Somehow, a Bill of Rights got Locked into the Constitution

I blogged this day before yesterday: The Communitarian Nightmare We Feared is Here. Yesterday, USA Today is out with a story about the “COVID culture wars” that pretends the debate is ongoing. The author of the story, Dennis Wagner, has made up his mind. The story is really an exercise in head-scratching over why those who believe in liberty are so unwilling to submit to extraordinary social control.

“When the United States was founded, a Bill of Rights got locked into the Constitution to ensure that personal liberties were protected from a coercive government,” writes Wagner. “Locked into” is an interesting way of putting the matter. Does he mean that the Founders wanted to ensure liberty for citizens yet to be born? Or does he mean that we are stuck with a terrible mistake? “But those freedoms are not limitless,” he informs us.

Yes, Dennis, those freedoms are not limitless. But then neither is government power. At least it’s not supposed to be limitless. That’s why we have a Bill of Rights. Madison’s rights rests on the principle that government must have a compelling reason to limit freedom. It’s not that coercion is forbidden—it’s that coercion must be rationally justified. It must be justified in terms that satisfy the democratic-republican, humanist, and libertarian principles upon which the United States was founded.

In the story, Pamela Hieronymi, a UCLA professor who specializes in moral philosophy, referenced Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory, wherein the author argues, summary provided by Hieronymi, that “American culture is producing a swarm of annoying, self-righteous people who behave as if they are so special that normal rules do not apply.” This formulation seems to confuse the woke scolds, that “swarm of annoying, self-righteous people who behave as if they are so special,” you know, the ones who shame people for not wearing masks or for not submitting to an experimental vaccine in the face of a growing record of problems, from those who refuse to accept as normal demands they submit to an experimental vaccine in the face of a growing record of problems.

Here’s what the “debate” gets wrong. First, the calculus accepts the justification for coercion as given. The unprecedented and unjustifiable level of coercion has been visited upon the United States is unjustified. Presently, using CDC estimates, which likely undercount infections, the virus kills approximately 0.3 percent of those it infects. Moreover, the virus’s lethality is not demographically uniform. It is only especially lethal for the very old, the very sick, and those with certain chronic health conditions. For many demographic categories, the risk of the vaccine outweighs the benefits (see “COVID-19 is Worse than the Flu”—For Whom?). The vaccines appear to drive the mutations that produce new and more virulent variants (see The Official Vaccine Narrative Completely Falls Apart). The vaccinated are spreaders of the virus (see Will the Vaccinated Do the Right Thing and Mask Up or Stay Home?). In light of the infectiousness of the vaccinated, Wagner’s use of the Typhoid Mary story is supremely ironic.

Second, and more fundamentally, “At what point should personal freedom yield to the common good?” falsely frames the debate. Personal liberty is the common good. The idea of the common good pushed in this story is the way the Chinese Communist Party conceptualizes freedom, which is that the power of the government is not limited by human rights. To be sure, a lot of Americans want to live in a China-like world. Many Americans today fear freedom. They seek to escape from it. The religious mentality is pervasive and justifies itself with scientism, an ideology that dresses itself in the language of science. The Chinese model and scientistic attitude is antithetical to everything America represents. Authoritarians are using COVID-19 to take us away from America and towards something America was founded to take us away from. They’re characterizing the defense of liberty as selfish and the act of submitting to authority unquestioningly as altruism. They are portraying the defenders of American ideals as assholes. What does that say about American ideals? The 1619 Project captures the spirit of the answer.

This USA Today story is really about freedom and reason versus unreasonable coercion, where the latter is being pitched as “the common good.” Dennis Wagner is reaching a large audience with a propaganda message about what being a good citizen involves, namely submitting to the dictates of the Centers of Disease Control, an organization that, alongside the FDA and the USDA, is a paradigm of regulatory capture. His piece is engineered to reinforce lockstep messaging from the establishment media.

There’s a quote in the story from sociologist Steven Tipton (Emory) that sums up the mentality quite well: “Being a good citizen is being mutually responsible. If you believe in the gospels, wear your mask.”

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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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