The Transylvania Times -

Because We Are Not Angels


Last updated 9/7/2020 at 12:59pm

In your Aug. 27 edition, Art Cole (a friend and neighbor) argues that good people with common sense and concern for the welfare of their neighbors will willingly accept abridgements to their personal freedoms (e.g., mask wearing) without a paternalistic government telling them what they can and cannot do.

Our Founders also wrestled with this question. When, if ever, is it appropriate for government to limit the liberty of its citizens?

They offer their answer to this question in The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays authored by Hamilton, Madison and Jay to promote the ratification of the Constitution. In Federalist 51, Madison asserts, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” For Madison, common sense and decency sufficiently govern the actions of most people. Too many, however, lack sufficient common sense and decency for self-government.

The present health crisis offers evidence in support of Federalist 51. For most, concern for our neighbors’ welfare is sufficient incentive to accept minor constraints like mask wearing in public. For too many, however, concern for the health of others is insufficient. As a predictable result, more of our countrymen have been sickened and died than would have been the case if all of us had embraced common sense limits to our freedoms.

As it turns out, we are not all angels.

Any limitations to individual freedom cannot be taken lightly. Nineteenth-century political philosopher J.S. Mill asserts that maximizing freedom ultimately leads to the best outcomes for society. But Mill also recognized the impossibility of civil society without some constraints. So, he offers us a framework. Every individual in society must be able to exercise personal freedom to the fullest extent possible all the way up to the point at which exercising that freedom causes harm to others.

Mill’s formulation, the “Harm Principle,” was summarized well by jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes: “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” Here’s a present-day formulation: my right to ignore CDC guidelines during a global pandemic ends where my personal choices jeopardize the health of my neighbor.

Roger Herbert



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