George Pyle: Liberty and license in a time of pandemic

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

John Locke, “The Second Treatise of Civil Government,” 1690

Somehow, in this country and in this state, we have come to a pass where reasonable and educated people have an understanding of some important things that is precisely backward. It is as if they were insisting that 4+4=2.

Here we are, wishing our children could go back to school and all of us could go for a haircut, a movie and a beer, while vocal groups of people are pulling the levers of government in attempts to make things worse.

The Provo City Council recently passed a local mask mandate in an attempt to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the best chance we have of life returning to something resembling normal. Mayor Michelle Kaufusi vetoed it, because, well, freedom. The council overrode her veto.

Then a group of Provo residents launched a petition drive to reverse the council. It is too late to have the question on Provo’s November ballot but, if the drive gathers enough signatures, the law will be set aside until an election can be held, in November 2021.

If we miraculously develop a vaccine before then, it won’t matter much. If we don’t, the delay will literally cause sickness and death, and not just for those who signed the petition.

And now we hear that a group of parents has gone to state court in an attempt to void Gov. Gary Herbert’s various orders designed to curb the pandemic and save lives. In their view, the orders amount to an “unprecedented and unlawful suspension of their most sacred and fundamental rights.”

How about the right to not be infected with a horrible virus that, even if it doesn’t kill you, can leave you with long-term heart and kidney damage, unending fatigue and a feeling of unending guilt because, even though you made it through OK, your mother died?

This is what John Locke, a British philosopher who was among the leading influencers of America’s Founding Fathers, was on about when he examined the difference between liberty -- the natural right to govern yourself and your property -- and license -- unjustified actions that harm other people.

We heard a lot about that in the 1960s, when a rising generation was experimenting with the use of drugs and new ideas about sexual expression and gender equality. Those who opposed those trends generally did not base their arguments just on the fact that such behaviors were icky, but insisted such behaviors harmed people, and not just those who were participating. That liberty had been supplanted by license.

To the degree that the conservatives won that debate, we were left with the totally overdone War on Drugs and delayed struggles for racial and gender equity, marriage equality and LGBTQ rights.

But now, you might say, the mask is on the other mouth.

Now it is generally the more progressive strains of society insisting everyone wear masks and keep our distance, while it has become the relatively conservative folks who demand the right to do whatever they please. At the top of that list is the claimed right to not wear masks and to not force their children to wear masks.

Their claim would make some modicum of sense if the purpose of wearing a mask were to protect the person wearing it. In that case, the risk-benefit analysis of don’t-get-sick-later vs. don’t-feel-like-wearing-a-mask-right-now could reasonably be thought a personal decision, left to individuals and parents.

But that is not why the state wants us to wear masks. They want us to wear masks because doing so protects other people. We don’t know everything about how the insidious COVID-19 virus works, but we are as certain as people can be about these things that a great many of us harbor the virus and spread it to others even as those carriers have utterly no symptoms.

Saying you don’t want to wear a mask to protect others, because, nyah, nyah, nyah, you can’t make me, is not like not wanting to wear a seatbelt. It is not like insisting on the right to drink what you want, smoke what you want and sleep with whomever you please.

Refusing to wear a mask is the legal and moral equivalent of not wanting to stop at stop signs, not liking to obey speed limits and refusing to turn the keys over to someone else when you are too drunk to drive. Because you don’t feel like it.

People who won’t wear a mask in a time of coronavirus are not taking a risk. They are a risk.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, actually looks better with his face covered.


Twitter, @debatestate