Thursday, July 15, 2021

When Selfishness Masquerades as Freedom


Sometime in the past 40 years or so, the Republican Party became myopically focused on one particular value and elevated it above everything else. That value is freedom. Now, freedom is a good thing. It certainly beats bondage or autocracy or any other condition that is the opposite of freedom. But freedom to the exclusion of every other consideration is nothing more than selfishness. I have freedom of speech, but of course that freedom is not unrestricted. I can say lots of things, but some of them are prohibited, if not by law then by etiquette and respect and proper decorum. Freedom is also restricted by other values, such as generosity, compassion, duty, and love.

I’ll be up front. I’m talking about the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers here. There may be some valid reasons for certain individuals to have not worn a mask during the height of the pandemic or to not receive the vaccine right now. But these are rare. The reason I hear trotted out most often by those who argue against either masks or vaccines is that “the government can’t tell me what to do. They can’t infringe upon my freedom.” This is abject nonsense. Telling citizens what they can or can’t do is actually one of the primary functions of government. If I were to list all the things government has every right to tell me not to do, I could go on for hundreds of pages. I won’t do that, but let’s look at a handful of examples.

The government has the right to tell me not to

light campfires on public lands in times of drought,

• dump raw sewage in the city’s water supply,

• drive 50 miles per hour in a school zone,

• spray graffiti on private or public property,

• stop my car in the middle of an intersection for no reason,

• yell “fire” in a crowded theater,

• set up a Ponzi scheme, or

• erect a 20-foot-high billboard in my front yard.

You get the idea. Each of these examples pits personal freedom against someone else’s well-being. Freedom does not mean that I can do anything I want to. It also does not mean that government can’t tell me what to do or not to do. Freedom is one value among many competing values. And freedom isn’t always something that government restricts. That false notion probably got planted by Ronald Reagan and his quip that government is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Often government involvement in our lives increases our freedoms. A good example is health care. What we learn from almost every other country is that government involvement in health care actually increases individual freedom rather than restricting it. My friends in Germany, for instance, have much more freedom regarding their health care than I do, and I have excellent insurance provided by the LDS Church. The difference is that government in Germany has stepped in and prevented the idiocy we have allowed by insisting that the almighty “market” and the profit motive can provide better health care than some form of government-industry cooperation. There are many similar examples. I would argue, for instance, that I am more free because of public libraries and police departments.

Freedom has to be balanced with many other values. One of them is what we call the public good. In a dictatorship, government may force people to sacrifice certain freedoms to promote what it views as the good of the country (or at least its leaders). In a republic, however, citizens often need to sacrifice their own personal desires and freedoms to promote the public good. And if they refuse to do this of their own free will, then government is sometimes obligated to step in and enforce certain behaviors in order to preserve the life and health of the citizenry at large. Public health, of course, is perhaps the most common example. Wearing masks is shown to curtail the spread of COVID-19. The vaccines are also very effective in drastically reducing transmission of the virus. Ideally, citizens in the United States would understand this and willingly sacrifice their personal freedom (or just convenience) to benefit not just themselves but also their friends and neighbors. Unfortunately, this has not happened to the degree it should. Government had to step in and implement mask requirements. There is a good argument for government to also require vaccination. Yes, this may infringe upon your personal freedom, but it may be necessary to preserve public health, which is one of the primary responsibilities of government.

This is almost exclusively a Republican problem. A recent Washington Post–ABC News survey showed that 86 percent of Democrats have received at least one vaccine dose, while only 45 percent of Republicans have. This is the result of doubt about the vaccines sowed by conservative media (thanks, Fox News) and Republican politicians, who combine disinformation about the science with not-so-subtle suggestions that government is out to take people’s freedoms away. The propaganda has been so effective that political activists at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) cheered because the government has fallen short of President Biden’s goal vaccinating 70 percent of Americans by July 4. This whole scenario caused conservative columnist Michael Gerson to write the following:

“For years, I’ve been saying to myself that GOP politics can’t go lower. I am perpetually wrong. Americans should never forget this moment—or let guilty Republicans forget it. When Republican activists cheered for death at CPAC, they were cheering for disproportionately Republican deaths. When elected Republicans feed doubts about safe, effective vaccines, they are making it more physically dangerous to be a Republican in America.”1

Why is this so? Because statistics show that 99.5 percent of COVID deaths are now occurring among the unvaccinated. I could be cynical about this and suggest that this year’s Darwin Award should be given to the entire group of anti-vaxxers for improving the collective gene pool, but this isn’t just about those who refuse to get vaccinated. This isn’t just a personal choice. It is a public-health issue. We know what viruses do. They mutate in order to survive. And it is just a matter of time before the novel coronavirus mutates enough to produce a variant that is both highly contagious and resistant to the vaccines. At that point, we will be back to square one, with an out-of-control virus, but also with a bunch of conservatives who will simply refuse to wear masks this time around. Republican state legislatures have already passed laws making it impossible to impose mask mandates.

So, you anti-vaxxers, your choice will eventually affect me, and I don’t appreciate your selfishness. I was vaccinated as early as was possible. I had a mild reaction to the vaccine for less than 24 hours. Other than that, nothing, except that I am very likely protected from the current strains of the virus. For now. But maybe not in a few months.

These vaccines have been tested. They are far, far safer than the coronavirus. And they are very effective. They are our only hope to get society back to “normal,” whatever that is in this post-Trump world that is still haunted by the damage he did to our country and the world. The one good thing he did regarding the pandemic was to support the development of the vaccines. But even though he himself is vaccinated, he has done an incredibly poor job in convincing his followers to get vaccinated. For such a loudmouth, he has been strangely mute in promoting the reception of the vaccines. Perhaps this is because he knows that conservatives are motivated by conspiracy theories and anger at government and suspicion of science, and promoting vaccination would run contrary to all three of these motivations. Whatever the case, Trump, who has of course boasted about how he gave us these vaccines, seems strangely content to let his followers die in far larger numbers than their political opponents. This goes beyond selfishness. It goes beyond partisan politics. I don’t know that I even have a word for it.

But Michael Gerson is right. This is certainly a new low for the Republican Party. But unlike Gerson, I will not be at all surprised when they somehow find a way to go even lower.

What about Latter-day Saints? The numbers for Utah are mediocre. Indeed, Governor Cox keeps begging Utahns to get vaccinated. But many, many refuse. Most of them are Republican, and most of those Republicans are Mormon. What is the Church’s stand? Let me quote from a statement recently added to the Handbook: “Vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life. Members of the Church are encouraged to safeguard themselves, their children, and their communities through vaccination.” Of course, the Handbook includes a nod to that notion of personal choice: “Ultimately, individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination. If members have concerns, they should counsel with competent medical professionals and also seek the guidance of the Holy Ghost.”2 As I mentioned above, there are rare instances where a “competent medical professional” would advise against a vaccine, but in almost all cases the advice would be the same as the Church’s: get vaccinated. And I suspect the Holy Ghost is also almost always going to tell people to get vaccinated. But people often hear what they want to, and some have been very vocal in criticizing both the Church and President Nelson for promoting vaccination. I’ve said this many times, but it’s still true: There are many Latter-day Saints who are more Republican than they are Mormon.

Even though I am vaccinated, I am very uneasy attending church with my fellow ward members. I’ve seen the statistics for Utah County, and I figure my ward is pretty average. Which means that there are quite a few members attending church unvaccinated and not wearing masks. It’s hard to not judge people. But I have now read from two reliable sources that the General Authorities are very disappointed in how Church members have responded to the call to sacrifice personal freedom and convenience for the public good. It doesn’t speak well of us as a church. But, unfortunately, it is what it is.


1. Michael Gerson, “GOP Anti-Vaxxers Are Sacrificing Citizens’ Lives for Political Gain,” Washington Post, July 12, 2021.

2. “Vaccinations,” section 38.7.13, General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,