The coronavirus has the world in a dither — like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (as Tom Lehrer might say). Despite the fact that a very low percentage of those who contract the virus actually die, steps are being taken that must give us pause.

Italy has banned all spectators from all sporting events during the month of March. There’s even talk about cancelling all sporting events. Around the world, and increasingly in this country as well, events are being cancelled right and left. Additionally, we read that the ASEAN Conference, Google News Initiative, Geneva International Auto Show, various concerts in Asia and elsewhere, and the Mobile World Congress, among many others, have been cancelled despite the fact that many of these events bring a great deal of money to the region and are immensely popular. Some companies in the United States are prohibiting their employees from air travel — even for personal vacations!

And so it goes. Big Brother is taking care of us. The assumption appears to be that we are not able to decide for ourselves whether we can take a chance to be with other people in the face of a growing pandemic. But isn’t that our decision? On what grounds can we defend the determination by various agencies to keep us indoors and away from others who might pass the virus along?

Most of the expert opinion I have read suggests that if we take precautions we can avoid contracting the virus. But apparently we are not trusted to take those steps so we are being told how to behave. This is what is called “paternalism.” Daddy is taking care of us because we are too stupid to take care of ourselves.

There are other instances of paternalism, of course, such as laws enforcing the use of infant car carriers and, my personal favorite, the law requiring helmets for motorcycle riders. Laws are generally made to protect us from others who might harm us, but in the case of helmet laws one hears the claim that when a person is thrown from a motorcycle he or she may incur health costs that will eventually be passed along to us all — as will the increased insurance rates. But this argument is weak and we simply look the other way as someone with Big Hands puts our child in a car seat or a helmet on us before we take off on our motorcycle.

What’s the problem here? It is, among other things, an attempt on the part of those in power to tell others how they must behave: it is a diminishing of our freedom. And while we love to kick and scream about our freedom, we seem perfectly content to have various agencies tell us what is good for us. I do wonder if it comes down the the fact that we really would prefer not to take the responsibility that freedom involves.

There seem to be a great many forces in this culture that deprive each of us of our autonomy. Many of the laws we obey are not only well-meaning but also necessary. There are the things we do that might harm others and which ought therefore to be prohibited. But when our behavior affects no one but ourselves — such as wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle or attending a sporting event — those restrictions seem to me to be well-meaning but unacceptable. We must presume not that folks are too stupid to take care of themselves; we must presume that folks can take care of themselves. And if they can’t so much the worse for them.

Paternalism is one of the many hidden forces that operate upon each of us and are based on the faulty premise that we cannot take care of ourselves. We should be much more upset about those restrictions than we are. And this is not an angry young radical speaking. This is an aged somewhat moderate but occasionally outraged retired person who is simply astounded by what is going on around him.

I do not mean to belittle the seriousness of the coronavirus. It is something we need to take seriously. But it is also something that we really ought to be able to handle with expert advice and not by needless restrictions on our behavior based on the assumption that we are even more stupid than we are in fact.

Free Or Slaves?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was no friend of representative government. He was convinced that citizens are only politically free when they make the laws they themselves obey, in a pure democracy. Indeed, he was convinced that in a pure democracy the citizens would be well-informed and discuss the issues thoroughly. They would then vote and their decision would be the correct one. Anyone who was in the minority would then obey the will of the majority and in doing so, paradoxically, be “forced to be free.” Freedom, in Rousseau’s view, is defined as doing the right thing. Any form of representation, on the other hand, is a form of slavery, according to Rousseau. Citizens are putatively free for one brief moment when they vote, but after that moment has passed, they are slaves to the people they voted into office — those who would subsequently make the laws the voters would then have to obey.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rousseau, of course, never envisioned an age in which the airwaves would be filled with political campaigning, promises never to be fulfilled, and smiles that never seemed to leave the faces of the politicians who spent fortunes to be elected — not to mention the endless stream of phone calls and emails promoting the latest candidate who will assuredly  “cut the pork” and “break the grid-lock in Washington.” He also never envisioned an age in which the candidates themselves would be chosen by a handful of wealthy men running giant corporations, thereby limiting the “freedom” of the voters even more. After all, how free are we when we don’t even chose the folks we are supposed to vote into office? But, then representation is itself a logical puzzle. Think about it.

One person cannot possibly represent more than one other person — with whom he presumably agrees on every possible point of contention. Two or three, or two or three thousand people who are supposed to be “represented” by a single person, a paid politician, is a logical impossibility. And when that politician’s allegiance is to the wealthy few who have placed them on the ballot in the first place, then the notion of political freedom in a representative government begins to stretch beyond recognition.

In a word, Rousseau’s notion that voters are free only when they actually vote (presuming that they bother to vote at all) raises problems in the world we have come to know — the world in which politicians are professional liars, for the most part, who are selected by a process over which we  have no real control. We seem to have even less political freedom than Rousseau imagined, which was very little indeed. But why worry? I’ve got over two hundred channels on my television: now there’s real freedom!