The politicization of coronavirus vaccines and mask-wearing has been a depressing reminder of the downside of American individualism. The successful functioning of a free republic depends on people taking personal responsibility for their actions. Too often now that translates into a disregard for the rights of others, coupled with an insistence that our own opinions, even if they are founded on the shifting sands of rumor, must be given as much respect as any expert’s.
In the case of COVID-19, the results have been catastrophic: the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives, hospital stays for millions more, and lingering disability for a number we can’t yet calculate. They are as much victims of the ideology of personal freedom as of the virus itself.
Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers (usually but not always the same people) could choose to stay home so as not to endanger others by their choices, and perhaps some do. But many claim a right to go where they please, be served in whatever businesses they wish to frequent and send their children unmasked to schools that they insist must be open. Confronted with some version of the maxim that your right to swing your arm ends where the other guy’s nose begins, they insist the other guy ought to swing his arm, too, because bloody noses aren’t real.
COVID-19 is not the only example of the damage that ensues when a large segment of society elevates the rights of individuals over obligations to society. Second Amendment absolutism has led to the peculiar result that the right to own a gun is valued more highly in law than the right not to be killed by one.
I would argue that the refusal on the part of a vocal minority to even acknowledge climate change and the role of humans in causing it similarly has its roots in American individualism. To concede we are in a crisis is to accept the need for action to counter the rise in atmospheric CO2. Though the collective benefits of action are enormous (extending even to the ability of our civilization to endure), some individual sacrifice has to happen in the short term. Yet for some people, individual sacrifice in the service of the greater good is unthinkable. What’s in it for them?
That’s why climate activists (myself included) so often emphasize the benefits to individuals of the energy transition: cleaner air, the superior comfort of energy-efficient homes, lower electricity bills from cheap wind and solar. Even the appeal to parental love — Save the planet for your children! — assumes the primacy of self-interest. But that avoids the more difficult question of what my obligation is to my neighbor’s children, or for that matter, children elsewhere in the world. What do human beings owe to each other?
It may feel impossible to have a serious conversation about rights and responsibilities when our public sphere is so contaminated by falsehoods, mistrust and conspiracy theories. But we still have to try, because the ability of our society to navigate the many challenges ahead of us depends on a consensus about what we owe to one another.
Successfully tackling the big issues – both familiar ones like the economy, racial and wealth inequality, and threats from abroad, and emerging threats like cyberterrorism, climate chaos, plastic pollution and looming ecological collapse — requires collective action. A nation of individuals all fiercely guarding their individual rights and recognizing no responsibilities towards others is on its way to collapse.
This column appeared first in the Virginia Mercury on August 28, 2021.