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Liberty, Civilization, and COVID Chutzpah

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Max Stearns

Among the tragedies of the last two years has been witnessing conservative elites succumb to a misconceived notion of liberty. They have all too willingly acquiesced in the dominant misunderstanding among Trump base supporters that disregards the word's societal context.

Liberty means rights or freedoms individuals hold while living in society. Hermits have freedoms, not liberties, since their choices don't affect other human beings. Certainly we should care about animals and the planet, but the constitutional conception of liberty, embedded in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, is androcentric, and yes, including the gendered connotation.

As an undergraduate in the early 1980s, I majored in economics and political science. In law school, my 1L line-up, coincidentally, featured several faculty discovering the once-fringe Law and Economics movement, then assuming greater prominence.

A common refrain was that lawyers were like engineers; with the right tools, they could help law play a benign role, allowing markets, with reasonable regulation, to thrive. This wouldn't just benefit those who personally did well. It would benefit society. These professors conveyed that markets generate wealth and spark innovation, with transactions benefiting producers and consumers, who share in the gains. Over time, they claimed, innovation benefits society as a whole by lowering the cost of desired goods and services. These intuitions were so widely accepted among Law and Economics scholars as to be assumed virtually axiomatic.

To be sure this happy story carries enough caveats to fill a book. I know this personally having authored or coauthored three textbooks exploring them. Although my point isn’t to proselytize free markets, I do think progressives too quickly dismiss the importance of appreciating how how markets work. My point here, though, is that liberty isn't singularly focused on the individual. Liberty is a means to the end of a better society, not an end in itself.

Tragically, the pandemic has demonstrated that for the Trump base, liberties are misconstrued as their own end. Even Donald Trump recognized the problem when, at a recent Alabama rally, he encouraged vaccination. The audience booed, and he followed up with this:

“No, that’s okay. That’s all right. You got your freedoms,” . . . “But I happen to take the vaccine. If it doesn’t work, you’ll be the first to know. Okay? I’ll call up Alabama, I’ll say, hey, you know what? But [the vaccine] is working. But you do have your freedoms you have to keep. You have to maintain that.”

Trump, of course, could never be accused of being an intellectual. But among conservatives elites--a group rarely reticent to issue corrections to the slightest missteps on the left--this exchange was met with deafening silence. Assuming he understood the word's meaning, Trump should have said "No. Those aren’t freedoms you have to keep; you are torturing the concept of liberty. It’s not just about you.” But this is Donald Trump.

In some recent blogposts and a WSJ Letter to the Editor, I discussed the lawsuit my friend and co-author, Todd Zywicki, filed against George Mason University. The suit challenged the University's mandatory vaccine policy, subject to conditional exceptions that Zywicki sought to avoid. That suit is now settled in Zywicki's favor. Disputes remain concerning related medical questions, a subject on which I have repeatedly disclaimed expertise. (See here (discussing Israeli natural immunity study) and here (discussing Northwestern University study providing contrary implications)). My concern, instead, involves the meaning of liberty.

One commenter on my WSJ op-ed chastised me for pointing out that in my coauthored textbook with Professor Zywicki (and economist Tom Miceli), well before COVID, we explained that universal vaccination via mandates helps solve a Prisoners’ Dilemma related to efforts to secure herd immunity. The commenter responded that no one today believes COVID herd immunity achievable.

Chutzpah is a Yiddish word that some claim can't really be defined. The classic example involves a child who, after murdering his parents, pleads for clemency on the grounds of being an orphan. The definition isn't really so hard: Chutzpah is deliberately provoking an irony to exploit for personal advantage. Ozymandias is ironic, but not chutzspah. The grand statue attesting to the ruler’s infinite power is belied by centuries of decay. Irony means the expression of one thing to convey its opposite meaning. The statue attesting to enduring strength instead connotes erosion and thus weakness.

A student famously asked the great Anthropologist, Margaret Mead, to explain the first sign of civilization. Most anticipated pottery, roads, jewelry, and the like. But no. Her answer was a healed femur. She explained that in the animal kingdom, a broken bone meant death. Civilization begins when we start to care beyond our immediate selves. Liberty only matters in the civilized world. Sadly, too many libertarians, those embracing an ideology centered on this very word often with religious zeal, seem to have forgotten this.

Too many conservative intellectuals have tragically acquiesced in the false conception of liberty to convey individual freedoms indifferent to societal well being, or, more generally, civilization. This distorted, even solipsistic, sense of "liberty" threatens others—the personally vulnerable, those with vulnerable family members, and those who, like whomever withstood far greater danger than a vaccine to help heal another's femur, will always attend to others in need.

Throughout this pandemic, too many conservative elites have condoned, or themselves advanced, deeply problematic liberty claims, including the claimed intrusions of masking, social distancing, and vaccines. Social media is replete with examples of conservatives and libertarians insistently opposing helpful measures every step of the way. And likewise, too many have acquiesced in claims that liberty demands the freedom to do, or not do, whatever one pleases. Rights have become an end in themselves, not a means to a better society.*

My WSJ critic is right about one thing: We won’t achieve herd immunity. That’s what happens when so many people exploit the meaning of liberty. Fighting endlessly to prevent the very immunity one then claims is impossible to achieve goes beyond irony. It is chutzpah. It is tragic. And it is uncivilized.

I welcome your comments.

*I've separately observed the inconsistency when it comes to women's reproductive rights.

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