by Ahmed E. Souaiaia
:6 min read
Echoing the ideals of many Enlightenment thinkers and their struggle against the encroachment of the Crown and the Cross on individual rights, John Locke penned that the proper function of government is to ensure men’s rights to “life, liberty, and property.” In 1776, the drafters of the U.S. Declaration of Independence adopted an edited version of that ubiquitous statement substituting “property” with “the pursuit of happiness,” a right derived Locke’s writings, still. Nearly two hundred years later, representative of about 58 nation-states drafted the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reaffirmed the same rights in its third article declaring that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” In no other context are these three rights more relevant than during a global pandemic. As we have witnessed, these rights are interpreted and practiced in a way that is risking the life and health of many, bringing this question to the forefront: should these three rights be universal?
During this covid-19 crisis, all governments around the world have accepted the need to implement some social practices to limit the rate of infection and give healthcare workers time to better prepare. Some governments are more willing and accepting than others. Some countries have been more successful than others in flattening the curve before restarting the economic wheel under strict guidelines, including wearing masks in public spaces. The U.S. administration, by all metrics, did not manage the crisis successfully. Before the end of the month of March, the U.S. took the top spot in databases recording the number of infections and deaths from around the world. There are many reasons for this failure. I will focus on one reason: individual freedom, for it is a systemic response to a call for action against a public health crisis.
Through systems thinking model, it can be concluded that there are ideological and political streams that identify individual liberty and personal property as universal, inviolable rights absolutely protected against intrusion under all circumstances. This position plays out in the public sphere when its proponents advocate for limiting government mandates and public policies on a wide range of issues, like taxation, insurance, healthcare, social security, public and private education, social services, management of public land and public resources, and many other areas. In this case, the simple task of wearing a mask to manage a pandemic became an ideological matter.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that show that wearing a mask in crowded public spaces would slow down the spread of the virus and could save lives, some heads of government institutions — local and federal — resisted mandating it. They reasoned that if wearing a mask is made mandatory by the government, such a mandate would infringe on individual liberty. In other words, individual liberty, in the view of the proponents of this position, overrides the rights of others to life, safety, and security. Stated differently, the implication of this position is that, individual liberty, not the safety of the larger community, is universal. Under these circumstances, it becomes clear that only one set of rights can be universal and absolute, not both. To explain this mutual exclusiveness, we need to examine how this conflict presents itself in practice, not just in theory.
Scientists serving as public health officials became convinced, based on many datasets from within the United States and from other countries, that wearing masks in places where people are in contact with large crowds of other people will reduce the spread of this virus. They passed that information to decision makers — politicians who are authorized and empowered to issue executive orders related to public safety and security. In this case, some of the most consequential public office holders who subscribe to the idea of inviolable individual liberty or who are dependent on the vote of people who hold such view, merely encouraged wearing masks, but refused to mandate it. The mandate not to mandate wearing masks in pubic empowered some individuals to refuse to wear mask without violating any laws. It was left to individual businesses owners to decide if they would require their patrons, customers, clients, or visitors to wear masks. As expected, some businesses required wearing masks and some didn’t. In the setting where wearing a mask is not required, one individual who might be infected will risk the health and life of hundreds of others who happen to be in the same space. In other words, the lives and health of hundreds of individuals does not override the liberty of one individual. Therefore, according to this thinking, individual liberty is universal, but not the life and health of other individuals.
In most other contexts, one can appreciate the need to protect individual liberty from the tyranny of the majority and abuse by governments. In most cases, the benefits of protecting individual liberty outweigh the harm of limiting the rights of the majority to silence minority voices. In a political context, for instance, one individual voice, when absolutely protected, cannot exact a non-mitigatable harm on the majority. For example, a single vote by an individual, selfish and misguided as that might be, is often cancelled out by other votes. So, there is no real harm in having one individual with “dangerous” ideas and preferences voting with hundreds of other individuals. The majority vote will immunize society against the “unwanted” ideas and choices of outliers. However, during a viral pandemic, one individual has more power than the many individuals because the good health of the many does not cancel out his illness — his illness cancel out their health and potentially their lives.
While attempting to frame the pandemic crisis in inclusive terms, it is often said that “we are in this together.” National and international leaders stress the need to work together because “the virus does not discriminate.” Neither of these statements is accurate. While the virus is widespread, sickening and killing people in all continents, its impact is different from community to community and from person to person. From the start of the crisis, when testing was limited, the rich was able to be tested more than once while the poor was dying before even knowing that the virus was in their bodies. Those with means were able to relocate their resources and re-purpose their functions, while the less rich persons exhausted their assets and lost their resources. In the U.S., Black people have been dying at a higher rate than white people. Help reached those who matter and it was denied to those who did not. Vulnerable persons were left to die based on Darwinian reasoning while resources were allocated to benefit different demographics. Rich countries wanted vaccine made exclusive to them alone even before it was produced, when other countries were denied access to finances and aid to cope with the pandemic. Every decision that was made shows that we were not in it together and that, while the virus did not discriminate, the response to it did. Many saw it as an opportunity to get richer and forced their workers to risk their health and lives and the lives of their family member so that the rich continue to profit from the misery of everyone else. Refusing to wear a mask is only a symptom of a system that is not built for circumstances like this.
Western societies’ human rights discourse was greatly informed by Enlightenment thought. Enlightenment thought was both a reaction and an aspiration. It was a reaction to life under the Crown and the Cross, often working together, with very weak civil society institutions. Life, liberty, and property were at risk and at premium. In most cases, the Crown controlled the land and leveraged its ownership of land to control people. Those who resisted that control would lose their life and liberty. Thinkers who lived in the proximity of such reality imagined a new world where life, liberty, and property are guaranteed rights that government cannot infringe upon.
It has been more than three hundred years since that transformative time. Some crowns had fallen; others were reduced to ceremonial roles. And churches were reassigned to the semi-private sphere of public life. The 17th and 18th centuries challenges did not just disappear, they were replaced by new ones: powerful State entities with monopoly on the use of violence, degradation of natural resources, widening inequity, segmentation of society, cruel globalism, threatened indigenous communities and ecosystems, and the silencing power of corporations. Can all these transformations and ensuing challenges be addressed, still, by universalizing liberty and property or are we in need of a new framework for human rights based on new value systems?
Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest, not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.