The position of individual liberty versus COVID deserves the mantle of “group rights.”
Sometimes aphorisms or statements of principle are used to steal bases in political debates. Take, for instance, the assertion of the Twitter account for the Roosevelt Society that:
The rights of the group outweigh the rights of the individual, the basis for vaccine mandates. 700,000 deaths many, many could have been avoided with vaccines.
Even taking the principle concerning the balance of rights as true, it has to be clear in its meaning and it has to be judged in a particular situation. Otherwise (and this is very common), one could simply assert that X policy is an exercise in group rights and therefore outweighs Y policy, which is asserted to be an exercise in individual rights. Scarcely an issue could not be distorted to fit into either category, as desired.
So, what precisely is a “group right”? In the hands of the Roosevelt Society, the phrase appears to indicate the desire of the group to help a significant number of individuals by imposing mandates on a larger number of individuals. That doesn’t produce a very useful definition.
If it means anything, “the rights of the group” must implicate the well-being of the whole group, as a group. The classic “tragedy of the commons” concept is that individuals utilize a public resource until it is exhausted and then the entire society is harmed, perhaps fatally, because that resource was not maintained. If your expedition has limited food and everybody eats their fill from the start, the food will run out and the entire group will starve. In such cases, the individual must be restrained, sometimes made to suffer, because the alternative is failure of the entire group.
In the harshest application (in a communist regime, say), “group rights” would produce precisely the opposite conclusion to the Roosevelt Society’s. As tragic as those 700,000 deaths might be, if saving them requires destruction of the economy and the competitive education of a future generation, then they must be sacrificed.
The obvious contrary argument (which — let me be clear — I wholeheartedly endorse) is that it benefits the whole group to cultivate a concern for individuals. To value them. To be pro-life. (Communism universally fails in time, after all.)
Observe what has happened, though. We’ve introduced the group’s perspective on individuals as a value that benefits the group. This applies not only to life, but to other values, as well… such as liberty. That is, it benefits the whole group to maintain the primacy of individual liberty.
This, in fact, is the argument of those whom I imagine the Roosevelt Society is arguing against, whether they articulate it or not. Under the banner of that 0.2% of the entire population of the United States who have died while testing positive for COVID, we’ve uprooted our entire system of government. “Emergency declarations” have been transformed from a short-term ability to address an immediate catastrophe into a long-term waiving of the rules of representative democracy to manage an ongoing problem. Policies around elections that could never have made their way through the legislative process were simply imposed by fiat right in the middle of a contentious election, undermining the faith of probably around half the electorate that our system deserves our complete confidence.
The list goes on, but even those two items are potentially existential threats to the group.
Where does vaccination fit into this? Balanced between the principle of valuing life and the principle of valuing liberty. Nobody objects to inconveniences to save lives. We tolerated lockdowns! But things have to be reasonable, and we have to have a sense that individual liberty remains a social value.
There are alternatives to vaccination, and at the very least, those should be part of the discussion rather than ignored as if they don’t exist under the banner of “group rights” and the assumed authority of the state.
Featured image by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash.