Yesterday – the 75th Memorial Day since the end of World War II — and the first in more than century to occur during a global health pandemic — seems like an apt point on the calendar to reflect for a moment on the question of what the Allies fought and died for in the battle against fascism.
If you agree that the answer to that question is “freedom,” then perhaps it also makes sense to take a few more minutes to reflect upon what it is that we mean by that word.
Abraham Lincoln once famously characterized the unsettled debate during his era over freedom’s sibling – “liberty” – this way: “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.’”
And so it is for many of us in Lincoln’s republic today, 146 years later. We all declare for freedom; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.
To hear many of our most dissatisfied fellow citizens in recent weeks as they have clamored to “reopen” the state’s economy, “freedom” is, first and foremost, about commerce: the right to operate a business and even, if necessary, put oneself and other knowing individuals at some risk of serious illness in order to earn a living and secure wealth and property.
In a similar vein, they have argued that freedom is also about the right to gather in groups — again at the risk of endangering public health — for religious services.
These are, of course, not trivial concerns and interests to which they give voice. The right to participate in commerce and to practice one’s religious beliefs are both core American freedoms. As they do in so many other areas, however, some basic common sense and common good limitations must apply.
The freedom to participate in commerce doesn’t confer the right to cheat one’s customers, to abuse one’s employees or to sell dangerous or defective products. Religious belief, however sincere, doesn’t confer the right to steal from one’s followers or abuse children.
And so it obviously must be when it comes to matters of public health. It’s all well and good to claim that everyone possesses an inherent freedom to earn a living or worship as one sees fit, but it’s undeniable that government must have an ability to intervene at some point. Few in the “reopen movement” would argue the government can’t or shouldn’t act to protect the public from an airline that proposes to fly defective planes, a restaurant that refuses to abide by sanitation rules, a church that tortures children or, for that matter, a virus that incurred, say, a 25% death rate.
The undeniable fact is that, at some point on the continuum, public intervention confers more freedom on more people than is conferred by government inaction.
Even members of the NRA would, presumably, acknowledge that a constitutional amendment penned in the era of muskets doesn’t confer an unfettered right in the 21st century to the personal possession of surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons.
The challenge in a society that purports to be about freedom is how to strike the proper balance between the stultifying oppression of the old Soviet Union and the freedom-robbing lawlessness of a plutocratic gangland like Putin’s Russia.
And so it is that a similar kind of calculus can be applied to any number of modern policy debates. Which person enjoys a greater degree of freedom: the one with guaranteed lifelong access to affordable health care, or the one who lives in a country that features 2% lower taxes? The one who can pursue their dream of post-secondary education without fear of crushing debt or the one in which such an opportunity is treated as something be bargained for and purchased like a high-end consumer product? The person who lives in a country in which air, water and land are treated as precious and finite resources to be nurtured and stewarded for all time or the one who resides in a place in which every individual enjoys license to exploit and sully them at will?
Of course, there are no magic or perfect answers to these questions. The public policy world is full of gray areas.
Ultimately, it seems, our best hope lies in continuing to build a world in which facts, data and, in the case of public health, science, eclipse superstition, mythology and propaganda in resolving these debates.
Here’s to another century of Memorial Days in which we celebrate and consecrate the freedom to pursue such a course.