May 15, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Freedom Fighters? More Like Freeloaders

When it comes to masks, responsible law-abiding people are doing the work.

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Ned Lamont is the Democratic governor of Connecticut. He’s a done a pretty good job leading my state through the pandemic, though he (understandably) seeks cover from Charlie Baker, Republican of Massachusetts, and Andrew Cuomo, Democrat of New York. Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has killed more than 3,200 Nutmeggers. Our nursing homes and senior living facilities have been hit hardest.

Some business owners in the state, particularly proprietors of restaurants, night clubs and bars, seem to believe that the worst is over and that the disease is mostly a problem for the sick and old, not their clientele. For this reason, it appears, they have been leaning on Lamont to permit indoor seating after next week’s statewide reboot.

They don’t care about your liberty. They care about theirs.

I’m sympathetic to small business owners (I am one), but focusing on the governor is focusing on the wrong problem. Reopening for business does not mean consumers will show up, not in the absence of a viable vaccine. The question shouldn’t be whether and when any governor permits such-and-such business activity. The question should be how to rebuild public trust in an economy that will succeed or fail depending on how seriously all of us take our commitments to collective action and the common good.

The problem is made more difficult by people, including a few business owners, who do not recognize the need for collective action in the service of the common good. They do not recognize that need, because they are either acting in bad faith or, more commonly, they embrace a political worldview in which their freedom does not depend on the protection of everyone else’s freedom. Instead, it depends on everyone else honoring their civic duty and individual responsibility. They don’t care about your liberty. They care about theirs. If they must do what everyone else does out of concern for public health, for instance, they chafe at the perceived violation of their freedom.

It’s greedy. It’s selfish. It’s me-me-me. But it’s more than that.

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Consider masks. Wearing one in public is for your benefit as well as everyone’s. The coronavirus is transmitted mostly by water droplets so weightless they float in the air. These droplets are produced not only by sneezing or coughing but by laughing or merely talking. Wearing a mask in public is a form of collective action in the service of the common good, which, when you really think about it, maximizes individual liberty.

Some people are ignorant, misinformed or plain lazy. But others, like the president of the United States, understand the dangers yet choose not to wear a mask. They choose not to, because they do not believe—or indeed, they are hostile toward the idea—that they share common bonds with or bear common responsibilities to others, and their insistence to the contrary justifies sabotage as a necessary exercise of their liberty. People who refuse to wear a mask are not freedom fighters. They are freeloaders.

To some degree, they must know it. Most Americans are in fact wearing masks in public. According to the Post, 73 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Republicans do so. That’s not as high as it should be, obviously, but that’s a majority. (Most churches, by the way, have been compliant with their state’s stay-at-home orders, according to an unrelated report in the Post; compare that with the TV-mugging few that don’t.) Not doing the work when most responsible law-abiding people are doing the work could be seen as, well, getting something for nothing—a free hand out!

Moochers are not usually presumed white—because, you know, racism—but in this case they are indeed white.

Moochers are not usually presumed white—because, you know, racism—but in this case they are indeed. The same Post report showed larger percentages of non-white Americans wearing masks compared to white Americans. (This is partly explained by inequities in health care. If you’re already sick, your chances of dying are higher. Non-white Americans tend to be sicker than white Americans. The Post said people who know someone who has died from Covid-19 are most likely to wear a mask in public.)

This is important to note, because white Americans who decide against wearing masks in public don’t see themselves as free-riders. They see themselves as principled “lovers of liberty” resisting “tyrannical governments” violating their “personal sovereignty.” That’s nonsense, of course, but it’s not enough to say that’s nonsense, and it’s not enough to say that’s nonsense, because saying that’s nonsense does not show the proper degree of contempt for irresponsible, reckless and life-threatening behavior.

Instead of leaning on my governor, or any governor, to permit such-and-such business activities, private enterprise would be better served calling on governors to prevent moochers from spoiling things for everyone. I’ll patronize a business when I feel it’s safe to. Not wearing a mask is like carrying a semi-automatic rifle. It spells danger.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

7 Comments

  1. Wendy Wolfe on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

    A possible typo? “Instead of leaning of my governor” — should that be “Instead of leaning ON my governor”?

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

      Gah! Correct!

  2. Wil_E_Quixote on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

    “Toxic masculinity” has long been a phrase in social science. Perhaps we should start talking about “Toxic individualism” as well.

    Or perhaps just “Toxic privilege.” Ultimately, that’s what this is really all about — white people who cannot tolerate a loss of longstanding social and economic privileges, or even a relative diminishment of their value as other groups make gains, even small ones. Hate POC, hate women, hate gays and trans, simply because respecting them as human beings make white and white male privilege less exclusive.

    Historically, no one is more murderous than an elite who’s privilege is threatened.

  3. Scott on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

    John–your essays prompted me to go back and reread Phillips Brooks’ sermon on the death of Lincoln. You can find it in a free ebook called “Heart’s-ease.” I think you’d find it worth your while; there are strong connections to several of your favorite themes.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

      Thanks I’ll take a look!

      • Scott on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

        Correction, “Addresses by the Rt Rev Phillips Brooks,” available free at Project Gutenberg.

  4. Freeloader on July 30, 2021 at 8:12 am

    I just came for a better look at the rack on the chick with the white top

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