If we can keep it

From the founding of the American republic, we have had different views on policies to improve our “more perfect union.” That we have lived and flourished together is the result of several important features of American society that we should never take for granted.

The first is a constitution that establishes a limited government that provides maximum scope for each of us to live our individual lives as we see fit. The potential frictions from our different views are thus minimized.

But the individual freedom structure of our government and its accompanying laws are not enough to explain our relative success. Civil society can only flourish within that structure if our values are virtuous and our cultural norms support tolerance and cooperation. Such norms derive from tradition but evolve with experience of what works. This was the insight of Fusionism—the need for both freedom (limited government and free markets) and good values. “Popularizer [William F] Buckley and politician [Ronald] Reagan took the productive tension between freedom and heritage and translated it into political action under the term “fusionism.” “Conservative nationalist or fusionist manque”

“As far as viewing individual freedom as the supreme principle, Mr. Fusionism Frank Meyer explained in his “Western Civilization,” that freedom did rank first politically, as what he called the ‘criterion principle, the guide.’ But ‘the application of principle to circumstances demands a prudential art’ derived from ‘the intricate fibers of tradition and civilization, carried in the minds of men from generation to generation…. The compelling, if secondary, claims of other principles, though not decisive to judgment in the political sphere in the way that freedom is, do nevertheless bear upon every concrete political problem.’ So, practical action requires balancing freedom and beliefs.” 

Culture informs how we use our freedom. Our personal survival and flourishing (self-interest) naturally have priority. But our cultural and moral values help inform our behavior toward ourselves and toward our neighbors that best serve our flourishing and happiness. Our personal welfare also depends on how we treat others.  In the fusionist spirit, two of the critical elements of successful societies are trust in the institutions that govern them and respect for those with whom they disagree.

Political debate in America today is too often merely finger pointing and damning the other side as disingenuous—treating them as enemies rather than partners in brainstorming sessions to find the best solution to opposing views. The pros and cons of proposals and an understanding of the sincere needs and concerns of the other side and the development of compromises and consensus are not possible in such an environment. Our defense of free speech is critical but of limited value if we are just shouting at each other and forget that listening is an important part of a productive conversation.

More deeply disturbing and dangerous is the widespread loss of confidence in our institutions. How best to protect ourselves and our families and our community from Covid-19, for example, should not be a political issue. We should be able to rely on the best advice coming from our public health agencies as they gather and evaluate the evidence. But these institutions bent to political pressures and lost public confidence. “Should you get vaccinated for covid-19”   “The unnecessary fight over covid-19”

More disturbing still is former President Donald Trump’s persistent lies to his supporters that he actually won the 2020 election, thus undermining trust in our elections. That Trump makes such claims is less surprising than that so many of his supporter believe it despite the almost total failure of any evidence presented in court (thus under oath) to establish voter fraud or miscounting, and the rejection of such claims by Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, and  Trump’s appointed Attorney General, William Barr, who called the claims “BS.” There is no way anyone really seeking the truth can still believe Trump’s claim of a stolen election. But a lot of people still seem to.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. We all listened to Trump’s failed effort to persuade George Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to find 11,780 more votes for him. “Trump-Raffensperger call transcript on Georgia vote”   When such efforts were exhausted, Trump explored ways to overturn the election results in Congress with the help of “legal” advice from John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani. The final desperate plan was to convince Vice President Mike Pence to reject the Electoral College vote and declare Trump President. The scheme was illegal. The Vice President’s legal adviser, Greg Jacob, explained the illegal nature of the plan to its author, John Eastman, and to the Vice President as did Judge Michael Luttig. VP Pence refused Trump’s pressure to overturn the election, for which we must all be very grateful.

In response to Pence’s refusal to violate the law, “Trump tweeted that Pence ‘didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done,’ prompting rioters Trump had sent to the Capital to “chant ‘hang Mike Pence’ and erect mock gallows.  Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney has described testimony from Trump aides saying he responded by saying Pence ‘deserves it.’” “How did Trump respond when mob chanted hang Mike Pence?”

The mob that attacked the Capital on Jan 6, 2021 was sent by Donald Trump. “Five people died during the attack or in the immediate aftermath.”  “January 6 attack on capitol-guide to what we now know”  “A grand jury has accused Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio and four associates with seditious conspiracy tied to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.” “Proud Boys leader charged with seditious conspiracy related to Jan 6”   “Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia group, and 10 other members or associates have been charged with seditious conspiracy in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.”  “Stewart Rhodes arrested-Oath Keepers-Jan 6 insurrection” Two of them have pleaded guilty so far.

Trump’s behavior on Jan 6, such as his long delay in taking any action, remains somewhat cloudy because some of the key Republicans involved that day have refused the subpoenas to testify before the Jan 6 Commission:

“Those gaps are largely the result of the refusal of key Trump allies to participate in the investigation, a list that includes his former chief of staff Mark Meadows as well as his most prominent defenders on Capitol Hill: GOP Reps. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Scott Perry (Pa.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Mo Brooks (Ala.), all of whom have rejected congressional subpoenas to appear before the panel” “Jan 6 committee is telling a story but plenty of gaps remain”

This is an outrage. It is disrespectful to those of us, hopefully all Americans, who want and deserve to know the full truth of what happened that day (and before).

What if Trump is allowed to run again in 2024 and claims that he has won even if he hasn’t?  Will our institutions and public trust in them withstand the better trained and better prepared Trump insurgents next time. Judge Luttig issued a strong “warning to a country whose democracy, he said, is on ‘a knife’s edge.’”

 “Ignoring Jan 6 hearings Michael Luttig explains why you shouldn’t”   “Read Luttig statement”

Trump seems to be preparing for such an event.  “Speaking during a Faith and Freedom event in Nashville, Tenn., Trump said [of] the defendants charged in the Capitol riot… if I become president, someday if I decide to do it, I will be looking at them very, very seriously for pardons. Very, very seriously….” “Trump-says-he-would-look-very-very-seriously-at-pardons-for-jan-6-defendants-if-reelected”

I hope that he won’t be allowed to run:  “The criminal case against Donald Trump”

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.