Over the past six months I’ve seen hundreds of TV images of ordinary Americans trying to live their lives in the midst of a pandemic. One of the most memorable clips was a street scene in Texas in which folks were arguing over the wearing of face masks. One angry, maskless fellow in a cowboy hat screamed at the camera, “I’m an American! I can do whatever I want!” It would be easy to dismiss the cowboy as a yahoo, but perhaps his outburst deserves some context and scrutiny.
Where does personal freedom come from? Is it granted by the state? And does its possession mean people have the moral right to do whatever they want?
If the cowboy actually believes personal freedom rises out of one’s nationality, he’s in error. Non-Americans are just as free to choose and act as we are. They are free because they are human, freedom being one of the rights imbedded in human nature. So deep within our nature, in fact, that they are unalienable. That is, they cannot be removed by the coercion of a tyrant or even forfeited by the people who possess them.
You may wonder about my claim that all humans are free to choose and act as they wish; after all, don’t we see instances all over the world where people are oppressed by an authoritarian state? The important distinction is that while everyone possesses human rights they may be violated. These violations, however, don’t result in the loss of those rights, only in the exercise of them.
Personal freedom allows us to choose and act, but does that mean we may act however we want? Whether intended or not, the cowboy’s claim seems to be an expression of libertarian political theory, the theory of justice which claims that people’s rights exist prior to any government or laws. They exist “in the state of nature”. As such, they may not be limited or infringed upon by these late-arriving social institutions. Libertarians believe that individuals own their person and judge their own case, and any attempt by the state to limit the exercise of their freedom is a violation of their natural liberty.
Twentieth century libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick identified three examples of common governmental overreach. First, the state may not pass “paternalistic legislation”. That is, laws meant to protect people from themselves. Seatbelt laws are a good example. Secondly, the state may not pass “moral legislation”, laws meant to promote virtue. An example would be the prohibition of consensual sex between members of the same sex. And thirdly, the state has no right to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. Libertarianism holds that any taking of one’s legitimate earnings reduces one’s efforts to forced labor. This constitutes slavery. It should be immediately evident that most U.S. laws do not generally reflect libertarian political theory. Hence, a possible trigger of the cowboy’s anger.
So how is it that the cowboy can be “free” and yet not be allowed to do whatever he wants? The answer lies in the fact that the cowboy has chosen not to live “in the state of nature” where there are no limitations on one’s actions but in a society which is organized around certain principles established “by the consent of the people”, the will of the majority, “for the common good”. But what makes governmental laws legitimate? The people consider them legitimate if they respect natural rights. And who gets to decide if the government’s laws and policies respect our human rights? The people do, through the consent they granted to that government.
This must be terribly frustrating for the cowboy. His remaining options appear to be: organize politically to design a libertarian system receiving “the consent of the people” or find a habitable “state of nature” in which to live.