Omicron and the Burden of Freedom
As we wait for the latest wave of Covid to crest and recede, I am reminded of two comments from liberal-minded acquaintances of mine. The first was something to the tune of “Trump and DeSantis both have blood on their hands, and Florida basically invoked Darwinism—survival of the fittest—as its Covid strategy.” The second, “Ok, so my husband got Covid, but at least he probably got it from being at work, not from something [reckless] like going to the mall.”
These comments reflect what I have referred to previously as a secular-humanist worldview. In this view, preservation of health—safetyism, as R.R. Reno, TAC contributing editor Sohrab Ahmari, and others have defined it—is the very axis around which life revolves, at least for those of us privileged enough to be in the category of remote worker. (I’ve never heard a liberal denounce the grocery store clerks or warehouse workers for rolling the dice to bring them essential goods and services. The right to self-preservation, it appears, is only semi-universal.) My thoughts circle these comments as Covid infections records are shattered across the country despite increased vaccination, and I and my family ping-pong our way through the conflicting guidance: Cloth masks or KN-95? isolate, semi-isolate, or go out even more in the hopes that we catch Covid and gain antibodies from a relatively weakened strain?
Writ large, the view that there are worthy and unworthy activities and behaviors, licit and illicit ways to catch Covid, bestows the unlikely gift of elucidating the machinations and inner logic of progressivism: that top-down planning, from on high, leads to secular salvation. For secular humanists, salvation is tantamount to the preservation of life for and to the longest extent possible as desired by the willing individual.
The problem—the wrench in the wheels of progress—is ultimately one of human nature: at some point planning, however well-meaning, drops off, and human agency–freedom, that is–comes into play. Stalin and Mao could plan collective farming into existence, but not the productivity or work ethic of their conscripted labor force. Progressive planning tries to offer the carrot, instead of the socialist’s stick–safety and security in place of the threat of force. We will protect you. We will keep you safe. We will plan for you.
Omicron at once represents a unique juncture in the pandemic and the limits of managerial expertise–and hence of progressivism itself. President Biden’s great reversal in declaring “there is no federal solution” and “this gets solved at a state level,” regarding Covid belies a fundamental political truth, but more importantly a truth in human nature. Decisions, like ideas, have consequences, and in the last instance decisions are made at an individual level. And inevitable.
Call it the ineluctable burden of freedom. President Trump and Governor DeSantis faced obloquy two years ago for arguing that states and individuals should assess Covid risk for themselves. Two years later, as I write from the liberal-progressive bastion of Los Angeles, even here lockdown fatigue has set in; even here I know liberals admitting they now fear regulatory overreach more than Covid itself.
“I’m just worried they will close down the schools again,” yet another progressive colleague told me. “Then how do I work? What do I do with my kid?” The newfound libertarian bent of my colleague, who would rather assess risk for herself than have it dictated to her, is reflective of an axiom of human existence. As it turns out, individual choice could be kicked down the road by government fiat, but only for so long.
Yes, we now have vaccines; yes, we now have a greater arsenal of therapeutics. But as Omicron challenges the heretofore prevailing wisdom around living life semi-normally while still meaningfully preventing exposure to the disease, we are all faced with a decision that until now the experts were largely able to get away with making for us and which we were largely delusional in thinking we as individuals could defer indefinitely. That decision—to lock down or not, to largely self-isolate again, or not—entails a panoply of questions which progressivism is ill-equipped to answer: What makes life worth living? What metrics, aside from self-preservation, should we use to measure life’s meaning and purpose?
Is catching Covid in the workplace more merited than catching it at the gym, or for that matter at the mall or in a movie theater? Is work more important than leisure or exercise? And what if Covid is caught at a mosque, mass, or in the synagogue? Is religious fellowship less meaningful than work? If you catch Covid among close friends at dinner is your case more honorable than in the anonymity of a nightclub or bar? Is risk more worthy among established friendships than in the environs in which new ones might be forged?
Fortunately or not, in free Western societies—and in order for them to remain free—these decisions, these rankings of the fundamental goods of life, can only be made by individuals. Experts can only defer the blessing, and in other ways, the burden, of freedom for so long. We have Omicron to thank for revealing to us that, irrespective of the benevolence of health and policy wonks, we ultimately have to make choices for ourselves. Therein lies both the risk, and the reward, of living.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles-area independent school. His writing may also be found at the European Conservative, where he is a contributing editor.