Source – thenation.com
– “…Economic reality dictated then, as it dictates today, one’s freedom. People are only as free as they can afford to be…Real freedom would include being free to quit a terrible job without losing access to everything on the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid. It would include freedom to live where we want, not where “the market” decides jobs will be available…In short, it would mean freedom to live the lives we desire, rather than the lives we choose based on a curated set of options over which we exercise no control”
You’re Only As Free as You Are Wealthy – By Edward Burmila
Economic reality dictated then, as it dictates today, one’s freedom. People are only as free as they can afford to be. For Americans, lacking guaranteed access to basic necessities like housing, food, and health care (and with our bank accounts determining access to the good versions of those things), this is a constant dilemma. We place great value in perceiving ourselves as free. Yet the more we extol this freedom’s virtue, the more it sounds like we are just trying to convince ourselves.
Real freedom would include being free to quit a terrible job without losing access to everything on the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid. It would include freedom to live where we want, not where “the market” decides jobs will be available. It would include control over our own labor, like negotiating power over our earnings and our working conditions. In short, it would mean freedom to live the lives we desire, rather than the lives we choose based on a curated set of options over which we exercise no control.
In its current manifestation, this explains part of the vehemence with which some Americans reject orders to wear masks or maintain social distance. Many factors affect individuals’ choices, including partisanship and misinformation about the current pandemic, but there is a sadness in hearing people equate going unmasked with human rights and an imagined war against authoritarianism. “I will not be muzzled like a mad dog!” sounds less like a free man asserting his rights and more like an unfree man cosplaying the American Revolution in his head.
The mask backlash is only the latest iteration of this form of petty revolt. The journalist Daniel Ackerman recently explained in Business Insider how some Americans “went to war against seat belts,” and in the mid-1990s the introduction of recycling into the American consciousness was met with an anti-recycling backlash that reframed throwing plastic bottles in landfills as heroic acts of civil disobedience. The same spirit of disobedience-as-freedom percolates beneath issues like the phony “war” over saying Happy Holidays and Christmas-themed Starbucks cups and in the way some Americans equate spending money on guns as a measure of the freedom they enjoy.
For the majority of us, things like mask requirements represent one of two things: either one more minor rule to follow, another inconvenience and discomfort in a daily life already full of them, or an opportunity shaped by partisan and ideological incentives to show that we are in fact as free and independent as we like to see ourselves.
As upsetting as it is to see Americans who refuse to take simple precautions to fight a pandemic, symbolic freedom becomes more appealing when more useful freedoms are not available. Congress has failed to provide meaningful and lasting income support for people who have lost jobs, and business owners have received only a botched “support” plan that proved to be both woefully insufficient and ineptly administered. Mask wearing would not be universal under any circumstances in the United States, but replacing the feeling of insecurity and panic with a sense that the pandemic is a disruption we can weather would make the medicine of more restrictive rules go down a lot easier.
Instead, the federal government has responded by offering us a combination of Hobbes’s state of nature and the Articles of Confederation: Every state, every individual, every organization (universities, businesses, sports leagues, churches) should do whatever seems best in an environment of limited, conflicting, and inaccurate information. The policy amounts to every man for himself, with the devil taking the hindmost. Under those circumstances, it can hardly be surprising that some Americans cling to a sense of individualism, even if pointless and performative.