One of the political conflicts currently at play – and highlighted as the country has celebrated its Independence Day – is that between differing views of freedom.
On the one hand, recently much of the base of Trump’s Republican Party has been protesting over masks – often armed, sometimes bearing racist symbols like the Confederate flag. On the other hand, we’ve seen the Black Lives Matters protests, some of the members of such protests toppling statues of racist figures in America’s past. Both represent in part contesting views of freedom.
The first has a focus in particular on what political theorists call negative freedom or negative liberty. This highlights the freedom from interference in one’s life and regarding one’s personal decisions. Those protesting the government mandates are protesting what they view as an incursion on their own freedom – to wear or not wear a mask, to expose themselves to a risk of Covid 19 at a bar or not. They claim there is government overreach. It’s not for anyone to decide about these risks but the individual.
But all too often this is where their reflection ends: We needn’t think long to recognize that their exposure to risk also exposes others to risks. Among other reasons, because so many have refused to wear masks and refused to responsibly socially distance at bars and elsewhere, Covid 19 is spreading exponentially. This means others are getting sick or dying. It means, among other things, that as Europe has succeeded for now in getting a better grip on the spread of the virus than the United States has, US citizens face a travel ban to Europe.
Traditionally proponents of negative liberty also underline that one’s individual freedom from interference ends when a person’s action negatively impacts the rights of other individuals. John Stuart Mill’s “no harm principle” has long been a fall back principle for advocates of liberty in everyday life: one should have the full rights to individual freedom as long as exercising those rights does no harm (or pragmatically speaking, does only minimal harm) to others. Basic to the idea that there is a limit to one’s liberty is that all people’s rights matter, not only one’s own.
Few would contest that we have a right to life and that in order to protect that right the government would have an obligation to step in to fight a foreign power that had begun a war on a country. Under circumstances of such a foreign incursion we would accept curfews and a curtailment of normal life, as needed to save people’s lives. But when it comes to similar action to protect the lives of citizens from a virus — this seems to many to be controversial. Yet the two cases are are quite similar in principle. And we should no more accord respect to the alleged right to refuse to wear a mask or to refuse to socially distance than we would the alleged right of individuals in a war-time to break curfews. In such rare cases, the individual freedoms sought (to not wear a mask, or to break curfew) should not be accorded as much importance as the right to life of other individuals. The fact is that wearing masks and socially distancing will reduce the spread of Covid 19 and prevent the illness and death of innumerable people. The rights of its citizens to life outstrips the alleged rights of others to do whatever they want.
Everything I’ve so far talked about fits coherently within the standard discussions of negative liberty. Even if you are only proposing negative liberty, there are good reasons for restricting individuals from their sought after behavior insofar as we just accept some theory of basic rights such as is enshrined in our laws. A government would be flagrantly irresponsible that did nothing to protect the lives of its citizens in the face of a pandemic such as Covid 19. In keeping with this, though those protesting masks may be doing so based on a sentiment aligned with the defense of negative rights, by refusing to wear masks or social distance, they are not aligned with any responsible understanding of that tradition, which recognize obligations to others.
On the other, hand, the Black Lives Matter protesters are not merely aiming at negative freedoms, but also at what are known as positive freedoms or positive liberty. They’re generally not generally calling merely for freedom from interference. Rather they are also calling for freedom to do somethings that are now not possible. In fact, ideas of both negative and positive freedom are involved in the Black Lives Matter protests. The goal of a lot of the protesters is to ensure that Black Americans are able to walk down the street without police harassment, to jog in their neighborhoods without racist vigilantes harassing and perhaps killing them. In this they want merely some basic freedom of movement fully aligned with these traditional negative freedoms. However, they also want to eliminate structural racism that has resulted in disproportionate numbers of arrests and deaths of black Americans in the U.S. and that have resulted in intergenerational poverty. They also want Black Americans to be able to enjoy the same opportunities for career advancement, health a prosperity as other Americans. The broader call of the Black Lives Matter protests are for not only negative freedoms but also for the positive freedoms to a more fulfilled life than many are now allowed given the structural racism in the U.S.
Of course, the immediate concern of the Black Lives Matter protesters are cases of police violence against blacks and of racist vigilante justice. There are a plethora of cases we can call to mind. Most immediately was the killing of George Floyd by a police officer who suffocated him to death by holding his knee on neck, even after George Floyd exclaimed the words that have become so incendiary for the movement: “I can’t breathe.” But Floyd’s death was preceded by Ahmaud Arbery and a host of other deaths. The history of state violence against Black Americans is uninterrupted since the first slaves were brought here. In some sense, these calls for justice in our justice system start with a call for the most basic equality – that all be treated equally under the law. And insofar as this is tied into a basic discussion of negative freedom, it is that the same rights for freedom be extended to all.
More generally, though, the calls of Black Lives Matters protestors do often intersect with calls for positive freedoms. As the structural racism in the United States is considered, it does not take long to see that, given the racist past, not all are accorded the same opportunities, not all now have the same starting ground. While the children of plantation owners were able to get fine educations, inherit wealth that allowed them to invest in businesses and accumulate even more wealth, and afforded varying other life possibilities, the children of plantation slaves had no such benefits. They thus were not in positions to be able to be able to afford educations, to buy houses or make investments with inherited money, and so on. So many opportunities (or positive freedoms) afforded to those who benefited from the structural system of slavery or the economy and laws of the restoration period were not available to those whose labor was exploited under those legal and economic systems and whose lives were often at risk from racists in the police, in the judiciary, in business, education and elsewhere.
The calls of Black Lives Matters protestors thus underline both the lack of equity in the law in determining whose negative freedoms matter but also the basic lack of equity in the allocation of conditions making for positive freedoms.
The strongest proponents of negative freedom tend to think that those who are industrious will reap the benefits of that industry. Government should stay out of the way and allow fair competition in which those with the greatest store of talent and those who work the hardest will rise to the top. Government should prohibit interference in the economic system. This view of negative freedom pairs with a Libertarian view of freedom propagated by Ayn Rand, Rand Paul, the Koch brothers and so on. Not rarely, its proponents see the given distribution of rewards and opportunities in society as the just result of previous hard work; and they view government involvement in the economy with the aim of reallocating opportunities as illegitimate interference. So they generally oppose tax schemes that fund welfare programs, that would pay for college, that provide assistance for home buyers, let alone any plan for economic reparations for African Americans. Many advocates solely of negative freedom fail to see that the legal system is quite selective about whose negative rights are protected. Proponents of this view generally fail to underline the ways in which a social order has and continues to privilege some over others.
The Black Lives Matter protesters are much more conscious of precisely how the government has historically prioritized the negative rights only of certain individuals and ignored those of others. One doesn’t need much more than a grade school education to see the injustice of slavery and restoration period laws, in which the property rights of whites were given clear precedence over the rights of liberty or even the rights of life of black Americans. Black Lives Matter activists also emphasize how this past has shaped our present system, which still does not allocate anything like equality of opportunity or provide for the positive freedoms that are needed for as fulfilling of a life as possible for many in the country.
Those protesting the wearing of masks are appealing to a tradition of negative rights, but they fail to rightfully consider that even in this tradition, one individual’s rights end where another individual’s rights begin. Those protesting systemic racism in the US note much more often that negative rights have been selectively enforced and further that positive rights are important. To secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, government must do more than enforce the same laws equally (though that would not be a bad start). More though, government needs to create conditions for greater equality of opportunity – that is that can secure healthcare, education and access to housing and food for everyone in this country. Without that, the assertion of our Declaration that we all have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness remain nothing but empty claims.