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What COVID-19 can teach us about political theory

| Thursday, January 20, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the problems facing our society. Whether it is our poor healthcare system, the scars and new markings of racism in America or widening economic inequality, the U.S. response to the pandemic is a reiteration of our failures as a nation. One aspect of this episode in our national history that I’d like to highlight, though, centers around political theory.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been clear resistance and defiance to public health measures. Across the country, people have protested lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing, mask mandates and seemingly any COVID-19 restriction that disrupted one’s usual way of life. In December 2020, at a time when coronavirus cases were rising significantly, 31% of Americans opposed a national mask mandate and many states still had not yet adopted the measure. According to a June 2020 poll, 24% of Americans planned not to get vaccinated, including 30% of Republicans. Additionally, data shows that while most Americans agreed about the benefits of wearing a mask and socially distancing, many participated in activities while not wearing a mask or socially distancing.

Why was such a significant portion of our nation this hesitant and opposed to the COVID-19 restrictions? The answer is found in the philosophical foundations of the United States. A lauded American value is individualism, the notion that any person in this country ought to live as they see fit and has the capability to do so with enough hard work and dedication. This belief comes in part from John Locke, a political theorist whose writings heavily influenced the U.S. Constitution and our founding principles. Locke’s emphasis on individual freedom and open competition gave way to a society built on self-interest.

This “I go my way and you go your way” approach manifests in nearly every corner of American society, especially in the pandemic. Among those Americans who refused to wear masks, a plurality of 40% cited it was “their right as an American to not wear a mask” (no such constitutional right exists). For Americans who did wear masks, though, 60% did so to “protect themselves and others”.

This finding embodies the debate between protecting individual rights and public safety. While some Americans prioritized themselves and their own interests, others focused on communal well-being. When public well-being is threatened by the exercise of certain rights, what should government do? Is a government obligated to protect rights regardless of the consequences, or does it have a duty to prioritize public health? Examining these questions, I would argue that during times of duress when the exercise of certain liberties threatens public safety and there is no adequate alternative solution, the prioritization of public safety is a necessary duty of government.

One finds support for this belief in social contract theory, a philosophy Locke and our American values subscribe to. This is a philosophical doctrine that argues society functions based on agreements individuals make between each other about their obligations and responsibilities, enforced by government. For instance, public schools exist because we as a society agreed people should have access to education, and the government enforces this obligation through constructing schools, regulating curriculum and collecting taxes to allow schools to function. There is much more nuance to the theory, but the basic foundation is that individuals make agreements with one another, enforced by government, to live in a peaceful, prosperous society.

Such a philosophy requires the prioritization of public safety over upholding individual rights in times of great danger. Social contract theory is built on the sacrifice of some freedoms in exchange for security. For example, if government did not exist, how would we prevent crimes such as theft, assault and murder? We would be in constant conflict with one another as individuals pursue their deepest desires with no regulation. It would be mayhem! The social contract says that individuals concede some absolute freedom while government provides safety from threats to public well-being. This inherent concession that forms the foundation of society already recognizes public safety as a more important goal than individual rights in some instances. In the context of a global pandemic, the curbing of certain liberties makes sense.

In fact, Locke noted the importance of public safety in his own work. He emphasized the notion of the “public spirit” in pursuit of the common good. Ruthless individualism and disregard for the interests of others is nowhere near Locke’s conception of government. Rather, Locke envisioned a society where citizens were able to exercise rights freely. When that freedom was threatened, government was obligated to act to protect those rights. Since Locke’s writings were a key underpinning of our nation’s founding, it makes sense to suggest this concept holds true for America today.

Let me be clear: I am in no way advocating for an authoritarian, tyrannical government that strips away your rights. My argument lies that in periods where public well-being is threatened, curtailing certain liberties is an appropriate course of action. The Supreme Court recognizes this in the form of strict scrutiny, where governments may restrict rights if it is a “compelling government interest” and narrowly tailored in a way that minimizes rights violations as much as possible. The COVID-19 restrictions comply with these requirements and are justified during the pandemic. The rampant individualism propagated by some is a poor interpretation of political philosophy and should be replaced with a more comprehensive understanding of the literature.

Blake Ziegler is a junior at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He enjoys writing about politics, Judaism and the occasional philosophical rant. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or followed at @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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