Our Right to be Free

Our country was founded and has prospered on the proposition “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We jealously guard our individual liberty. We are free to decide what we want to do and how we want to do it. This liberty is subject to two major conditions: we must live with the consequences of our choices and actions, and our actions cannot interfere with the same exercise of freedom by others. We never fully live up to these high principles, but they do define the goals we continue to and should continue to aim for.

When our actions or circumstance fail to sustain us, we do step in to help those in distress, whether from family obligations or friendships or a government administered social safety net. We continue to debate and refine its features.

Determining the boundary between those actions I am free to choose, and those that unacceptably affect others is not always easy. Walking in public naked is not acceptable in most societies (except at designated nude beaches). While this would not infringe on the freedom of others to behave as they want, it would “force” them to see something they do not want to see.

I chose this example because it does not fall neatly into something purely private that I have a right to do (walking around my home naked) or something clearly and obviously damaging to others that I do not have a right to do (driving my car through my neighbor’s garden).  In the realm of social norms, I can walk in public dressed in many ways depending on the society I am in.  A man might freely walk around in a dress (if he chooses the neighborhood carefully) without getting knocked down in some societies but not in others. Such social norms are important in defining and guiding acceptable public behavior and they vary across societies and over time. Such norms are continuously debated.

But clearly my freedom to swing my fist ends where your face begins. If you are infected with a contagious disease, you do not have the freedom to walk around potentially infecting others even in the most libertarian of societies (e.g., lower Manhattan). I assume that anyone sick with Covid-19 knows that she must isolate/quarantine herself.

But what about someone who doesn’t feel sick but hasn’t been vaccinated?

Any establishment has the right to require that only vaccinated people work or shop there and/or wear face masks. And I certainly have the right to attend only those performances or eat in those restaurants that impose these requirements. These are implications of freedom.

Surely everyone understands and accepts these propositions.  So why is there such controversy over wearing masks and getting vaccinated? I don’t know the answer to this question but will suggest a few factors that I think are important. That such health issues have become so politicized is almost more distressing than the fact that in the United States 728,000 people have died from Covid-19 by October 10, 2021.

One reason is that some people are pushing back on being told what to do by the government. Such behavior is common in freedom loving children but rather unseemly in adults. Another is that vaccines were developed with miraculous speed and their effectiveness and potential side effects are not yet fully known. None the less the evidence is overwhelming that being vaccinated significantly increases your prospects of living and surviving the infection compared to those who are unvaccinated. Another is that during the Trump administration medical policy and advice became quite politicized. Many of us, often with good reason, stopped trusting the messages from the CDC and FDA. And to this day government messaging remains poor. Rather than offering advice based on the most recent evidence (which can change over time) and the reasons for those recommendations, government pronouncements are often confusing and sometimes sound like demands. Many of us have lost trust in the government’s pronouncements. Unfortunately, some people have put their trust in unreliable sources of information and even, in some cases, in deliberately malicious sources (and we can’t always blame Russia). 

Where our choices and actions affect only ourselves, we should be free to do as we like and benefit (or suffer) from the outcome. Where our actions affect others, more or less directly, social norms and government rules should limit our choices. In societies where its citizens live by the golden rule and respect these norms, beneficial behavior is followed voluntarily — enforcement is not a serious problem.  We must determine the sources of information that we trust carefully and based on such information we must treat our neighbors with the respect we expect from them.

Protecting our freedom is critical but it is not enough. We must also exercise it virtuously. The “fusion” of freedom and virtue has been (most of the time) the basis of American success. We seem at risk of losing both. Get vaccinated now for everyone’s benefit. Please.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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