Many years ago, I treated depression in a man in his 50s who regaled me with stories of his tumultuous teens and twenties. “Doc,” he said, “back then, I was drinking and drugging anytime I felt like it, sleeping with whoever I wanted to. I really thought I was free. But you know what? I was just on the loose!”
My patient was on to something. His nice distinction was brought home to me in the past few weeks, as I viewed some of the more extreme “anti-restriction” protests springing up in several state capitals—ostensibly in the name of “freedom.”1
No, I’m not comparing protesting to drinking and drugging. But I am distinguishing between freedom and license—and between genuine individualism and what I call hyper-individualism. To unpack these terms, we need a bit of historical and linguistic perspective.
Freedom vs. license
A common dictionary definition of “freedom” is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action.”2
In that very narrow sense, my patient was arguably “free,” back in the day. But psychologists and philosophers point to a deeper and more mature concept of freedom, as philosopher Montague Brown explains:
“Freedom and license must not be confused: freedom embraces responsibility and is guided by reason and virtue; license is choice without restraint . . . License is the throwing off of all responsibility. It is a carte blanche to do as we feel. As such, it is incompatible with virtue and destroys community.”3
In short, “license” means being “on the loose.” But Brown is making a larger point. He is gesturing toward two principles that have guided American society since the earliest days of the Republic: individualism and communitarianism. These principles have coexisted in dynamic tension throughout our national history and are deeply ingrained in our national identity. I would argue that this dialectic has been one of the great strengths of American culture and government.
With regard to individualism, the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay, “Self-reliance,” famously argued, “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.”4
The image of the self-reliant, iron-willed “loner” is an iconic American archetype, from the days of the lone cowboy, out on the range, to the novels of Ernest Hemingway. The motto, “Don’t Tread on Me”—which arose during the years of the American Revolution—nicely sums up the feisty spirit of American individualism.5 Indeed, during recent anti-restriction protests, “Don’t Tread on Me” appeared on numerous flags and banners.6
In contrast to this spirit of fierce individualism, American society has always had a strong communitarian dimension. As philosophy professor Aeon J. Skoble explains,
“The essence of communitarian thought is that the community can be thought of as a bearer of rights, or at least as the holder of interests, to which an individual’s interests may have to be subordinated in some cases.”7
A clear example of communitarian priorities is the imposition of isolation and quarantines to contain certain infectious diseases, such as cholera, diphtheria, and infectious tuberculosis—and, of course, COVID-19.8 The federal government derives its (rarely-used) authority for quarantine from the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. And—contrary to the claim of some protesters that quarantines apply only to “sick people”—the Center for Disease Control states that, “Isolation and quarantine help protect the public by preventing exposure to people who have or may have a contagious disease.8(italics added)
Expressions of freedom or of license?
The tension between individualism and communitarianism has come to the fore in recent weeks, as protesters have gathered in opposition to the quarantines and business closures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many protesters voiced perfectly understandable concerns about lost jobs, missed opportunities, and social isolation. These individuals deserve our empathic understanding. However, in my view, some revealed a troubling mindset that I call “hyper-individualism.” For example, some protesters have characterized COVID safety precautions as acts of “tyranny.”9
And while some protesters complied with “social distancing” directives or wore masks, many did not—thus exposing themselves and others to the risk of a potentially lethal infection. These anti-communitarian actions have been rationalized under dubious notions of “freedom.” For example, Rep. A. Nino Vitale (R) of Ohio commented, “I will not wear a mask . . . quite frankly, everyone else’s freedom ends at the tip of my nose. You’re not going to tell me what to do.”10
Rep. Vitale’s notion of freedom is not grounded in responsibility, reason, and virtue. What Vitale advocates is not a mature construct of freedom, but a raw manifestation of license. It is not traditional “rugged individualism,” but hyper-individualism—in my view, bordering on sociopathy.
I hasten to add that hyper-individualism is not the province of one political party or orientation. Although the brand of hyper-individualism we find in the COVID-19 anti-restriction protests emerges from the “far right” of the political spectrum, this trait can also be found on the “far left.” Its anti-communitarian nature is exemplified in Abbie Hoffman’s 1971 work, Steal This Book, described as “. . . a compendium of methods that individuals can use to live freely, without participating in the social order.”10 (italics added)
As for the anti-restriction protestors, I believe political columnist Dick Polman put the matter well: “Going mask-free is the new “don’t tread on me.” If more people die on the altar of others’ selfishness, well, I guess that’s the price of freedom.”11
Or, as my patient would have put it, that’s not freedom—that’s just being “on the loose.”
Dr Pies is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Tufts University School of Medicine; and Editor in Chief Emeritus of Psychiatric Times (2007-2010). The author reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
1. Extremists Involved in Nationwide Protests Against Coronavirus Restrictions. Jewish Defense League. Accessed May 15, 2020.https://www.adl.org/blog/extremists-involved-in-nationwide-protests-against-coronavirus-restrictions
2. Freedom. Merriam Webster. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/freedom?src=search-dict-box
3. Brown M. Freedom/License. Catholic Education Resource Center. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/philosophy/freedom-license.html
4. Self-Reliance. Project Guttenberg. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16643/16643-h/16643-h.htm#SELF-RELIANCE
5. The Gadsden Flag. Chamber of Commerce. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.chamberofcommerce.org/usflag/history/gadsden.html
6. Hutchinson B. Protests against coronavirus 'stay-at-home' orders spread across the country. ABC News. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://abcnews.go.com/US/protests-coronavirus-stay-home-orders-spread-country/story?id=70242988
7. Skoble A. Communitarian and Individualist Ideas in Business. Foundation for Economic Education. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://fee.org/articles/communitarian-and-individualist-ideas-in-business/
8. Legal Authorities for Isolation and Quarantine. Centers for Disease Control. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/quarantine/aboutlawsregulationsquarantineisolation.html
9. Betz B. Maine protesters hit back at ‘tyranny’ of state’s coronavirus restrictions. Fox News. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.foxnews.com/us/maine-protesters-state-coronavirus-restrictions
10. Steal this book. Encyclopedia.com. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/steal-book
11. Polman D. Refusing to wear a mask is about the most un-American thing to do right now. Pennsylvania Capital Star. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.penncapital-star.com/commentary/refusing-to-wear-a-mask-is-america-at-its-worst-dick-polman