It’s tough to balance individual rights with the greater good

It used to be seat belts and cigarettes. Now it’s the coronavirus.

Don’t order teenage males to do anything. When I first starting teaching high school, I found that telling American males what to do only brought me rebellion. I got pushback. Their usual response was, “You can’t tell me what to do!”

I found that a softer approach usually worked better without raising teen hackles.

Our nation was born in rebellion against authority, especially against government. It’s now part of our cultural DNA. Historically, this rebelliousness can be seen even when whatever is being protested benefits the public.

William Falk, editor of “The Week,” in his May 22, 2020, editorial, wrote: “Millions of Americans angrily objected when officials and the government warned that cigarettes could kill them, and banned indoor smoking, and required motorists to wear – ugh – seat belts.”

Some of you may remember those protests. I do.

Even though each of those government impositions were seen as government bondage, they actually enabled Americans to enjoy freedom – freedom from injury and death. We all know that government can overreach, as some are accusing the government of doing with the COVID-19 pandemic. There is always tension between finding the common good and protecting individual rights. Finding that balance is difficult in the best of times, even harder in a time of crisis.

The government in Washington state has seen demonstrations against social distancing, wearing masks and closures of businesses and public places. In Wisconsin, the state supreme court declared war on the governor and ruled that he had no right to limit movement and assembling. It was unconstitutional, according to them.

Tesla owner Elon Musk threatened to leave the state of California and move his auto factory to Texas if he couldn’t reopen his factory, supposedly taking 10,000 jobs with him.

In Dallas, a beauty salon owner disobeyed the law and opened her shop because she said her children and the children of her employees needed to eat.

Infectious diseases like the coronavirus aren’t very democratic, but nor are they libertarian. They don’t care about boundaries or natural rights. Even one of those protestors who gets infected can infect thousands, costing tens of thousands of dollars for a 20-day stay in a hospital, and even death. That doesn’t sound much like freedom.

Like wearing seatbelts or not smoking, obeying the law can seem like a limitation of freedom, but in actuality these regulations save lives and protect freedom.

The danger we face in the United States is that waves of infection will continue into 2021, causing death and destruction and financial disaster. Nations like Taiwan with a population of 24 million have had just 440 infections and seven deaths. Hong Kong, with its dense population, has had just four. The way they did it was to enforce strict rules limiting movement and contact with others early.

By whose authority does a governor impose social distancing, the closure of businesses and the wearing of masks? According to the preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the role of the government is to “promote the general welfare.” It seems like that’s what gives the government the authority to impose rules to protect the lives and health of all.

Wisconsin’s state supreme court seemed to have forgotten these four words when it ruled against the governor. Tim Eyman was within his rights to sue Gov. Jay Inslee for governmental overreach, but it is easier to criticize decisions than it is to come up with answers. Eyman wants to be governor, but what would he have done in the same situation? Does individual freedom trump promoting the general welfare?

Some of the rebels who are protesting the governors’ stands in Washington and Wisconsin remind me of those high school male students. They yell, “You can’t tell me what to do!,” but they’re probably at the same level of emotional maturity as those teens. Maturity requires self-control, self-awareness and humility. I see none of these traits in those who are openly demonstrating against rules designed to save lives. It’s time to grow up and to quit acting immaturely.


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Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.
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