I have come to the unfortunate conclusion that, as a general rule, most people are idiots. They are all too keen to talk, as if they are experts, on issues they know absolutely nothing about. In our information age, especially right now during the global COVID-19 pandemic, such a phenomenon, while necessarily tolerated, can be exceptionally dangerous. That is not to say that every person is ill informed on every issue, but as an amalgam of all possible subjects of interest, the average person is little more informed than a cave man. Therefore when doctors, virologists, and epidemiologists recommend that everyone wear a mask in public, we should take them seriously and not pretend we know more than them. Unfortunately the public at large has not heeded such advice, somehow even the existence of COVID-19 has become a political opinion.
When I hear ignorant people so passionately promote misinformation I am reminded of a quote by Mao Zedong. While I am vehemently opposed to Mao’s totalitarianism, I find that his initial criticism here, and the spirit of what he was trying to say, was right when he wrote:
“Unless you have investigated a problem, you will be deprived of the right to speak on it. Isn’t that too harsh? Not in the least. When you have not probed into a problem, into the present facts and its past history, and know nothing of its essentials, whatever you say about it will undoubtedly be nonsense.”
Of course, given the source of this quote, the use of the word “deprived” here should be rejected outright. However he is addressing here something even more prominent today than it was in semi-feudal China: ignorant masses clamoring support around wholly wrong, and even dangerous ideas. While agreeing with his premise, I reject Mao’s solution and instead argue that people should be imbued with the self-discipline not to talk about things they know nothing about.
But the initial criticism here is correct, most people are idiots and a vocal minority of these idiots have a habit of talking nonsense. While they have the right to talk nonsense anyways, and while I will die defending that right, this phenomenon leads to the issues we are seeing today with a kind of fake news and misinformation pandemic, alongside the actual pandemic, and that is not only dangerous to human intellectual development but to free society as such.
Similarly, my use of the word “libertarian” here in the title and on my blog, while being a left-wing libertarian, often prompts such people who do not know of libertarian socialism’s rich political history, or that the origin of the word libertarian was actually left-wing, to say “oh that is an oxymoron”. On a similar note I like to mention here some past economics debates I’ve been a part of where Marx has been spelled “Marcs”, Keynes has been spelled “Canes”, and Ayn Rand has been spelled “Ann Rand”. Case in point.
Do not speak on issues you know nothing about without first mentioning your ignorance on the issue. There is no shame in being uninformed, there is shame in pretending to know of things you know nothing about. It is not in stupidity, but in stupidity transformed into ignorance that vice is found, nor is vice found in high intelligence, except when high intelligence is transformed arrogance. Ignorance and arrogance alike are very dangerous.
I believe the vastness of this phenomena is a failure of the education system. People far too readily trust untrustworthy sources, and they far too readily reject trusting trustworthy sources. If you ask someone why they shouldn’t have to wear a mask in public you will get innumerable nonsense arguments such as, “it’s not as bad as they (the CDC) says it is”, “it’s a hoax”, “I feel fine”, or of course, “it’s my choice, my freedoms”. The latter argument, we wish to address directly here in this essay.
Recently many people, particularly individuals who are by no means doctors, have been angrily protesting against having to wear masks in public, even in places where such mask wearing is not mandatory. This isn’t actually a law in many places in the United States, but I argue it should be.
The general refutation to such mask wearing is that it is and ought to be a “free choice” of the individual, that mandatory mask wearing is a violation of their individual liberty.
What exactly do they mean here by “individual liberty”?
Does their choice merely affect them or does it affect others?
It affects others.
If it effects others does it cause them harm or violate the liberty of other people?
Yes, in some cases even death, and is thus a grave violation of the liberty of others.
Since that is the case, by speaking of their “rights” in this context they almost certainly mean Hobbesian natural liberty, rather than civil liberty. That is, the very kind of liberty society exists to curtail.
Such Americans, self-proclaimed “patriots”, no doubt uninformed both by medical science and political philosophy alike, don’t understand the difference between natural and civil liberty at all– and these differences are extraordinarily vast.
The 1789 French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’ (co-authored by Thomas Jefferson), says in Article IV that:
“Liberty consists of doing anything which does not harm others…”
Similarly John Stuart Mill’s essay ‘On Liberty’ affirms this natural limitation to civil liberty:
“[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Locke also argued that the first right of man is to life, and that liberty cannot contradict this right.
It is hardly necessary, I think, to further show how prevalent this view, that your liberty stops the moment it infringes upon the liberty of another, was among early liberal thinkers during the enlightenment. I am focusing on this area of political philosophy not only because I more or less agree with it’s notions of liberty, but also because this is the philosophical school of thought such “patriots” seem to cling to.
The argument here is profoundly libertarian. What it boils down to is this:
You are not free to perform an action that directly harms another or that directly curtails the liberty of others. That’s Hobbesian natural liberty. Society exists to replace natural liberty with (firstly) negative, or civil liberty (and later, I argue as a side note, to establish positive liberty). That’s the whole premise of the social contract, of enlightenment political philosophical thought in regards to this question, which led to the founding of the American republic and the whole bourgeois epoch. Actually this principle is actually very much worthy of defending.
Contrary even to Mill’s arguments, I am of the belief that if it relates to you only, it should be your choice. If you don’t want to wear a seat-belt (under circumstances where you endanger only yourself), if you want to go out during a tornado, or if you want to end your life when you have a debilitating disease or a rapidly declining mind, that should be your choice. Who am I to say what you can and cannot do to yourself?
But if that choice actively hurts or kills other people you have no right to perform it, society restricts that action, and rightfully so. It ceases to be “your choice” when its direct consequences are the endangerment of the lives of others.
It’s ironic to see these people scream for “their liberties” while the people they elect write and pass legislation that directly curtails their freedoms. The US Senate just voted to let the FBI access your browser history without a warrant. They did this yesterday. These parasites, security state yes-men, have been systematically destroying the very prerequisites to all civil liberty in the digital age since 9/11. Such people pay no mind to such abuses of power by their representatives, yet having to wear a mask so their reckless actions don’t kill people is, to them, somehow unacceptable on the grounds of individual liberty! What irony!
We’re a century, at most, from attaining China’s (PRC) level of authoritarianism if the current trend continues. Yet these “patriots” so concerned with “liberty”, protest against having to wear a mask and are silent when their representatives clamor for the ceaseless strengthening of secretive intelligence agencies whose abuses are infamous, whose power is virtually unlimited, and whose oversight is virtually non-existent.
Libertarians, both left-wing and right-wing, should actually support legislation making masks mandatory in public. That is not a violation of civil liberty but an affirmation of it. If you are concerned with liberty, instead of protesting against having to wear masks they should protest against the parasites in the highest echelons of government who are so blatantly and systematically abolishing the prerequisites of and obedience to, the best principles of the US constitution.