Life is Risky. Freedom is Precious

To those who say that the folks who want the lockdown to end are for killing people, I hope they’re for the abolition of automobiles to prevent the 35-40 thousand automobile deaths that occur annually in the United States alone, many of those deaths occurring through no fault of the victims (drivers, passengers, and pedestrians). 

If the scolds are not posting memes about the genocidal intentions of those who drive automobiles (I confess, I drive one), then the scolds must know that they’re tacitly agreeing to tolerate those tens of thousand of deaths of their brothers and sisters for the sake of the freedom and convenience of traveling by automobile. 

Remember, the risks associated with automobiles involve more than just deaths from accident. Tens of thousands of people die prematurely (many more than from accidents) from air pollution caused by car exhaust. And what about all the people injured in automobile accidents?

How has society dealt with the risks associated with automobiles? Not by taking away automobiles or punishing people for driving them (unless they cause death and injury in a manner society does not approve of). We have not dealt with the risk of automobiles by limiting the freedom of individuals who want to travel by automobile. We have instead taught people how to drive more safely, have made automobiles safer, and have made automobiles more environmentally friendly. 

Suppose we could reduce the frequency of suicides by punishing people who say things that may contribute to a person’s motivation to perpetrate self-harm. To be sure, there is often a preexisting condition like depression lying in back of self-harm. But who is attributing COVID-19 deaths to high blood pressure or type II diabetes? It’s the pathogen (that the vast majority of people survive). With suicide, it would follow that persons saying hurtful things to vulnerable people is the proximate and therefore primary cause of death from suicide. Would that justify suppressing the right to free expression? Or is free expression for all who wish to pursue it more important than the lives of those who are prone to suicide?

I can keep producing examples in this fashion. Many things we do as free people have risks associated with them. The authoritarian approach to risk is to restrict or take away freedom. Authoritarians treat freedom as the problem. If speech motivates actions deemed detrimental to others or to society, then speech needs to be curtailed. People have to be controlled. In contrast, the humanist approach is to make things safer and make people wiser, not shut down the freedoms that make life worth living.

Maybe we will one day have a risk-free alternative to the automobile (I hope so, but not everybody does). Maybe one day we will solve the problem of mood disorders and suicidal ideations. Maybe one day we will have an effective therapy for viruses. Until then, if risk reduction involves sharply limiting human freedom, then at least be consistent and limit your own freedom. Stay away from cars by sheltering-in-place (albeit sometimes cars collide with houses so you may never be completely safe). Rarely is anybody forced to drive an automobile (or take a bus, or a train, or a plane). Stay home and let the rest of the world go on driving—and living.

In the end, humans cannot mastermind death, disease, and injury. Nor can the government. Life is risky. Death is inevitable. We can take steps to reduce the risks for most things we face in life. But we mustn’t adopt measures that substantially diminish the freedom of all.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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