The Paradox of Freedoms
The Primacy of Individualism is the Real 'Tyranny'
To hear that word uttered by people in societies like the US and UK in relation to pandemic measures, escalated by the drive for vaccination, is to know we have entered a realm of fantasy, of detachment from reality.
In the US and in the UK, the pandemic has laid bare how the cult of individualism, launched in earnest in the 1980's, has distorted any grasp on the reality of freedoms. Because freedoms are not unqualified, and are never absolute. And there is a paradox of freedom: with increasing freedom comes increasing responsibility. Yet what this current hysteria over so-called 'tyranny' really reflects is a desire for freedom from responsibility. Freedom from contributing to a functioning collective that we call society.
The paradox of freedom faces all open societies; if we are to have greater freedoms, we need help to realise those freedoms. This is arguably an innate human state, because it is evident in divisions of labour in hunter-gatherer societies, where in order to fulfil roles in the community, help is always required from others in that community. As we have organised into larger societies and civilisations, there comes a greater need to place certain limits on freedoms. A small one-road town may not need traffic lights, but a large urban metropolis does; is someone moving from the former to the latter now subject to tyrannical interference with their freedom for having to stop at a red light? Hardly.
Freedoms are never absolute. As societies, we enact laws, the breach of certain of which may result in an individual deprived of their liberty in order to pay a debt to society. This reflects a fundamental precept of limiting freedoms, which is that the limitation to an individual's free exercise of a behaviour benefits society as a whole. Setting alcohol limits for driving or banning smoking indoors may feel limiting to an individual, but the policies are not about that individual, they are about protecting others by limiting the manner in which both behaviours can freely be engaged with.
And while the above are examples of curtailment of absolute freedom for a societal benefit, the paradox of freedom extends to positive action to benefit society. However, these positive actions are absent countries like the US and UK because the prevailing socio-political doctrine since the 1980's, which spawned the cult of individualism on full display today, views any role for government as itself limiting freedoms. Yet this socio-political ideology still relies exclusively on rhetoric, because the data has never supported it. The idea that small government increases individual freedoms is the lie that keeps on giving to neoliberal ideology. On the contrary, where the government assumes certain roles in society, individual freedoms are enhanced. Take the difference between Norway and the US. In the US, only 29% of first-time mothers return to the workforce. In Norway, the majority of mothers stay in the workforce due to State-supported maternity and childcare policies; and when the State added paid paternity leave policies, it reduced the sex difference in employment even further. Now, 67% of adult females are in the workforce compared to 73% of adult males, placing Norway in the top three nations for workforce equality between the sexes. In the US, the absence of any such policies (“because freedom from big government!”) means that women are forced to stay at home, and males become the main earner in 69% of households. The US ranks about 30th in equality. What society would you say women are more free in, the small government or bigger government?
Arguments that this creates a financial burden on the State are also grounded only in rhetoric and rebuttable presumptions; in Norway the data shows that women in the workforce contribute as much to the nation's wealth as the sovereign fund from Norway's oil resources. The paradox of freedom is also evident in employee/employer relationships. In the US, all of the power lies with employers, exacerbated by a lack of unions and absence of effective employment law protections for workers, whereas Norway has a much more robust social safety net. Shifting power away from employers creates more freedom in the employment market for workers. Further, in the US access to healthcare is often connected to employment, so the ability to get access to a basic right is tied to the job market; there is nothing 'freedom' about this bargain. In Norway healthcare is taken care of by the State. Who has true freedom in this context?
While Norway and other countries with clearly ‘tyrannical big governments’ consistently rate as the happiest populations, the economist Angus Deaton has had to coin the term "deaths of despair" to describe the epidemic of male suicide in rural working class America. Communities with such freedom from hope that opioids provide the only escape. More Iraq/Afghan war veterans have now committed suicide than died in the Vietnam War. Read that again. An average of 6,000 a year. 16 veteran suicides a day. But don't help them, because Ronald Reagan said the government being here to help are the scariest words in the English language. No, just talk about veterans on the campaign trail. Talk about the ‘Heartland’. About freedom and the flag. And entirely without a sense of irony. The twisted joke that is America's concept of freedom; freedom from help and freedom from hope.
So detached from reality, so historically illiterate, and so divorced from context, are 2021's ‘freedom fighters’ that they will compare the simple request to wear a piece of cloth on their face to living in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. You know, regimes that murdered 6-million and 10-million people, respectively. These comparisons go beyond historical illiteracy; they are grotesque diminutions of true tyrannical regimes, of murderous oppression and vile ideologies, into a whataboutism. In the UK the libertarian Right wanted the public to be treated as rational actors, yet the very section of the public they were speaking on behalf of were the first to throw masks in the bin on public transport as a political statement. That isn't rational behaviour, it's sticking two-fingers up at society, because ‘freedom’. The ruling Tory party even christened the day of uplifting all restrictions as “Freedom Day”, as if the incompetence of the party was not the reason the population was asked to restrict its freedoms in the first place.
This complete distortion of the concept of tyranny is not confined to any particular side of the political spectrum, it is just more evident on the Right as the pandemic continues. While the Right deems the basic act of wearing a mask as the manifestation of tyranny, blue-haired Ivy League undergrads are convinced that university campuses form an 'interlocking matrix of oppression' wherein such tyrannical acts as the name of a building represent an existential threat to daily functioning. Despite the fact that in our societies one is now as free as ever a time in history to be anyone they want to be, this indulgent aspect to the modern Left considers the invisible hand of oppression acts always and everywhere, omnipresent and omnipotent.
But for the purposes of Covid-19, without doubt the most noxious pandemic-related freedom-fuckery has come from the Right. The irony is that the very people shouting “don't tread on me" are the ones who support and endorse the active treading by their party, the Republican Party, on others; the deliberate disenfranchisement of Black and minority voters, the pursuit of positive discrimination based on religious grounds, and the denial of basic rights to marginalised groups. These are the real issues in society that relate to the freedom, dignity, and autonomy of individuals. But they are a footnote, if even, to the complete and utter distortion of rudimentary contributions to the collective societal wellbeing, like wearing a mask and getting a little needle in the arm, into the manifestation of the proverbial jackboot of oppression.
It isn't freedom that these people want, it is freedom from responsibility. And this isn't how free societies work. With increasing freedom in a society comes increasing responsibility to others in that society. Responsibility to ensure that the exercise of one's individual freedoms do not come at the expense or impingement of another individual or group. The absence of this reciprocal exercise of responsibility with rights is called narcissism. And this is the defining characteristic of the current bankrupt concept of freedom that prevails in the US and UK; narcissistic, self-indulgent, self-centred, self-absorbed, toxic individualism. The desire for freedom from having to exercise any basic act of humanity and compassion for the benefit and betterment of society as a whole.
We can't have short-term freedom for every single person in society, if long-term freedom is desired. If we want to return to freedom to travel, as and when desired, freedom to engage in basic social and community functions, then there are some limits to what can be done now, some behaviours that must be done now, in order to get back the future. Humans can never have complete, total, unfettered freedom without support. This is the paradox.
The only tyranny at play now is the tyranny of narcissistic individualism married to utter indifference to the suffering of others in society.