With states such as Texas, Arizona and California closing stores and restaurants to rein in COVID-19 and cities nationwide mulling the requiring of masks in public, angry residents and business owners claim these restrictions violate the American idea of freedom. These measures clearly do involve hardships and exceed the normal restraints citizens expect from their governments in liberal democracies, but are they truly an affront to liberty?
The extensive body of writings, constitutional arguments and lived experience of the American pioneers of freedom and self-government, as well as those who inspired them, make clear that they are not. The founders endowed us with a system to handle the circumstances of an epidemic responsibly; we should be following their lead rather than trampling on their legacy, as well as the health and well-being of our fellow citizens.
In a crisis as profound as COVID-19, our Founders would expect government to take all appropriate action.
Where better to start than with John Locke, the 17th-century thinker who arguably had the greatest effect on the political philosophy of America’s founders and who set the course for contemporary liberalism. Locke’s writings articulate a highly nuanced view of freedom, one far removed from the slogans displayed at protests decrying missed opportunities for a haircut or a meal out.
Locke revolutionized thinking about political power by arguing that the true source of legitimate authority rests with the consent of the people. Freedom means that every person is allowed to follow his or her “own will in all things” rather than be subject to the “arbitrary power” of another person.
However, Locke adds, freedom is not “a liberty for every man to do what he likes,” since “who could be free, when every other man’s humor might domineer over him?” True freedom — the freedom to be partners in our own self-governance — entails not only a freedom from external arbitrary power, but also a freedom from internal prejudices and other impediments to reason.
Looking at scenes of protest around the country, and especially in my home state of Michigan, I am reminded of what Locke observed about a certain “mistaken” idea of liberty: If “true liberty” means to “break loose from the conduct of reason, and to want that restraint of examination and judgment, which keeps us from choosing or doing the worse,” in that case, “madmen and fools are the only free men.”
What Locke sketched out in theory, America’s founders knew in practice as political and military leaders, and enshrined in the laws and the guiding documents of U.S. government. The founders understood that government is necessary to “promote the general welfare” by facilitating collective responses to general problems — it’s even included in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution.
And, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in “Federalist No. 23,” it would be an “absurdity” to entrust to government “the direction of the most essential national concerns,” but then not entrust it with the authority that is “indispensable to their proper and efficient management.” Surely this means that in a crisis as profound as COVID-19, our founders would expect government to take all appropriate action.