Between CostCo and every other store creating policies about who should wear masks while shopping and people sharing a dubious video suggesting that mandatory mask-wearing is part of a larger conspiracy to force mass vaccinations, there’s a lot of grousing going on over social media and in public about masking up.
It ties in with the protests around the country where people are claiming that Stay At Home orders are an unconscionable threat to their freedom. They wave their Gadsden flags, yell about how measures to prevent a more deadly pandemic are just a test run for martial law, and demand their right to manicures, lawn care, and riding with more than one person in a golf cart.
Are there reasonable reasons to feel anxiety and anger over an inability to work, earn income, and provide for yourself and your family? Definitely. And reasonable problems can have reasonable solutions.
Unless some people’s unreasonable demands control the conversation.
A person who’s upset that they’re being asked to wear a mask or use one-way aisles in a store isn’t helping the employees who need that store to be open so they can earn money.
That person is not making a principled protest about freedom. They’re throwing a selfish tantrum about their personal convenience.
I know a thing or two about recognizing selfish tantrums, because I have a five-and-a-half-year-old at home.
When I see this kind of rhetoric, and I think about part of what inspires it, it’s the idea that we are a nation founded on the principles of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
But the words don’t always mean what people want them to mean.
These Protests And Complaints Are Not About Liberty
When people make these protests about liberty and freedom, they’re using a very specific definition of what kind of freedom they’re interested in: Freedom from the consequences of their actions.
In the above example, nobody was forcing the shopper to leave the store without getting a toaster oven. No government entity banned the sale of toaster ovens, or specifically imprisoned this person within their home.
He was upset that he was unable to walk through the store in the manner he preferred.
That’s not infringing on his liberty. It is an exceedingly mild infringement on his pursuit of happiness.
And it takes some serious gall to publicly assert that your pursuit of happiness trumps concerns about the life and liberty of others.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Emphasis on pursuit.
Nowhere does it say in the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution or any of its amendments (or any other federal statute or decree that I’m aware of), that it is the government’s responsibility to make sure that every citizen is happy.
The only safeguard for happiness that the government provides is protecting its pursuit. Your happiness is still up to you, the individual.
So if that pursuit is considered a right, it needs to be considered that for a right to be truly universal, it must be equally true for all people that it applies to.
All Rights Inherently Have Limits
Your rights end at the border of another person’s rights.
You have a right to peaceably assemble and protest your grievances with the government in public spaces. You have no right to force yourself into the private home of a politician and stage a protest there against their will.
You’re allowed to yell “FIRE!” if you’re alerting other people of a fire. You’re allowed to yell “FIRE!” if you’re alone in your home or your vehicle and the spirit moves you. You’re not allowed to yell “FIRE!” in a crowded building where no fire exists, because the ensuing panic could cause injury to others.
You’re even within your rights to swing a big chef’s knife around wildly while singing selections of Gilbert & Sullivan, unless that knife winds up slashing or stabbing other people.
With that in mind, let’s look at the specific controversy of the moment: You’re allowed to shop in a CostCo. Nobody has stripped your right to engage in legal commerce with this business.
But you’re being asked to make sure that your right to choose how exposed you are to a virus doesn’t infringe on the rights of the other customers or employees who may be taking additional preventative measures to limit their exposure.
If you were to eat in a restaurant, that restaurant would be within its rights to kick you out if you walked into the kitchen and started sneezing and coughing on other people’s food. No one would suggest that you deserve the freedom to willingly contaminate the food of strangers.
This is a limit on individual freedom of choice that is not part of some novel campaign to turn the United States into a police state. It’s a reasonable extension of the existing limitations on people’s individual actions to prevent them from infringing on the rights of others.
It’s a reasonable attempt to protect people’s lives, the first, most important, part of that whole life, liberty, pursuit of happiness thing.
What They Say They Want Vs. What They Act Like They Want
People protesting to “reopen the economy” and go back to pre-pandemic behavior say they want to be able to patronize the businesses they want, and to make sure that people are able to go back to work again and not have to worry about how to pay their bills.
Okay. Then we need to take into consideration how to do that with guidelines and practices that will protect the health of those workers and the customers they come in contact with. Without their health, those employees can’t do their jobs, and businesses can’t stay open.
So mask up!
But if masks, one way aisles, and plexiglass safety shields are too high a price to pay for businesses to reopen, then was all this bloviating really about the economy?
Or was it about the fear of those protesting that they would need to acknowledge that they aren’t above restrictions? That their freedom has limits?
That other people matter?
The threats that stand to steal the life, liberty, and happiness from untold numbers of people demand a response that is organized and cooperative. They are challenges that demand the ability to see each other as valuable and trustworthy.
In the end, there can be no liberty without life, and the best chance we have at protecting our lives is to learn to live with trust in each other, and respect for each other’s rights being equal to our own.