by Curtis Ramsey-Lucas
Washington Post columnist Max Boot notes that in the past two weeks coronavirus cases have increased 277 percent in Florida, 184 percent in Texas, and 145 percent in Arizona, all states that were slow to declare lockdowns and quick to end them. They also refused to impose statewide mask mandates and, in the case of Texas and Arizona, tried to prevent municipalities from imposing their own rules, even though studies show that wearing masks can reduce transmission as much as 85 percent.
In the United Sates, coronavirus cases have risen 80 percent over the past two weeks, while in other wealthy democracies they have been plummeting. “On Monday, the United States reported more than 40,000 new cases, while the European Union, which is more populous, had fewer than 6,000,” Boot writes. “The number of confirmed coronavirus deaths in the United States is approaching 130,000, more than twice as many as in any other country.”[i]
This aversion to sensible, modest, action by individuals to benefit themselves and others is rooted, in part, in a desiccated conservatism that no longer has a frame of reference larger than the individual. This way of thinking is, to a very real extent, no longer conservatism, but an extreme form of liberalism in which the unfettered individual is the end all and be all of life.
Russell Kirk, one of the founders of the conservative movement in America after World War Two, wrote, “The enlightened conservative always has stood for true community, the union of men, through love and common interest, for the common welfare. It was the liberals and radicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not the conservatives, who did everything in their power to abolish the traditional concept of community and substitute a doctrinaire individualism, which led inevitably to collectivism, a natural reaction.”[ii]
Time was, conservatives like Kirk and, further back, Edmund Burke, spoke of rights and duties, when freedom was understood not as the unfettered ability to act, but as the power to act in an orderly society—a society with a structure created by rule of law, creating benefit to all. In such a society, the focus is not on an abstract and intrinsic idea of freedom but on multiple freedoms that contend with one another and must be balanced in their exercise.
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves,” wrote Burke. “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”[iii]
We are seeing this dynamic play out across America today with devastating consequence. Those who cannot control their passions, who cannot put moral chains upon their own appetites are ill equipped for civil liberty. Mask mandates are necessary now because individuals will not take responsibility to wear them for the good of others, misunderstanding their rights as unlimited and disconnected from the good of that which is beyond themselves—family, neighborhood, community, society.
Rather than defending a traditional concept of community and common welfare in which individuals understand the connection between rights and duties, many who claim the conservative mantle substitute a doctrinaire individualism that ultimately benefits neither the individual nor society.
Long before Kirk and Burke, long before modern conservatism and the forms of government under which we live today, Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4).
In our response to the coronavirus pandemic, we can ill afford to continue to put our own interests above the interests of others. Rather we must see them as connected and our individual welfare rooted in the welfare of all.
Curtis Ramsey-Lucas is editor of The Christian Citizen.
[i] Max Boot, “Welcome to the United States of ‘Idiocracy’”, The Washington Post, June 30, 2020.
[ii] Russell Kirk. A Program for Conservatives (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954), 140.
[iii] Jesse Norman (Ed.), “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings (New York: Everyman’s Library, 2015), 680.
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