By W. Kent Olson
Originally published in the Portland Press Herald Sept. 30
“I want people to have a certain freedom,” President Trump has said about mask-wearing.
He was claiming it’s OK to assert a personal liberty even if it nullifies someone else’s.
That is, he was promoting “license,” not “freedom.”
Scottish educator A.S. Neill, in his book “Summerhill,” defined “freedom” as the right to do what you want provided you don’t inhibit another person’s right to do what he or she wants. “License” is exercising your right even if it infringes another’s.
Trump’s view – “I am Spartacus!” with its chauvinistic overlay “Don’t tread on me!” – is not freedom. It’s license, meaning it harms others.
The American Heritage Dictionary on license: “Deviation from normal rules, practices or methods in order to achieve a certain end or effect.” Licentiousness: “Having no regard for accepted rules or standards.”
At Trump’s Aug. 28 New Hampshire rally, attendees booed announcements asking they wear masks per Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s order. Such are the licentious who personify the Republican Party’s claim as “the party of personal responsibility.”
In economics, the corollary to “license” is “externality,” a production cost producers themselves don’t pay (i.e., don’t internalize) but instead impose on outsiders (i.e., externalize).
A corporation internalizes disposal costs if it pumps its effluent into the boardroom. It externalizes costs by sending waste downriver or up smokestacks. Industry purchases a right to pollute, called a permit, a legal license to vary from the societal norm of, say, not offloading your old refrigerator in your neighbor’s swimming pool.
People who rail about face covers and yammer “Freedom!” misuse English. They copy a confusing and confused president, or perhaps weren’t taught the contradictory meanings.
In the 1988 best-seller “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum listed early-acquired precepts that informed his life, including “Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”
Translation: Don’t junk up the common air with your possibly virus-populated breath. A mask wearer lessens your health risk, while you the unmasked escalate everyone’s.
That’s unethical and undemocratic. But you are Spartacus, of course, not to be trod on.
The considerate notion of not curbing others’ rights predates Christianity. For biblical command, though, see, e.g., Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Be what Cain was not: your brother’s keeper.)
Masking honors everyone’s entitlement to noncontamination. Failing to mask up compromises someone’s ability to remain healthy or, sometimes, even alive. “The masks are freedom,” Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told PBS Newshour.
This crazy debate recalls the secondhand-smoke flapdoodle of decades ago. Smokers howled “It’s a free country!” when booted out of public spaces. But it stopped them from cancerizing nonsmokers’ lungs. It suppressed license, the illegitimate externalization of smoking’s costs onto innocents.
Even today, do aggressive smokers register that nonsmokers don’t inflict equivalent externalities on them?
Some airports offer chambers where smokers can actualize their freedom to hack themselves happy. “License” is not at question. A group willingly absorbing its vapors internalizes its costs literally. (I write this with sorrow. My parents, multipack-a-day smokers, died at 56 and 72, one of cancer, the other of a stroke.)
Americans long ago rejected that someone blowing a metastasis at them was an enacting a freedom. In a world contagion – exploiting now even the remotest Maine crannies – the majority concurs that exhaling on others affirmatively is a heightened act of commission, a deed of pure and cruel license.
Anti-maskers, doesn’t it hurt your families or unknown fellows that you breathe onto them possible sickness, issuing them prospective death warrants, because a rookie D.C. politician ginned up an aliterate, cynical definition of “freedom,” with its sure taint of malice?
Isn’t it un-Christlike?
It’s calming and better always, isn’t it, as in 1st Peter 3:8, to have “sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart and a humble mind”?
Ken Olson, president and CEO of Friends of Acadia 1995-2006, observes politics, the natural scene and other subjects from his home in Bass Harbor.