Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

Writing at the Washington Times, Cheryl Chumley makes the argument we’re hearing a lot these days from those who are protesting against the measures being used to slow the spread of the coronavirus. She is particularly upset about any requirement for people to wear protective masks.

Major U.S. airlines have announced that as a condition of riding their friendly skies, passengers must all put on a face mask.

Let the muzzling of America commence.

After noting that some state governments are requiring people to wear masks under certain conditions—like working in a restaurant—Chumley writes this.

This seems a blatant violation of an individual’s right to choose — of an individual’s right to self-govern. America, after all, isn’t a nation founded on collectivism, but rather individualism — on the right of individuals to exercise their God-given authorities, absent government tinkering and intrusion. What gives government the authority to order citizens to cover their faces?

My immediate reaction was that she could make the same argument against things like speed limits, carrying explosives on airplanes, or even smoking in public places. After all, those laws restrict an individual’s right to self-govern. What gives the government the authority to order citizens to limit how fast they drive?

The answer, of course, is that we have always had laws that put restrictions on individuals to limit the damage their behavior could pose to others. Honestly, the kind of “individualism” Chumley describes is more akin to anarchy than anything our founders envisioned. They actually wrote a kind of collectivism into the Preamble to the Constitution.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

In our modern-day two-party system, the traditional argument has never been that “freedom” gives the individual the right to do anything they please. Instead, it has been to disagree about how far the government should go in intervening for the common good.

At the Democratic Convention in 2012, President Barack Obama laid out that tension as he focused on what citizenship means in a democratic republic.

We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world’s ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations…

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That’s what we believe.

There is a reason why Obama focused his speech that year on the importance of citizenship. During a campaign appearance in Roanoke, Virginia, he had talked about the fact that economic growth is driven by a dynamic of both individual and collective effort.

If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

Republicans, and their presidential nominee Mitt Romney, zeroed in on two sentences: “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen,” claiming that Obama attacked the very foundation of our free enterprise system. They even went so far as to dedicate a whole day of their convention to a rebuke of those two sentences taken out of context.

This battle between the individual and the collective has been the defining difference between Democrats and Republicans for years. It is important to recognize that when conservatives talk about “freedom” these days, it is most often in the context of freedom from any form of government action or intervention. The claim, as Chumley notes, is that self-government no longer refers to our collective responsibilities as citizens of a democratic republic, but “an individual’s right to self-govern” themselves. That is one of the more dangerous arguments that Attorney General William Barr made during his speech at Notre Dame.

In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves…”

This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.

What makes that argument so dangerous is that it wasn’t being made to promote anarchy or even libertarianism. Instead, it is a way to advocate for the idea of “religious liberty,” or the right of conservative Christians to impose their beliefs onto others via government intervention. In other words, it is all about freedom for me, but not thee.

That is precisely why we see the irony of people protesting the coronavirus restrictions carrying signs that read: “My body, my choice.” These people seem to believe in their freedom to threaten the lives of others during a pandemic, but the government should decide what a woman does with her body.

Even more dangerous is the kind of attitude on display with the protester who carried a sign that replicated the one on the gate of Auschwitz, translated “work will set you free.”

What I would observe is that the Republican Party has completely lost touch with concepts like “freedom” and “liberty” in an attempt to deny the collective responsibility of citizenship.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.