As six Bay Area counties announced shelter-in-place orders more than a month ago, my phone lit up with notifications from every social media platform. “This is insane!” raged one former colleague. Another ranted about “unfair restrictions on our basic rights.” Others were more restrained but, nevertheless, unnerved by a new normal that included many restrictions and few freedoms.
These comments spurred me to do a quick research project. I imagined what our Founding Fathers would think about our modern, connected population becoming isolated and confined. Turns out, they would have recognized the necessity of this unprecedented order. Though the Founding Fathers were escaping the tyranny of an oppressive king, they knew that securing freedom would also require sacrifice. Bay Area residents, especially young ones, should heed the perspective of the Founding Fathers on two key points: First, increased liberty entails increased responsibility; and, second, individual liberty must be limited when it poses a threat to others.
“All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter,” stated Edmund Burke, Irish statesman. Burke may not have been a Founding Father, but his thoughts fueled many revolutionary sentiments. What Americans recognized then, that government requires “compromise and barter,” is more obvious than ever to Americans today. But, for many young Americans, myself included, the government hasn’t required much of them.
Whereas previous generations experienced rationing in World War II or being drafted to fight in Vietnam, young Americans have yet to truly give up aspects of their freedom for the government and general social well-being. Yet, this obligation was envisioned by the Founding Fathers, who longed for residents to recognize and fulfill their civic duty. For some Bay Area millennials, though, the largest obligation they fulfill to the government is their tax burden. These shelter-in-place orders ask all residents, especially younger, more mobile residents, to perform a small sacrifice (when compared to previous generations) for an unquestionably important outcome: saving the lives of community members who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, colloquially known as coronavirus. Still, many of my friends seem to think that the sacrifices we all have to make are too much, too soon and are too uncertain to produce benefits.
Admittedly, I share their frustration. After all, this generation has collectively known more peace and prosperity than any other generation. Sure, we have had to endure difficult times, and far too many of us have been saddled with debt and burdened by inequality, but a broad historical overview reveals we’ve enjoyed relative stability and prosperity. These new sacrifices will change what many of my friends regard as normal life — travel abroad, dinner out, St. Patrick’s Day bar crawls, you name it. Still, these changes are worth it and align with how our Founding Fathers thought about liberty.
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against (their) will, is to prevent harm to others,” according to John Stuart Mill, a 19th-century philosopher and author. Mill, like the Founding Fathers, regarded the pursuit of liberty as a primary purpose of the American political experiment. But even in the eyes of the revolutionaries, liberty had its limits. The government had to “prevent harm to others,” in Mill’s words, and per Thomas Jefferson, “restrain men (and all people) from injuring one another,” while otherwise leaving individuals “free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.”
We can no longer regulate our own pursuits but must instead respect the obligation and authority of the government to prevent harm from coming to others. These will not be easy sacrifices for anyone, especially those accustomed to great freedoms with few strings attached. But though we are isolated, we must band together and do our best to injure no one and help all those in need. Now is the time to collectively look for opportunities to sacrifice our own resources and liberties to help vulnerable populations.
A new appreciation for the effect that a single individual can have on a community should continue to influence us long after COVID-19 has passed. We collectively owe it to those who will not make it to our next chapter to ready our communities and nation for the next disaster — that preparation should start with getting more involved in politics. As the recent election in Wisconsin showed, COVID-19 is placing new pressures on our democracy. We can and must respond to this pressure by demanding more accountability, more transparency and more means for all Americans to fulfill their civic duties.
Kevin Frazier is a student at the UC Berkeley School of Law and the founder of Neighbors for Nonprofits.