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Fans of the “Seinfeld” TV show may remember when Jerry discovered the rental car company had no cars.
Clerk: “Unfortunately, we ran out of cars.”
Jerry: “But the reservation keeps the car here. That’s why you have reservations.”
“I know why we have reservations.”
“I don’t think you do. If you did, I’d have a car. See, you know how to take the reservation. You just don’t know how to hold the reservation. And that’s really the most important part of the reservation.”
Freedom is like rental car reservations. It comes with responsibilities — sometimes the most important part of the freedom.
As in, “Your freedom to swing your fist stops where my nose begins.”
Visiting my uncle’s farm for the first time as a young boy, I followed him out of the cow pasture but failed to close the gate. He kindly explained, “When the cattle get out they’re hard to catch.” That made sense to me. My freedom to wander the farm required my responsibility to close the gates.
Jim Jefferies, an Australian stand-up comedian, compares Americans’ and Australians’ response to mass shootings. As he tells it, during a 10-year stretch there were 10 mass shootings. The next year, 1996, was the worst one. Since then there have been none. Why? The government announced, “That’s it. No more guns.” To which, Jefferies says, Australians responded, “Yeah, well, all right then, that seems fair enough.” An exaggeration? Of course. It’s not easy to get a laugh out of mass murder.
But it makes a point. Like my closing gates, because restricting guns made sense to Australians, they were willing to accept it.
The people in many countries responded that way to their leadership’s COVID pandemic mandates.
Their leaders said, in effect, “There’s a pandemic; already one or two cases here. If we do nothing thousands will die. You will all be tested. Those positive will be isolated. Those they have contacted will be quarantined. Everyone will wear masks and keep their distance.”
And their people responded, like the Australians, “Yeah, well, all right then, that seems fair enough.” Thousands of lives were saved.
In America, our leaders did not take that path, in part because many of our people rejected it. “You’re taking away my freedoms,” they cried. “What freedoms?” we asked. “My freedoms to refuse to be vaccinated, to not wear a mask, to go wherever I want while spreading a life-threatening disease.”
The results? With 4 percent of the world’s population our “freedoms” produced 18 percent of the world’s COVID deaths. Nearly 600,000 Americans died needlessly for others’ “freedoms.”
Similarly, if we are to retain our representative democracy we must accept our responsibility to strengthen the institutions and follow the norms that make it possible. As many countries have discovered, the “freedoms” to storm the Capitol, make it harder to vote, gerrymander districts, promote the big lie and the oligarchy’s wealth, while ignoring public needs, are road signs on the path to authoritarian dictatorships.
Nicholas Johnson, Iowa City, is the author of Columns of Democracy. email@example.com