedom!” which is just a set of gang colors to rally trolls or trigger a specific Pavlovian reaction sought by demagogues.
In this article, I won’t attempt to fully unwind the Pavlovian conditioning around “Freedom!” I’ll just focus on the basic concept — freedom. It might seem obvious, after all, the dictionary offers the following:
(1) The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.
Let’s probe a bit deeper into that definition. Are traffic laws a restriction on freedom or essential to freedom? The laws are a “restraint” on my range of behaviors and are therefore an incursion on my freedoms. However, in their absence, trying to drive anywhere becomes such a life endangering exercise many would choose not to drive at all or to limit their travels to local essentials. That’s also a “hindrance” and therefore a limit to individual freedom. So, which is it? What about the existence of roads themselves? As long as they exist people use them which creates a “hindrance” on where they go. On the other hand, in their absence almost nobody from the east coast would ever experience the glories of Yosemite. So, which is it? Are roads and traffic laws restrictions on freedom or enablers of freedom?
For those whose Pavlovian “Freedom!” conditioning has been activated the answer is easy. They’re all restrictions and the proper behavior is to go get an M1A1 tank and destroy anything in your path. That reaction suggests the important word in the definition above isn’t “restraint” it’s “power.” Power is always about hierarchy, so that would make freedom a human value restricted to those at the top of the power hierarchy. That’s both awkward and too complex for our Pavlovian trainers so they just assume nobody else gets that tank, or two… but, hey, “Freedom!”
There’s an interesting analogy in the technology world around the role of technical standards. If you’re the developer of media encoding algorithms, the existence of a widespread defacto standard like MP3 impedes your ability to introduce new capabilities. On the other hand, if you’re a musician that same defacto standard is what enables you to reach a large audience. So, do standards enable innovation or impede innovation?
These examples touch on how individual and collective behaviors interact in ways that reinforce and enable certain experiences while minimizing others. This is often framed as “giving up certain individual liberties to achieve some public goal.” That’s how the Pavlovian trainers start their indoctrination process. They frame it has a tension between the “known good” of Individual liberty, and an “imposed demand by others” whose value you might or might not share but will be imposed regardless.
The modern Pavlovian trainers weren’t the first to call this out as an important tension. The philosopher Thomas Hobbes is famous for his observation that life outside of society would be “…poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He makes this claim based on his assertion that the natural state of man is to be at war with the world including all other men. In other words, it’s a world dominated by power and his observation is that, for the vast bulk of mankind, living in the hierarchy of a world dominated by power will be “poor, nasty, brutish and short.” So, maybe getting that tank isn’t the path to freedom after all.
Nonetheless, both he and our putative trainers center their framing on an implicit assertion that we’d all prefer to not have to deal with others, to live on our own, which they assert is our “natural state.” But, based on their own framing, since we must deal with others if we’re to avoid a life that’s “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” we have to accept giving up certain liberties.
However, if we look back at my examples of traffic laws, roads and technology standards, that framing isn’t quite accurate. I want to be able to drive safely wherever and whenever I want. I want to be able to enjoy Yosemite, no matter how far away I live. I want to be able to enjoy music from anyone whose creativity inspires me. Those are all things I want and lacking access to them would be a substantial “hindrance” or “restraint” — a very real loss of freedom, of my freedom.
It’s also useful to note that a nationwide network of roads and reasonably consistent traffic laws don’t “force” me to drive to Yosemite. They create a set of capabilities available and usable by everyone to make their own decisions about where to go. It’s the existence of a set of shared rules around the use of our collective resources that enables each of us, as free individuals, to decide when and where we want to travel, including Yosemite.
We aren’t exchanging “freedom” for something else, for some other form of value. “Freedom,” indeed “individual freedom” is on both sides of this ledger. We’re selecting from different paths to different types of value, all of which are quite real forms of “freedom.” The paths to the freedoms that arise from our collective resources are different from those that stem from our solitary capabilities, but they’re still paths to freedom. Those paths almost always involve shared rules about the use of our collective resources that specifically ensure they are usable by all of us. It’s those rules that transform a collective resource into a resource that dramatically expands our freedoms as individuals.
Furthermore, asserting our “natural state” is one of independent, omnipresent war against all other people is kind of bizarre. Of all the creatures in the natural world we are far and away the most dependent on others. Not only can an infant not survive in the absence of protections from other people, nobody would survive to adolescence. As a species we’d die out in a single generation in the absence of our collective capabilities. Our “natural state” is collective — we are social creatures, no matter how anti-social some of us may behave.
From that perspective, perhaps the most important forms of freedom we need to protect are the freedoms we enjoy when we exercise the capabilities that arise from our collective nature. The freedoms to drive anywhere I want, to enjoy Yosemite and great independent music sit at the heart of our true natural, “collective” state. Succumbing to the path of power, getting that tank and eschewing roads doesn’t lead to “freedom.” It leads to lives that are “poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Some of this is a simple matter of emotional maturity. Anyone who has dealt with an infant, two-year old, or spoiled teen understands their urge for immediate gratification. They “want” to smash that glass against the floor! Never mind that means nobody, including them, will ever be able to drink from it again. Smash! Their ability to see beyond the immediate moment is limited and their understanding of the immensely larger freedoms they forgo non-existent. When your world is very small, the freedoms you understand are very small. The possibility of visiting Yosemite or discovering a phenomenal new music talent are values found in a world that is far larger than their immature frame of reference.
Some of this is also a common reaction to “being told what to do.” Part of growing up is a process of shedding all those who are in a position to “tell you what to do.” We learn about the larger world, the behaviors it expects, and the freedoms we lose when those expectations are violated. As a result, we’re expected to modulate our own behavior as we pursue the larger freedoms that arise from our social context. When someone starts “telling us what to do” it’s an insult to our growth and maturity. We don’t need to be told! Unfortunately, some of us do.
Which brings us back to the subject of masks. Are masks a limit on freedom or the enablers of freedom?
Nobody is suggesting anyone needs to wear a mask when they’re alone or with family. It’s only in the presence of others that mask requirements arise. There are places with ill-advised rules that attempt to impose masks on solitary outdoor activities or other places where there’s little real public health issue. I’d agree with anyone asserting those are examples of collective over-reach. However, when we’re indoors, in close proximity to others, there are very real public health risks, both to ourselves and those we’re in contact with. In those situations, masks are the tools that enable us access to the freedoms that arise out of our collective reality.
The mask is what gives you, and I, and others, the freedom to shop where you want, to dine where you want, or to visit Yosemite if you choose. Masks are the tools that restore the freedoms we would otherwise lose because of Covid19. Masks are the tools that make it possible to begin the long process of rebuilding our economy with all the freedoms that our collective capabilities entail. Masks are essential for reopening schools, one example of a “collective capability” that frees our time from the omnipresent needs of our children. And, for those who care about such things, masks also offer a new form of individual expression, style and fashion.
Freedom takes many forms, the most powerful of which leverage our collective capabilities. The health dangers arising from Covid19 put those crucial freedoms in jeopardy. Masks offer the path to restoring those — which are in many ways our most precious freedoms.
In the age of Covid19, a masked society is the only truly free society.