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What Does Freedom Look Like During a Crisis?

Few things are quite as ingrained in the collective values of Americans as the concept of freedom.

We are taught from a young age that freedom is what makes this country great - without expanding on what exactly that freedom entitles an individual to. Most understand that this freedom does not come without caveats or limitations in even the most democratic of societies - for instance, the freedom of speech does not protect you from prosecution for yelling "fire!" in a crowded theater, nor does the freedom of religion entitle anyone to deny healthcare, employment, or housing to another. Generally speaking, individual freedoms extend up to the point where it infringes on the freedom of another.

In America, freedom tends to be framed as an individualist "freedom to". As an American, I have the freedom to live where I want. I have the freedom to travel where I want. I have the freedom to make my own career choices. I have the freedom to become a vegetarian, and the freedom to hunt for my own food if I wish. I have the freedom to attend any kind of religious service, and even the freedom to speak out against my own government. These are individual liberties that I enjoy and exercise. These freedoms also do not infringe on the freedoms of others. But... what if a situation were to arise where exercising some of my own freedoms would do just that?

An individual's freedom to act in a certain way is not the only manifestation of the concept of freedom that we should consider. Consider the concept of "freedom from". In our society, we have freedom from being defrauded by false advertisements. We have freedom from financial ruin arising from unauthorized withdrawals from our bank accounts. And, I would argue, we ought to have freedom from the threat of preventable injury and disease.

Generally speaking, these two kinds of freedoms can coexist, but there are situations where they can be in conflict with each other. When they do, societal freedoms from tend to prevail against individual freedoms to. Our societal freedom from increased burden on our emergency responders takes precedent over an individual's freedom to drive without a seatbelt on. Our societal freedom from the concern of devastating fires during a drought takes precedent over than an individual's freedom to have a bonfire with their friends. And, in a present-day context, our societal freedom from the threat of preventable disease ought to take precedent over an individual's liberty to travel in certain ways. The temporary "stay home" orders that many of us are under are not an infringement upon freedom, they are the result of exercising a greater societal freedom during a time when such orders are necessary! They are the manifestation of society's freedom from contributing to a global disaster. They are the manifestation of society's freedom from an overloaded healthcare system. They are the manifestation of society's freedom from unnecessary sickness and death.

I'll close this post with a quote from Edmund Burke, who, in his Further Reflections on the French Revolution (1789), had the following to say:

Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions.