During this COVID-19 madness many governments in many countries are imposing unprecedented limitations on the civil liberties. In Ukraine, for example, citizens are not allowed to be in public spaces without a face mask, and without ID. One cannot take a walk in the park except with a dog or with a child. Freedom of assembly is out of discussion. Groups of more than two people will likely be approached by the police. Subways are closed. Public buses cannot take more than 10 passengers. Those passengers must have an ausweis that they work for an “essential business”. A mother has been fined for letting her child to play on a playground. People are effectively confined to their residences. Children are not allowed to attend schools. Religious assemblies are banned.
Unprecedented, unimaginable government oppression. The people should revolt. Right? Not quite. The public reaction to this oppression is also unprecedented. Most people comply. Many ask for more restrictions. Many criticize the government for not imposing them sooner and not enforcing them stricter.
What happened? Why did the Western societies so easily gave up their political and civil liberties and allowed the government to intervene into everyone’s personal life in such a huge way? The answer is simple. The definition of freedom has changed. A few weeks ago most people would want freedom from the government intervention into personal life. Now most people are more concerned with freedom from disease. And this redefinition happened because of mass fear instigated by a massive media campaign.
I am not promoting any conspiracy theories. I am not saying that COVID-19 is not deadly or that the news of overcrowded hospitals and dying people are fake or that we should not stay home. I’m simply describing what is happening and trying to answer the questions that many people ask: “Are we over-reacting as a society?” “Are these huge sacrifices justified by the fear of the disease?” “Will the remedy be worse than the problem?”
A few years ago, I have read an essay by Maurice Cranston, an English philosopher and a professor of political science. The web site where I found the essay has since disappeared, but it can still be found on archive.org.
Cranston does a great job explaining why the meaning of freedom is so elusive. It is because the word is meaningless unless we clearly specify, freedom from what. Here are just a few meanings I got from an image search by “freedom from“: freedom from fear, freedom from religion, freedom from want, from addiction, from choice, from shame, from the government, from sin, from discrimination, even freedom from expression.
One cannot be free without knowing from what just as one cannot be prepared without understanding to what.
I encourage you to read the essay yourself. The text was written in 1953, but it is especially relevant today. I find especially relevant the distinction between Romantic and Progressive freedom. Romantic freedom means freedom from the restrains of civilized society — government and social institutions, laws and rules. The way to achieve Romantic freedom often means living “close to nature” which comes at the expense of dependence on its whims. Progressive freedom means freedom from restrains of nature — from hunger, from disease, from the effects of the elements. The way to achieve Progressive freedom, to the contrary, is to embrace the restrains of society — laws, rules, and regulations, government and social institutions. This distinction is at the core of most political struggles of today.
I think it is important to understand what we want to be free from and find a compromise for ourselves and with others.