The “I protect you, you protect me” promotion of face masks, discussed in part 2 of this article series, was an ingenious and dirty switch-and-bait that allowed authorities to neutralize our civil liberties and sidestep our individual autonomy. Once accepted, this magical thinking practically begs for ever more authoritarian enforcement because every new case and every new death is now interpreted as your failure to do your part to protect me. You no longer get to choose what risks you wish to face because you’re not responsible (or even capable) of managing your own risks. But you are responsible for everyone else’s risk. Your choice not to wear a face mask has become the legal equivalent of getting behind the wheel of a car when you’re blind drunk.
Over the last 400 years we have witnessed the slow and often tortured birth of a revolutionary new political philosophy, wholly unique to history. This political philosophy was founded on the radical idea that you, not your king, not your country, nor your bishop, but only you own your body and mind. It is the idea that a nation is composed of free individuals, united in liberty by a set of common laws with the sole purpose of defending the freedom of individuals from the overbearing instincts of their leaders, their neighbors, and the mob. Liberty is not about safety, comfort, or prosperity. Liberty, at its heart, is freedom from being subject to the will of others, not license to impose your will upon others. This idea of individual autonomy is the fine line that separates citizens from subjects; it is the essential ingredient that separates the freeborn from the medieval serf.
No matter how grave the danger of the wolf or virus prowling at our gate, we cannot allow our individual autonomy to be turned on and off to suit the mood of the day. As soon as we allow it to become negotiable, our freedom will once again rest in the hands of some referee who has the authority to decide when that freedom can be turned off. Negotiable individual autonomy was the default setting that our ancestors endured throughout most of history. That was the legal basis for serfdom, slavery, and every other form of caste system throughout history.
Once the line is crossed to negotiable individual autonomy, the subjugation that follows is merely a matter of degrees. Where you fall on this negotiable hierarchy of rights depends entirely on your ability to gain favors from those who hold the reins of power. And chances are that those holding this power won’t include you, won’t share your priorities, and won’t care one ounce about you no matter how sincerely they proclaim that they do. Once individual autonomy becomes negotiable, there will always be someone willing to pay a higher price than you to buy favorable terms, to negotiate exemptions, and to stack the deck to their advantage.
History is punctuated with examples of how easily individual sovereignty over body and mind are snuffed out or given away willingly by a population whipped into a frenzy of fear. History is also filled with countless examples of dreadful suffering inflicted on individuals whenever elites gained the power to override individual rights in order to impose their whims (no matter how well-intentioned) onto their nation. And history should serve as a sober warning that, once traded away for safety, it usually requires a great deal of bloodshed to wrestle those freedoms back out of authoritarian hands.
The legal danger to our civil liberties caused by mandatory face masks, lockdowns, mandatory social distancing, categorizing workers as essential versus non-essential, and imposing quarantines on healthy members of society should make every citizen’s blood run cold. It doesn’t matter whether the intentions behind all these health measures are pure or self-serving. The effect is the same. The precedent has been set. You no longer own your own body. What you wear, who you socialize with, whether you are allowed to work, and where you may travel within your own country are now all subject to the discretion of politicians and un-elected bureaucrats.
In effect, you have lost your right to choose for yourself how to balance the risks and priorities in your life. Your ability to go to work so you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps is now conditional on some politician’s or official’s stamp of approval. And your freedom to speak out against these measures and your right to criticize the government’s handling of the pandemic is increasingly dependent on whether the government feels threatened by opinions that they label as “false information” or “conspiracy theories”. We are being “muzzled” in the interests of “public safety.”
It’s a vicious self-feeding cycle. By opening Pandora’s box of giving the government the right to override individual autonomy as a path to safety from this virus, we created the perfect feedback loop to dissolve all our constitutional rights and freedoms. Every new case and every new death are now seen as confirmation that government control is too lax. Every new case and every new death serve as justification to impose even more authoritarian limitations on individual autonomy.
It doesn’t matter if this power lies in the hands of a democratically elected government, a monarch, or an unelected dictatorship. Even if majority opinion dictates government policy, if the legal concept of individual autonomy has been discarded, majority rule is simply mob rule. The dictatorship of the mob is no less oppressive than the dictatorship of tyrants.
Furthermore, once any government, elected or not, gains the power to ride roughshod over the individual rights of their law-abiding citizens, control of government itself becomes a prize. Whoever gains control of the government also gains control of this license to impose their will upon others. It therefore becomes worthwhile to invest a great deal of time, money, and effort to capture or mold that power for your own ambitions.
There has never been a shortage of people eager to utilize the power of government to pursue religious, ideological, moral, environmental, or social objectives. And they are always wholly convinced of the righteousness of their ideals, the purity of their objectives, and the justice of their actions. Only the idea of individual autonomy, enshrined in our constitutions as a hard-won universal right, has served to handcuff the ambitions of those eager to use the power of government to impose their will on others. That handcuff has now been taken off.
What is emerging from the chaos of COVID-19 increasingly mirrors the authoritarian might of pre-Enlightenment governments from centuries past or the hellish contempt that present-day illiberal regimes like China, Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, or North Korea have for the individual rights of their subjects. With individual autonomy neutralized, all that separates us from these other illiberal regimes is the goodwill of our leaders. That is a flimsy brake on power. When fear is in the air, when ideological goals are within reach, when leaders feel that their hold on power is threatened, or when the fate of the nation is seen to be at risk because of the actions or beliefs of a dissenting minority, the end increasingly justifies the means.
We already see an abundance of activists, ideologues, and well-meaning people who want to utilize this newly unleashed government power to pursue ever more ambitious goals wholly unrelated to fighting COVID-19, such as the desire to impose a “Green Recovery”, pursue postmodernist “Social Justice” goals, redistribute wealth to favored identity groups, and impose a “new normal” on citizens without having to go through the messy process of representative democracy, which previously had to account for the opinions of citizens and the rights of the dissenting minority. Don’t forget, even if you think the goal is worthy enough to justify this infringement on individual autonomy, whatever can be done by those who you agree with can also be done to you by those you don’t agree with if they gain control over the levers of power. Preventing abuse of power is not a question of making sure that only the right people get access to power, it’s a question of limiting power so that no matter who gains control of the government, no-one can impose anything on anyone else.
When government lawyers have to tie themselves in knots to create legal cover for mandatory health measures, like face masks laws, which deprive people of their individual autonomy, even if they can find a way to “make it legal” (as they did with the “I protect you, you protect me” switch-and-bait), or even if the courts rule in favor of the government when these measures are challenged by unhappy citizens, that doesn’t change that the spirit of liberal democratic governance has been broken. Remember that those who hid Anne Frank from the Nazis were breaking the law. Remember that those who executed her and her family were following the law. The law is a social contract that either protects citizens from or gives cover to the authoritarian impulses of elites.
This spirit of the law quickly becomes perverted when fundamental principles are violated to achieve a goal. And when it is perverted, it is always done under the pretext of protecting the people from some unspeakable evil. The end never justifies the means.
Benjamin Franklin warned us of this moment. Yet we chose to give up essential liberty in exchange for our government’s promise to keep us safe from this virus. Now we’re trapped behind our muzzles as we watch our rights and freedoms give way to the whims of our leaders.