April 22, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The Common Good vs. Freedom-Hoarders
A majority has already made their choice. The right one.
Washington bureau chief Julie Pace wrote that while Donald Trump and Republican governors rush to “reopen” their states in the middle of a coronavirus outbreak that has killed (so far) 45,300 Americans, Democratic governors “are largely keeping strict stay-at-home orders and nonessential business closures in place, resisting small pockets of Trump-aligned protesters and public pressure from the president.”
In working together, as a political community, short-term sacrifice can lead to long-term individual liberty.
I’m as tired as the next critic of the press corps’ anti-morality. It wouldn’t hurt a reporter’s credibility in any way to privilege the side of the sick and powerless over the side of the healthy and powerful. But there is some value to the AP’s bad habit of setting “regional and demographic divisions” side by side. It’s a chance to choose.
What’s the choice? First consider that states are forming coalitions to address the pandemic in very different ways. All six New England states have teamed up with New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey to battle the pandemic, shutting themselves down before reviving in an organized, careful and gradual manner. On the west coast, California has joined Washington and Oregon to follow suit. Meanwhile, according to Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, southern states are organizing themselves to be in line with the president’s desire to “reopen” the nation as quickly as possible despite risking a second wave of mass disease and death.
Consider also how Colin Woodard described these “regional and demographic divisions” in his book Americans Nations. In it, he said the original European settlements established modes of thinking about economics and society, and as a consequence established the political divisions still with us today in one form or another. Woodard’s characterization of each region lines up with the coalitions being formed by the states and their various and opposing approaches to the pandemic. From these characterizations, honest Americans can choose which mode is better.
Woodard’s “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachia” overlap with DeSantis’ southern coalition: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. “Greater Appalachia” was settled by white immigrants “from war-ravaged Ulster, northern England, lowland Scotland. Deep commitment to personal sovereignty and individual liberty; intense suspicion of external authority.” “Deep South” was “established by slave lords from English Barbados as a West Indies-style slave society. Modeled on slave states of the ancient world—democracy was the privilege of the few.”
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Woodard’s “Yankeedom” fits neatly over the New England bloc. (“Yankeedom” spreads from the east coast through the upper Midwest all the way through Minnesota.) “Puritan legacy; perfect earthly society with social engineering, individual denial for common good; assimilate outsiders; vigorous government to thwart would-be tyrants.” Lastly, his “Left Coast” is the west bloc. “Left Coast” was settled by “New Englanders (by ship) and farmers, prospectors and fur traders from Appalachian Midwest (by wagon). Yankee utopianism meets individual self-expression and exploration.”
“Yankeedom” and “Left Coast” are very different regions, obviously, but what binds them together is the same thing binding together the northeast and west coalitions—a commitment to liberty by way of service to the common good. The common good is more than a slogan. It’s the deeply moral principle by which a political community presumes its many and varied participants share a common purpose, something so valuable that in times of crisis everyone can and will sacrifice for its benefit. In a time of the coronavirus, that common purpose is maintaining basic good health. In working together, as a political community, short-term sacrifice can lead to long-term liberty.
In a time of the coronavirus, opposition to the common good is opposition to freedom. Indeed, it’s suicide.
The same cannot be said of the “Deep South” and “Greater Appalachia” nor can it be said of the southern coalition currently falling in line for the president. The common good exists but it’s a limited resource. Like democracy, it’s only for the privileged few. Given the common good often requires a government to enforce it, it’s met with hostility by people committed to “personal sovereignty and individual liberty” even if blind devotion to those otherwise honorable principles is one step closer to death. In a time of the coronavirus, opposition to the common good is opposition to freedom.
Indeed, it’s suicide.
I said the AP’s bad habit of setting “regional and demographic divisions” side by side is an opportunity to choose, but I suspect most Americans have already chosen. (I don’t mean choosing between north and south, or that southern politics is monolithic; it isn’t.) If the most recent Pew survey is any indication, a majority of Americans understand, even if unconsciously, that one of these modes of thinking about economics and society is better than the other (at least during a pandemic).
In other words, most Americans are making moral decisions the anti-moral press is in the bad habit of avoiding altogether. Most Americans, I think, understand that what’s needed in a national emergency is more civic morality, not less. That means a renewed commitment to the common good, and that means sharing freedom, not hoarding it.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.